Be Grateful

We might as well get right to to the point for those of you who want to know the where and when of the September bookstore trip. Of course there are bookstore events here in northwest Montana happening before September, but for those of you in other states – here are places you can stop by to check out the traveling bookstore.

September 11: Portneuf Valley Brewery in Pocatello, ID

September 12 & 13: King’s English Bookshop in Salt Lake City, UT

September 16 & 17: Fiction Beer in Denver, CO

September 19: Barista’s Daily Grind in Kearney, NE

September 20: Constellation Studios in Lincoln, NE

September 21: Lux Center for Arts in Lincoln, NE

September 23-25: South Dakota Festival of Books in Brookings, SD

September 26: Red’s Grill in Sturgis, SD

September 28: Public library in White Sulphur Springs, MT

The hot summer days lend themselves to reading, at least for me. Just finished Horse by Geraldine Brooks,The Camel Bookmobile by Masha Hamilton, and Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. Poised to read some nonfiction while at the Yaak music festival this weekend (bound to be cooler there).

Feeling very appreciative of the individuals who work with me to get bookstore tours set up, folks who graciously provide me with housing along the way, people who give me books, people who reach out to support the bookstore (thanks to Rita Hubbs in NC for her tshirt order!), and the roads that let me go to all these amazing places. I suppose there are things I could grumble about, but there is truly so much to be grateful for.

Part of What It Takes

If you happen to have a brick-and-mortar bookstore, most days have an easy start (although no doubt there might be challenges as your day proceeds from broken plumbing to late deliveries to the occasional grumpy customer). But at least when you head off to work, you know the address, where your bookstore is and chances are, it was there yesterday and it will be there tomorrow. With a traveling bookstore, it is different. There is definitely a process to figuring out where it will be especially when setting up a tour.

The traveling bookstore is participating in this year’s South Dakota Festival of Books in Brookings, SD at the end of September. To get there, the bookstore will travel through – and set up – in Idaho, Utah, Colorado, Nebraska. And so the planning begins. I write to places I know something about. VERY excited to be setting up for two days at The King’s English Bookshop in Salt Lake City. Then there are new places I discover on the internet, write a note and get a reply. Sometimes places are, “Yes! a traveling bookstore!!!” And sometimes, well…not so enthused. But Portneuf Valley Brewing in Pocatello, ID was enthused and it will be a treat to set up there (check out their brews and food menu).

Often people who are curious about the traveling bookstore business ask, “But where do you stay?” Let me be blunt. I rarely sleep in the bookstore – although I do in July when I set up at the Yaak River Music Festival. And there are times when the timing, the weather, my weariness conspire and I find a motel along the route. But most of the time when on the road, I find good souls willing to put me up for a few days. So planning a tour requires not only finding the best places for the bookstore to set up, but places for the owner/driver (me) to stay. And in many ways, it is similar to finding locations for the bookstore. There are friends in Denver, Salt Lake City, and Lincoln I very much look forward to staying with on this upcoming trip. There are also places more challenging to find housing. Fortunately there are friends of friends, neighbor’s cousins, SERVAS. As someone once said, “There are no strangers here; only friends you haven’t yet met.”

But it is a process. Here I am starting in June to get it lined out, figuring out distances, looking at maps, sending out emails, making phone calls. Slowly it will take shape, and I will post events on the bookstore’s Facebook page as they are confirmed, and eventually post the complete Tour Schedule on this blog. A traveling bookstore is quite the business/lifestyle. Still looking for the best noun to describe it.

Think twice

The traveling bookstore has been getting press. Nice to hear people who respond talk about their own love of books, their passion to follow their dreams, their desire to shape a dream. Of course, the press paints a rosy picture of life with a traveling bookstore. And yes, there are definitely many remarkable traveling bookstore aspects and adventures – which I’ll enumerate a few paragraphs down. But it is necessary to point out there are moments – the flat tire in the middle of North Dakota, the day the bookstore broke down in Wyoming with nary a mechanic in sight to work on a Mercedes diesel engine, a business owner complaining about THAT transient business (the traveling bookstore) set up in her town, driving through torrents of rain on the recent trip to Portland.

But sometime dark moments turn bright. For example, when set up at Extracto Coffee (Portland) on Memorial Day, lots of people were there to buy coffee and pastries – and many bought books. But by the time this bookseller and the accordionist, Shirley Jacobs, took a break, Extracto had sold out of pastries! To save us from becoming hangry, Jennifer (dear bookstore customer who happens to live a few blocks from Extracto) kindly offered to bring us lunch. She returned within the hour with sandwiches, fruit, and delicious chocolate chip cookies.

And yesterday – this was very unusual – a guy pulled up next to the bookstore and asked if I needed any office supplies. Opened the back of his SUV which had a plethora of staplers, paperclips, clipboards, tape, index cards – all brand new and here was this guy with very little explanation, ready to give me as much as I needed.

Currently, the bookstore is set up on Bainbridge Island where Kristin offered a lovely place to stay, the waitress at the Madison Diner made the morning pleasant, the woman at Sound Reproduction patiently helped troubleshoot getting troublesome copies printed, and staff at Bainbridge Island Museum of Art were totally awesome. All of which made dealing with the rain easier.

And so many good conversations including a hiker from Boston who is thinking about changing locations, a teacher from Minneapolis with a great vision, and a book artist/printer who explained it wasn’t until she was in college that she discovered art was what she was meant to do. I learned about Provisional Press which is going to be a game changer, was reminded by Amos Kennedy to act to make the world better, and am now ready to take the bookstore to Milwaukee, Detroit and LA – all new places for the bookstore because of meeting people this weekend who make those places seem like I need to visit.

Obviously the bookstore business, like much in life, is unfolding in fits and starts. And I am so appreciative of the support and inspiration from a variety of sources along the way.

Who knows

The 2022 traveling bookstore season officially begins Thursday, May 5th at the Libby, MT farmers market. A slow start doing that Thursday market for a few weeks and then hit the road going west. The bookstore sets up twice in Portland, OR – at Extracto Coffee on May 30 and then at Cathedral Coffee on June 1. A day’s break to enjoy Portland and then the bookstore heads north to Bainbridge Island for a three-day event at the Bainbridge Island Museum of Art on June 3-5. Back to Montana after that to open the season at the Eureka farmers market on Wednesday, June 8th.

But although getting these dates and places out to traveling bookstore fans and readers in general is, of course, valuable, I did want to reflect a bit on something that happened today. I was in my role of volunteer at the Historical Village as it is Rendezvous Days in Eureka, MT this weekend. Explaining all that would take more time then you might want to spend reading about small town Montana. Suffice it to say, lots of people turn out to look at booths, watch a parade, and catch up with friends they haven’t seen all winter. I was in the looking at booths stage when I began talking with a woman who said she had recently moved here from the Bay area. She mentioned that she is an artist. I suggested she consider showing her art through a local nonprofit that has rotating art exhibits at the Eureka, Fortine and Trego post offices. She was very interested in that, and to give her a way to get in touch for more info, I gave her one of my traveling bookstore business cards. She looked at it and asked, “Did you set up in San Francisco?” And I said yes, various times. I had done a few gigs at Mission Pie and…”Yes!”, she said, “I met you there.”

Of course this involved having a long conversation about Mission Pie (which has since closed) and other places I had set up the bookstore in San Francisco, and how this woman ended up moving to Eureka, MT. There are times especially after a long winter, when I am not entirely sure having a traveling bookstore puts even a tiny dent into the world. After all – World Book Day was a week ago and there I was stocking the van, getting oil changed, making sure tires were good as I anticipated hitting the road on May 5. Today, April 30th which is Independent Bookstore Day, I volunteered in my community rather than setting up my bookstore. I’m not having big events at my bookstore today, authors aren’t doing readings in the van followed by wine and cheese this evening. I am excited to be setting up at the Libby’s farmers market on Cinco de Mayo though, and pleased with how nice the bookstore looks and with the selection of books now on the shelves as I start the new season.

And there is a young artist who remembers the traveling bookstore set up next to Mission Pie at least four years ago. Not only was the bookstore there, but we did some awesome type-in events as well. Hard to know where one makes a difference.

Make it real

On the road, but not with the bookstore. Flying to DC to visit friends, and wander for days through museums. And on the flight, by chance, the woman who sat next to me pulled a novel out to read about a traveling bookstore. Needless to say, I was delighted and immediately asked if I could take a photo, and explained how I actually was the owner/driver of a traveling bookstore. I went on – and perhaps a bit too much – about how there are a number of novels out there about traveling bookstores, but actually aren’t that many real traveling bookstores that I know of. When it comes down to really traveling, taking a vehicle piled with books outside the city limits to other cities or across mountains or to the coast – there are actually very few.

I am willing to believe my enthusiasm for this topic in that moment (the plane was still on the ground) might have been overwhelming. I’ve no idea why this woman was on the flight. I didn’t ask her. I wanted to talk about traveling bookstores, and in particular my traveling bookstore. Because it seemed that talking with someone who has a traveling bookstore would have so much more validity than reading a novel about one.

But she had other thoughts on this as she put on headphones, and that was the end of the conversation. But it did give me pause. I began wondering how often each of us might opt for some filtered down, packaged version rather than the real thing. Reading books about travel rather than grabbing a suitcase and hitting the road. Reading about successful entrepreneurs rather than trying to start a business. What about reading reviews of books rather than reading the books themselves? Obviously it isn’t just constrained to reading though as we do this with films and plays. Isn’t it easier to watch some action-packed movie with an amazing hero rather than going out in the world to do your own swashbuckling?

The flight ended. We politely said good-bye. I do appreciate the internal churning though caused as the result of our exchange and will attempt to be open to real experiences going forward rather than the Nespresso variety. I wonder how museums fit in?

Home

Even with a traveling bookstore, there are thoughts of home. Sometimes while on the road, I find myself yearning for home – at least the people and things I left there. Often while on the road, people ask me where I’m from. This winter, I began delving into what home means. I asked others, and I will say, for every individual I spoke with about home, there was a unique answer. I started making a short film as a way to document these answers, and an attempt to learn how to make a longer (and hopefully better) film about the topic. Here is my first attempt: Home/Domov.

Recently while listening to news from Ukraine – the horror and sadness of people losing homes, people losing family, people losing lives – the concept of home feels even more poignant. Today I heard a Czech friend had provided a Ukrainian family with an apartment. I’m appreciative of having people like this in my life, people willing to give. People who see a need and respond.

The apartment being used by the Ukrainian family is one I’ve stayed in. I know the art on the walls, the dishes that are in the cabinets, the view from the windows. I hope the family feels safe there, and that circumstances allow them to return home soon. Or perhaps they will make this new country their home.

Those thoughts led to another. While teaching in the Czech Republic, a musical group I was part of received a grant that allowed us to travel to Munich, Germany. While there, we would give a few concerts, sing with a children’s choir, and visit a nursing home to perform. But where would we stay? There were fifteen of us, and the grant really wasn’t that generous. I put out the word to everyone I could think of with connections in Munich, and a couple contacted me – offering their house. I explained there were fifteen people and ideally we would be able to cook at the house as well as sleep there because we were on a tight budget. The woman said no problem and gave me their address. I was thankful, and didn’t give it another thought until we arrived at her home. It was quite small. Two bedrooms (one of course reserved for the couple who lived in the house), a bathroom, kitchen and living room. Someone in our group immediately took charge, dividing up who would sleep where (we all had sleeping bags) and organizing a schedule for showers. I was in charge of cooking so sorted out who would help with that. It worked out beautifully – yes, crowded but everyone remained in a good mood, evenings spent singing songs with the couple and drinking beer. As we left their house on our last day, the woman said she didn’t need our thanks – she asked that we each just keep this experience in mind, and open our homes to others whenever possible.

I try to open my home to anyone who needs a space. I feel blessed as many people have opened their homes to me. And now I am very glad to see people in Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic opening their homes to those from Ukraine needing shelter.

Inspiration

In the traveling bookstore business as well as in my personal life, I search for that ever elusive balance. What combination makes things work well? On the very first transcontinental bookstore trip from Montana to the Brooklyn Book Festival in New York in 2016, we made the trip across in four long days thinking speed was the answer. Obviously it wasn’t and we arrived exhausted and uninspired. Was staring at a highway eight to ten hours a day really what a traveling bookstore was all about? No! Following trips were much better planned with numerous bookselling stops to refresh and remind one that a bookstore isn’t about speed, but about engaging with people. Now planned cross-country trips usually take two weeks one way with stops in interesting places to talk books.

On a recent trip (without the bookstore) to visit friends in Central Europe, I was inspired by conversations, art exhibits, theater performances, and concerts. And it was a delight to take in urban offerings while in an environment where the majority of people practiced good public health wearing masks, showing proof of vaccination to go into places like restaurants and theaters, and offering easily available Covid testing.

But as with all holidays, my time ended there and I came back to my rural Montana community. Yes, of course there are people here to discuss things with, and this week I help a friend hang a lovely exhibit of woodblock prints she did of jazz musicians. At the end of the month, a local nonprofit brings in a wonderful concert (Bridge & Wolak). But it feels different. There isn’t the spark of a different culture, listening to music in a hall built in the 1870s, walking through a carefully curated exhibit that introduces me to new artists. Which means figuring out what does work to maintain inspiration. I know taking the bookstore cross-country requires time (not speed). And hopefully I can identify where inspiration comes from at home.

Inspiring bookstore discovered: Dlouhá Punčocha

Inspiring performance: Circa

Inspiring luthier: Red Bird Instruments

Inspiring inflight film: Soul

Small but mighty

Although St. Rita’s Amazing Traveling Bookstore (and Textual Apothecary) is small in size, a 132″ wheelbase, high top Sprinter van carrying about six hundred volumes when packed, it has potential. Not only does it set up in all sorts of places in the US from Montana to New York City, from Minneapolis to Asheville, from Baltimore to San Francisco, it also touches places outside the continental US as well. Partially this is a result of travelers who just happen upon the bookstore. A woman, whose family came from the Czech Republic, discovered us recently in Portland. A couple who are NY bookstore owners, the woman is Polish and the man American, happened upon the traveling bookstore when it set up at a farmers market in Montana this past summer. And partially it is a result of individuals who actually traveled with the bookstore, taking away fond memories and spreading the word. Nada helped with the traveling bookstore’s first long trip from Portland to New York. Jana joined up on another trip, starting in Indianapolis and traveled along through Smiths Grove, KY, a number of gigs in North Carolina, W. Virginia and back across to Montana. Ya’aqov was with the bookstore on a trip that included a N. Dakota blizzard. So I suppose it isn’t a surprise when Nada, who is now a librarian in Kvasice, Czech Republic, posted photos of the traveling bookstore on her library’s bulletin board. Or when I received a photo from St. Rita’s Church in Krakow, Poland. The photo served as a reminder that St. Rita is the Patroness of Difficult and Impossible Cases.

I am certainly willing to accept there are difficult cases. I am not quite ready to allow myself to see things as impossible. In an interview discussing her latest book, Orwell’s Roses, Rebecca Solnit said, “I never describe myself as an optimist. An optimist is someone who thinks things will be all right no matter what. It is the flip side of being a pessimist, which means thinking everything will be bad no matter what. What I am is hopeful. Being hopeful means there are possibilities, but it is up to us to seize them and make something of them.”

And yes, seizing opportunities to do something is so necessary in these times, as opposed to sitting back wringing one’s hands lamenting the state of the world, or leaning over glasses of beer with like-minded people lambasting those rotten politicians, or sheltering behind the screen posting worn out memes.

There are moments when I wonder how a small (although far-flung) bookstore can make a difference, but then while on the road conversations are sparked or new relationships formed, and I realize there is hope. Sometimes I worry how rural communities that persist in ignoring public health guidelines will survive our current times. Yet enough people speak up, show up, write letters to make a difference, to give me hope.

Fortunately the traveling bookstore has a Patroness who helps with hard situations. Perhaps if each of us seize those possibilities to do something, then we never need to reach the impossible.

Orwell’s Roses by Rebecca Solnit

Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr

The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison

Latest

Between trips. Took the bookstore to White Sulphur Springs which was a delight and then over to Bozeman. Both towns quite different in customers and types of conversations, but events in both locations featured weather. Some serious wind in White Sulphur Springs, and Bozeman – although Sunday was fairly pleasant, on Monday there was sun, rain, sun, rain, hail, sun, rain. It has been rare over the last seven years for me to close up the bookstore early due to weather, but Monday in Bozeman was one of those times. The other was in Minneapolis during a snowstorm.

Even on a short trip like this (two days in White Sulphur Springs, and two in Bozeman), so much happens. Conversations, connections, observations, musings. While I find a way to capture all of this, here is a wonderful video by Marla Goodman featuring a piece written for theremin (by Elizabeth Brown). Such a joy for a lovely piece of music to fit so well with a traveling bookstore.

Sense of place

Books descend on me in all sorts of ways. I’ve written about this before and, I guess I am writing about it again. It still surprises me when I don’t even realize what my question is, and then suddenly there is a book that doesn’t necessarily provide an answer, but does provide a nudge that makes the question more vivid. Recently a bookseller in Libby, MT gave me a box of books he wasn’t interested in but thought I might want for my traveling bookstore. Amongst those in the box was a thin volume, Fiber, by Rick Bass, signed by the author and in very good condition. As Rick Bass spent a number of years in the far northwest corner of Montana, I like carrying his work in my bookstore, and I also like his writing. Before putting the book on a shelf, I took it home to read.

Baltimore Book Festival

Later the same week, a friend gave me a book someone had given her. It wasn’t her type of read so she passed it on to me for the bookstore. Charlotte Hogg’s From the Garden Club, examines the lives and writing of a small group of older women in a rural Nebraska community.

Both Fiber and From the Garden Club are about place. For Rick Bass, it is an examination of finding himself, defining himself in a new place having moved from Louisiana to Texas to Montana. For Charlotte Hogg, it is discovering the home where she grew up, left for a few years and then returned to more fully understand that place and, consequently, more deeply connect with her grandmother and some of the other women in the small Nebraska town.

Of course there are all sorts of good reads out there on place – Gretel Ehrlich’s The Solace of Open Spaces, Refuge by Terry Tempest Williams, books by Rebecca Solnit, Bruce Chatwin, Wendell Berry, oh the list goes on because, yes, obviously I have a question about our sense of place, its meaning in our lives, what we each do with it, how we shape it. I find myself drawn to authors who try to untangle this. I suppose this makes sense for the owner of a traveling bookstore (and someone who has moved frequently).

Especially in my current place in northwest Montana, I try to understand my relationship with my neighbors, my commitment to the community, my role. I need to read how others manage this or at least their attempt to provide insight. Hogg values the heart the older women provide to the small town, even as she herself leaves. In Fiber, Bass takes logs to the mill even as he fights to preserve the wilderness. Whether we stay planted or move, we still need to honor the place where we are and do our best by it.