What does it mean

I’ve been doing this traveling bookstore business for eight years now, but there are still surprises. This afternoon while scrolling Twitter (and no, I don’t know what’s happening to the #birdsite), someone posted a photo of my bookstore. I won’t bother describing the Tweet in words because here’s a screenshot.

Over two thousand ‘likes.’ I don’t know what this means and, yes, it surprised me. I can’t imagine this many individuals liking my traveling bookstore without first experiencing it in person. They didn’t chance upon it while ambling down a street in White Sulphur Springs, MT or San Francisco, CA or Smiths Grove, KY. They didn’t spy it parked amongst the food trucks at the Brooklyn Book Festival or the South Dakota Book Festival. They weren’t drawn into this van/bookstore with curiosity when it was set up in Lincoln, NE on a summer’s day when it was over 100°F or in Morgantown, WV when it was raining so hard there was a forecast of flooding.

Obviously this traveling bookstore can’t hold two thousand people if they showed up at the same time or even on the same day. It’s something of a squeeze really to have 2-3 people inside at once – unless they are small children in which case it might fit 4-5. And there is no way at all I can manage having a conversation with two thousand people. I mean I try to limit dinner parties to four or five because it’s just plain difficult to seriously talk with more people than that in a gathering. Perhaps the two thousand could form small groups and talk together while I tried to direct individuals to where the art books are located (back of the van on the bottom shelf), or where they might find an Arabic-English dictionary (top shelf to your left).

Perhaps these ‘likes’ aren’t for the endearing photo of the traveling bookstore at all, a photo taken by Jack DeWitt one early spring morning in Kalispell, MT (2015). He told me the light would be good that time of day especially if I drove the bookstore into a field (which was a bit daunting as I was still new to driving it then). I parked, pulled the door open, and set up the entrance as if I were at an event. Then Jack began taking photos, telling me to stand back to not cast shadows. And now here is that photo on Twitter. Perhaps the ‘likes’ aren’t for this particular photo, but for the words, tickling those who love reading, who can imagine going to any length for a good book. Perhaps that means walking through Portland rain to get to Mother Foucault’s Bookshop, or rummaging too long (despite allergies) at a library book sale in a musty warehouse because of all the great deals, or getting nearly hopelessly lost trying to visit The Strand because one must go there when in NY. And, now that I’m off on that tangent, I think of Second Edition Books in Butte, MT which if you are going across on I-90 you really must experience.

Advertisement

Seasonal shifts

In Montana, the snow has started and temperatures have dropped. All at once, any hint of summer clothes is gone and boots, scarves, mittens and heavy sweaters appear. The bookstore is parked until Spring. There are still some bookstore activities though. People drop books off, some locals stop by to buy books, occasional books gets mailed off, tshirts are sent out to fill requests, and, of course, there’s reading. Just finished a few remarkable ones including The Stone Sister by Montana author Caroline Patterson and Harry Josephine Giles’s sci-fi verse novel, Deep Wheel Orcadia. I find it curious how books come into our lives. So there I was within the same week enthralled by a novel spanning the mid to late 20th century, set in Montana, and a novel offered to the reader in both Orkney and English, set in outer space somewhere in the far future.

Besides the usual shift-into-winter activities for a traveling bookstore, there is the rather unusual flurry of publicity this season. You can imagine the perplexed reaction of this bookseller/owner/driver as people approach me smiling, “I saw you on The Kelly Clarkson Show!” And then, as a result of the show, there are emails and messages from people asking me about the bookstore and how they might start one. Where do I begin? I give disclaimers that I don’t have an MBA, didn’t really even have a business plan but just tried to keep my expenses low as I started this bookstore business. And the parts that I find most compelling about a traveling bookstore – the people I meet, the conversations, the places discovered – well, I am not entirely sure how to put all of that into an easy Stephen Covey formula.

I stress the need to be open to opportunities and experiences, to be willing to ask. To ask for a place to park and set up, to ask for a place to stay, to ask for directions, to ask for ideas, to ask for help, to ask for a reduction on fees at larger events because I’m not a food truck after all with long lines of people wanting to eat. It is a small bookstore carrying used books. And to not be afraid. I am not sure if its a result of this decade or the media or a cultural handicap, but too many people seem to focus on dangers. “Aren’t you afraid setting up in cities?” “You drive alone across country?!?” “How can you stay with people you’ve never met before?”

Of course, I’m cautious. I drive at or below the speed limit in the bookstore. I fill up before my fuel gauge gets down to the last quarter. I usually have multiple conversations (phone, email or texts) with the particular places I reach out to for setting up, and to the people I stay with. I don’t think any of my friends would describe me as a daredevil. I do see fear of the unknown as seriously hampering one’s life. Having done the traveling bookstore for eight years, and lived more then seven decades, I have some breadth of experiences and so for those of you thinking about starting a traveling bookstore or doing your own unique adventure of any sort, please don’t let fear hamper you.

The Hungarian Who Walked to Heaven by Edward Fox

Books by Dervla Murphy

My Journey to Lhasa by Alexandra David-Neel

Westbound

Sturgis, South Dakota

Pocatello, ID

Heading west with a few more stops on the way home. Today setting up in Sturgis at Red’s Grill. Something of a snafu as Red’s changed their schedule recently due to staffing shortages. I was scheduled to set up there all day but with the restaurant closed, and after speaking with the owner, I decided to open just in the morning and hope for the best. Red’s kindly put out info about the traveling bookstore on their social media so I hope to get customers.

Then into Montana! The bookstore sets up in White Sulphur Springs (population 979) at the public library on Wednesday. I’ve been there before and it was a treat – both getting to hang at the library between customers and then the customers who came to the bookstore. The last time I was there with the bookstore, I remember intense wind all day that felt totally disconcerting. But now coming from Brookings where the bookstore nearly blew away, I think I am adapting to the plains and the weather on this side of the Rockies.

There is so much I want to tell you. And I want to share the depth I feel. Often I’m overwhelmed with the stories and the individuals, the spaces where I set up the bookstore and the sense of place. So I find myself offering lists that don’t capture much but I do want to give you an idea of the scope of these tours.

Traveling the way I do not only affords opportunities to set up in a variety of interesting places (from a brew pub in Pocatello, ID to an art studio in Lincoln, NE; the book festival in Brookings to Red’s Grill here in Sturgis), but it also gives me an opportunity to see friends and meet new people as typically I stay in households while on the road. Alan and Bonnie in Pocatello walked me around the neighborhood, telling me about architecture, stories of people who have lived there, the texture of the town which Alan’s family had been part of for generations. Christiane in Salt Lake City graciously introduced me to her friends who, like Christiane, relocated from France to Utah as young adults. It felt like international travel to have dinner with them – delicious food, long conversations encouraged by bottles of wine, French and English interchanged, no hesitation to bring up politics.

In Denver I had three days with Connie who gave me a glimpse of life in a 55+ community – the camaraderie, the laughter over pool volleyball, the thoughtfulness with one person dropping off a loaf of zucchini bread to us, another bringing me a bag of books. The sense of people having time to listen to each other, offers to help out. And Connie worked the bookstore with me both days that I was in Denver (what a treat!), and then helped me navigate Denver streets/traffic with the bookstore so we could pick up dinner from what is considered the city’s best Thai restaurant.

Lincoln, NE was an opportunity to stay with Hana and her family. Hana and I were colleagues at Masaryk University in Brno, Czech Republic. Now I drive a traveling bookstore around the country and Hana leads Czech Studies at the university in Lincoln. Besides snippets of conversations with her two daughters and husband amidst their flurry of school, work and swim classes, Hana invited me to one of her classes to engage with her students – answer their questions about my life, and ask my own about theirs. Hana recommended the Sheldon Museum of Art at the university which was the perfect place to spend an hour when temps were heading to 100 degrees F. She also told me about the International Quilt Museum which was another treat to take in on this trip.

In Brookings, I stayed with a couple whom I hadn’t met before but we immediately found numerous topics to discuss, ideas to share. Of course, I was in Brookings to set up at the book festival which meant long days, but the moment I returned to Phyllis and Jihong‘s house, we would dive in where we had left all.

Before this trip, I had not seriously considered spending much bookstore travel time in the Great Plains and now, as I head back to Montana, I already think about when I might return.

Mountain/Plains Tour

On the road with the bookstore. Setting up in new places that have been delightful. Pocatello, ID (population 56,000) reminded me to appreciate coming into a town, meeting new people, hearing stories from those who lived there all their lives, and those who just moved in. Then on to Salt Lake City (population 200,100) – a treat setting up at The King’s English Bookshop and meeting a fascinating group of individuals at dinners after I closed my bookstore for the day. Reminded by a young environmentalist there is hope but we all must try harder. And I appreciated friendships between people I met who had been neighbors with each other for decades.

A day off yesterday in Denver (716,000) to meet friends, do laundry, catch up on emails. Friday and Saturday setting up at Fiction Beer which is the ideal place for a bookstore gig.  And then on to Nebraska with stops in Kearney and Lincoln! So thoroughly enjoy the traveling bookstore business. Still mystified that more people don’t get a van and start their own bookstore, stopping at towns and cities, meeting people and hearing their stories, having time while driving across mountains, plains to reflect on it all.

And there are so many stories even on a trip that lasts less than a month. A man at dinner explained ham radio and told us about postcards (QSL cards) some operators send to each other they meet on the airwaves. A person described his antique business and all the beautiful glass he still has after retiring. But what will happen to it since his adult children don’t care for it? People tell me about their lives and why they don’t volunteer (my personal default is everyone should volunteer at least a few hours each month if not more). I get to think about differences – I’m content to be on the road for a month, while a woman told me between her pets and job, she doesn’t like to be gone from home for even a week.

I try hard to pay attention to the individuals who come to experience the traveling bookstore. The couple with a small girl, the man a potter who said the bookstore was magic and then his daughter found a book she wanted to give her grandmother.  A young woman quietly tells me about an abusive relationship she left and how her faith helped her find the strength to leave it.

There are times when it feels overwhelming. With the driving and the stories, keeping the bookstore neat and well-stocked, trying to keep it all together. But then the bartender at Fiction Beer brings out samples of Wordless Wilderness which feels like an elixir at the end of the day. Crafted to taste and look like the ocean wetlands marsh from the novel, “Where the Crawdads Sing” by Delia Owens. Blue spirulina powder gives the beer its blue hue. Mildly tart with a splash of marsh salt on the finish, we crafted this Gose with equal parts German pilsner and wheat malts, finishing it with glasswort infused sea salt. A small addition of magnolia blossom infused simple syrup offers a true southern twist of floral and ginger character.

A traveling bookstore life is rather remarkable.

Here’s the scoop

September 11: Portneuf Valley Brewery in Pocatello, ID 12 – 6pm

September 12 & 13: King’s English Bookshop in Salt Lake City, UT 10 – 6pm

September 16 & 17: Fiction Beer in Denver, CO 2pm – 7:30pm

September 19: Barista’s Daily Grind (downtown location) in Kearney, NE 7am – 2pm

September 20: Constellation Studios in Lincoln, NE 2pm – 6pm

September 21: Lux Center for Arts in Lincoln, NE noon – 6pm

September 23-25: South Dakota Festival of Books in Brookings, SD (following festival schedule)

September 26: Red’s Grill in Sturgis, SD 9am – 3pm

September 28: Public library in White Sulphur Springs, MT 10am – 4pm

Yes, I am the owner/driver of the bookstore and I REALLY hope not one more person asks me, “Do you drive that all by yourself?”

Yes, I often travel alone on these trips. Sometimes a friend or two will join up for portions of a trip, but it is unusual for me to have a passenger for an entire bookstore tour of this length. Not opposed to it – most people though seem to like to experience the traveling bookstore business for a few days or a week, but longer than that seems grueling (except to me). I personally like the rhythm of longer bookstore tours.

I have space in the back of the bookstore for about six boxes of extra book stock. I get books along the way (for example, Beth in Denver has already sent a photo of books she is holding for me there). I have never run out of books even on longer tours. No idea why it works this way, but it always has.

I have been doing the traveling bookstore business for eight years now and don’t remember any unpleasant interactions with customers. There have been a few mechanical issues with the van, but people drawn to a traveling bookstore tend to be very nice. In fact I am adding a few more chairs on this upcoming trip so folks have a place to sit if they want to have longer conversations.

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.

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.