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Friday, June 15, 2018

Old Dog … New Trick … Hmmmmm

The first Dog Ears dog, 1993-2007

We learned years ago in our household that an old dog is perfectly capable of learning a new trick. Our old dog, Nikki, was not the sharpest tool in the box. No matter. She was a stunning athlete, and she needed me. Then late in life, after many years with us, she accidentally pawed her water dish and flipped it over and was rewarded with having it immediately filled. Imagine our surprise when she took that lesson to heart and began to “flip her dish” whenever it was empty and she wanted to let us know it needed filling. "She flipped her dish! She figured something out!"

Another trick she learned even later was how to open a door. For years, even when a door was ajar, unless it was open wide enough to permit her passage, that dog would simply stand there, patiently, nose pointing in the direction she wanted to go, waiting for someone to push the door open for her. Then one day -- probably accidentally -- she pushed it herself. Hey, it worked! Success went to her head, and she pushed doors open many times in her remaining years. She even, to her dog dad’s dismay, learned to scratch at a door to request admittance. It was to my dismay that one oft-scratched door received a new coat of paint after my sweet girl was gone. 

Nikki and dog mom at Good Harbor, years ago
But this post isn’t really about dogs. It’s about me and my bookselling life. Twenty-five years in the trade, and I’ve never taken credit cards, but today I made my first credit card sale. Sigh! To say I was reluctant would be an understatement. To say I was apprehensive, again, would hardly cover the territory. But today I processed a sale with a credit card. 

So the old dog has learned a new trick. She has been dragged, at last, kicking and screaming into the twenty-first century. I’m not done with learning yet.

Me with Dog Ears dog 2, the beautiful Sarah

Monday, June 11, 2018

Seizing the Carp

Summer is a challenge for me, for us, every year. What is more lovely than a day in June — and how often does the grass in June need mowing! Home, yard, and bookstore:  each could use full-time attention and care. But even if I were three people for those jobs, there is no point in living somewhere beautiful and not taking time to soak in its beauty, no point in living surrounded by books and not taking time to read. 

The Artist shares some of my challenges and has a few others of his own. Sarah is neither job or diversion. She is simply Constant Companion, an integral part of our lives, always there, making few demands, providing endless comfort to us both.

Oh, loveliness of dog and books! We humans in the house, even when worn out by long days of work, sometimes find it difficult to sleep, minds chewing over tasks still undone. That’s when I get out of bed and into a book, escaping into someone else's world for a while. And so, overwhelmed recently (can one be “somewhat overwhelmed,” or is that an oxymoron?) by the rising tide of summer’s demands, I turned once again to Ellen Airgood’s South of Superior, reading it through for the fifth time. It’s good to visit that little Upper Peninsula town and spend time with my old friends there as they deal with the challenges in their lives — although these days I identify as much or more with old Gladys than with 35-year-old Madeline! 

No, I’m nowhere near Gladys’s age yet (85) but edging closer to her as the distance increases between me and thirty-five, Gladys and Madeline always 85 and 35, while I continue to age. But fictional Madeline has her challenges, and Gladys has hers, and so do Paul and Randi and little Greyson and everyone else in McAllaster, Michigan, on the shore of Lake Superior. By the time I reach the last page, most of the various characters have come to some kind of peace, but those who have learned the deeper lessons have also the sure knowledge that their peacefulness and ease is only a temporary resting place. More troubles will come and will have to be faced. More joys will also come. Life, that is, will continue to be interesting, always. Contented in a moment of ice-fishing, Madeline’s eyes on the dipping, quivering bobber, she “watched in anticipation for what would happen next.”

And that’s it. Moments of peacefulness. Summer or winter, spring or fall, out on the ice waiting for fish to bite or hanging laundry on the line in bright sunshine or walking in the northern woods or southwestern desert with a dog or sitting outdoors with friends at the end of a long, beautiful day. Carpe diem! Or, as we used to say in Leland (and as other people down the road there doubtless still say), “Seize the carp!”

When I woke at 3 a.m. the following night, I took Alexander McCall Smith’s Mma Ramotswe as my companion. In The Woman Who Walked in Sunshine, Mma Ramotswe takes a holiday from work and at first, finding herself at loose ends, she begins to speculate about how a black mamba snake might get into her kitchen and where it might hide.
She replaced the egg and gazed at the food cupboard, trying to remember when it was that she had last tidied it. Never, she thought, I have never tidied the food cupboard. The thought made her smile. How many women were there in Botswana walking about with the guilty knowledge that they had never tidied the food cupboard?
In my case, “never” would be an exaggeration, but “not for quite a while” would not. Should that task be undertaken today? Sigh! Must I?

Mma Ramotswe tidies her cupboard and then decides to meet friends for tea. That occasion is not a great success (too much gossip), but in the hotel parking lot, she encounters a small boy in need of rescue, a young boy living in the backyard of a woman who drinks and beats him and steals the coins he brings home from “watching” people’s cars for them in the parking lot. Such a person must not be allowed to victimize the boy further, and Mma Ramotswe is soon on her trail. The bad woman’s house, Mma Ramotswe discovers, was not well maintained, and 
…the yard was ill kempt, which spoke volumes, as it always did. If you did not keep your yard in reasonable order, then your whole life would be similarly untidy. A messy yard told Mama Ramotswe everything she needed to know about its owner.
One or two piles of cut and stacked invasive

Instantly I feel better! While Bruce was at the bookstore on Friday and I could have been tidying my cupboards (or cleaning out closets or scrubbing floors or washing windows), instead I had been out in the meadow, waging my annual war on autumn olive. I’ll never eradicate it — it is taking over the entire neighborhood, any and all bits of land that are not regularly tilled or mowed — but holding it at bay for as long as I’m here is important to me, and looking out now at the expanse cleared of its unwelcome presence gives me great satisfaction. The job isn’t finished, but another day or two should take care of it until next spring. 

I avoided another opportunity for housework by watering my straw bale garden and weeding and mowing grass in our outdoor dining area and around the straw bales. Our yard is not messy! Well, it has its cluttered corners (mostly in and around the old, dilapidated barns), but the general appearance is neat and welcoming and colorful with pots of flowers, and I would not be ashamed to have Mma Ramotswe drop by. I think she would focus on the bright, well-tended areas and understand that one woman — even one man and one woman, at our ages — cannot do everything we once did.

After rescuing the little boy and installing him in a safer, more congenial living arrangement at her friend Mma Potokwane’s Orphan Farm, Mma Ramotswe sings aloud as she drives her tiny white van back to town. She has met a challenge, it’s a beautiful day, and no matter if people in other cars think she is a lunatic, Mma Ramotswe is happy, and she will sing!
It was not a big change in the overall scale of things; it was not something that would be noted by more than a handful of people — at the most — but it was something to be pleased with, even to sing about.
I was happy to have the rest of the book to look forward to later, after morning housework and time spent with friends in the afternoon and before a full day of errands in town on Monday. 

Sometimes making a “mistake” means a day turns out better. I distinctly heard Sarah Shoemaker say that her letter to the New York Times Book Review would appear in the June 17 issue, so why did I rush down to Lake Leelanau as soon as NJ’s opened on Sunday morning, expecting to read Sarah’s letter on June 10? Well, am I glad for having jumped the gun in this case, for the sake of the book review section, because under the headline “Underrated and Unappreciated” was a review of a new book about President Jimmy Carter, a book the reviewer calls “a measured and compelling account,” one that considers Carter’s weaknesses along with his strengths. 

The author of President Carter: The White House Years, Stuart Eizenstat, and the book reviewer, Peter Baker, both seem to share my own view, which is that Jimmy Carter’s presidency has never been properly evaluated. Instead, policies that might very well have led us to a much better world than we find ourselves occupying today were largely undercut by the tone of his message. President Carter’s unflinching honesty compelled him to deliver bad news, hoping America would see its errors and change its ways, but it was the stick, not the carrot, a call to sacrifice, not “You can do it!” optimism. And so, while almost everyone admires him for his post-presidential work, his accomplishments in the White House are generally forgotten. Now comes President Carter: The White House Years from St. Martin’s Press to correct the national memory. It’s about time.

When President Carter’s energy report came out in the 1970s, I was working in a university office concerned with environmental issues and so had a chance to leaf through that weighty tome in our office library. Before that, while I’d voted for him, I hadn’t been excited by Carter’s presidency. That energy report changed my attitude. I was excited by his ideas for energy independence, even if it meant higher gas and oil prices during a transition, and I began paying closer attention to everything he said and did. When he arranged a Middle East Peace Conference at Camp David, I hoped to see conflict permanently resolved in Israel. In general, I noticed with nothing short of amazement that when President Carter gave a press conference, he actually tried to answer the questions asked rather than wiggle out of answering! Incredible!

Despite the unsettled weather an east wind always brings, Sunday was a lovely day. It brought work, and it brought friends. And at day’s end, tired and happy, I took up again The Woman Who Walked in Sunshine
Normally Mma Ramotswe would be up first and make tea for her still somnolent husband. This she would place on the dresser at the side of the bed before going out into the garden to inspect the plants, savour the crisp morning air, and watch the sun float up over the horizon.
In our house, it is coffee rather than tea in the morning, and Mma Ramotswe has no dog, but otherwise the morning routine in the novel pretty closely mirrors my own. (See above.) Another morning, another day. But first, the restfulness of a sweet, green June evening.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018


Fresh ARC in hand from a writer whose work I have long admired -- always exciting! 

Valerie Trueblood’s new collection, to be released on August 7 of this year, will be a joy to those encountering her work for the first time, as well as to her long-time admirers. To call the book a “joy,” however, is in no way to suggest escapist fiction. Far from it. New stories in the Terrarium section, like those from earlier collections and from her novel, Seven Loves, run the gamut in tone from quixotic to grim, but all are realistic and compelling. This writer’s characters are real people — dreaming, trying, stumbling, falling, and going on as long as they can.

In any collection, it’s difficult not to have favorites, and the story that hit me hardest in this new group was “Crisco.” In only four pages, the author weaves different strands together — the global world of spies and other news, a local high school basketball star, a young reporter, a beautiful killer horse, a baby given up for adoption, losses inflicted by a distant war —  to form a complete world. 
“She did talk about her work,” Madeline told me when I asked. “Who, what, when, where why.” Was that all? “Well, she said you have to do that in her job. Know what the story is. She said that to John when he was shy.” But how, that was my question, how do you know what the story is? And if you do, how do you pull it, like a Slinky in the toy bin, out of the mass of everything else?
The quote above comes from the middle of the story (nearly its geographical center), and the question recurs in the final paragraph, where the narrator suggests possible answers to “What is the story?” That list of possibilities was nearly enough to break this reader’s heart! As always with Trueblood’s writing, however, all remains simplicity, even the all-too-human confusion brought to the question — and this is a paradox, friends, not a contradiction. Again, realistic.

As a terrarium is a small, enclosed world, a miniature portion of earth, just so do many of the Terrarium stories show the author experimenting with more condensed pieces than appeared in her earlier short story collections, Search Party; Marry or Burn, and Criminals: Love Stories. One of the stories in the volume Criminals, “Sleepover,” almost feels like novella, whereas “Harvest,” in the new book, is a single paragraph, and neither, of course, is wrong. A story (like a poem) should be as long as it needs to be and no longer. It is Trueblood’s gift to have such an unerring feel for what is necessary and to pare away the rest.

I’ve been thinking once again in general about short stories, a recurrent subject of my bookseller musings, and it strikes me that the readers who most appreciate the form are other writers. Whether their own work is fiction, nonfiction, or poetry, long or short forms, writers are more aware than any other readers of the level of craft that short fiction (like poetry) demands. A novel may wander or digress, without injury, but the writer of short stories must deny herself that self-indulgent luxury. In a short story, every word has to count.

And here’s something else I noticed in the Terrarium stories. While not every question is answered and many puzzles are left unresolved, at any particular story’s last line I never had the feeling of having been pushed out of a speeding car and left on the side of the highway. I felt satisfied. Not necessarily in every case optimistic or relieved but always, in a literary sense, satisfied

Shall I add that dogs figure into many of the stories? Is that an extraneous, irrelevant detail? I have nothing like Valerie’s gift for writing, but her stories are gifts to all readers.

Friday, June 1, 2018

Piecing Together the Past

After a week of balmy summer, Nature today has carried us back to spring with a second wet morning in a row, this one cool enough for a jacket, though sweater and raincoat may be more appropriate. Yes, rain. Rain means a break from mowing grass — and also encourages the grass to grow all the more lushly. Everything is a double-edged sword.

Yesterday morning I came to the last page of Rachel May’s An American Quilt: Unfolding a Story of Family and Slavery, and today I feel challenged to get across to male readers, many of whom will have little or no interest in domestic arts (am I stereotyping?), that this is not just a “book about quilts.” It is much more. Though there is plenty of information about quilts and several other examples of quilts made in the early years of the Republic, for author May the 200-year-old quilt tops encountered in the book’s pages are pieces of material culture that first open the door to decades of American history in which she will subsequently immerse herself and her readers. What May pieces together in her book are lives

But here I want to go in another direction for a while, because May will be the best narrator of her own story and I don’t want to pre-empt anyone’s reading and listening of that. Also, my digression has a definite purpose, connected to May's book, so once again I ask you go come with me on a little detour.

Old books. Some people have no use for them, especially old history books, but for me the age of a book, the era in which it was written, is never a reason to pass by without opening the pages. “Outdated” is not a term I usually  recognize. Many of today’s perspectives will surely be discarded in the future, so why should we necessarily valorize them over other views, merely because they are current? For me, the calendar cannot be a yardstick for value. And just as some past views require correction in the present and will require additional correction in the future, surely other perspectives of the past may be resuscitated and one day seen as superior to what is commonly believed today. It has happened before, and it will happen again. 

The “old” book I picked up yesterday afternoon — actually, I initially picked it up months ago and have had it tucked away in the car for an occasion that finally arrived yesterday, an hour when I would be waiting in the car for the Artist and would need something to read — is a book of essays on the philosophy of history, essays gathered together and published in 1959. It is The Philosophy of History in Our Time: An Anthology, selected and edited by Hans Meyerhoff, and in the parking lot of the Suttons Bay library as afternoon segued into evening I had the opportunity to dip into the first essay in the collection to catch my eye, “The Historical Imagination,” by R. G. Collingwood. 

Revisionist history. There is another phrase used as one of depreciation and often uttered with a sneer. The common connotation, nurtured by many who consider themselves lovers — even practitioners — of history, is that to revise history is to falsify it. And of course intentional falsifications have occurred from time to time. But not every revision is a distortion. I would venture to say that most revisions are corrections and clarifications rather than distortions, and here Collingwood comes to my aid, as well as serving to bolster the work of Rachel May, which is the reason for my digression today. 

Collingwood begins by setting forth what he believes is most people’s first “commonsense” theory of history, in which the essential features are memory and authority. According to this view, an authority is someone with memory of an event, and subsequent historians remain true insofar as they rely on facts set forth by authorities. Collingwood challenges this view and insists on the historian’s autonomy, that he or she (for Collingwood, always “he,” but no matter) must always be his or her own authority. 
As natural science finds its proper method when the scientist, in Bacon’s metaphor, puts Nature to the question, tortures her by experiment in order to wring from her answers to his own questions, so history finds its proper method when the historical puts his authorities in the witness-box, and by cross-questioning extorts from them information which in their original statements they have withheld, either because they did not wish to give it or because they did not possess it. 
So much for authority, although I am not giving you every step or every example in Collingwood’s refutation. What about memory? Will that not be essential?
And as history does not depend on authority, so it does not depend upon memory. The historian can rediscover what has been completely forgotten. … He can even discover what, until he discovered it, no one ever knew to have happened at all. 
What, though, about facts? The question of facts, which seemed more or less settled to the commonsense imagination, has once again become contentious, and Collingwood insists that for the historian facts about the past are always contentious, that there are no “bare facts” that can serve as fixed points on which to pin a complete history. No authorities, no fixed points, no data. 

Another philosopher of history in the same old book, Carl Becker, addresses himself to the question of historical facts and takes as his example that Caesar crossed the Rubicon. What of it? he asks. Many people have crossed rivers, many even have undoubtedly crossed the Rubicon, and certainly in saying “Caesar” crossed it we mean that he did so with an army, and when we look at this “simple fact” closely, we see that thousands of other facts must have gone into it and have been left out of the story. Historians are always selecting and omitting.

Back to Collingwood:
All that the historian means, when he describes certain historical facts as his data, is that for the purposes of a particular piece of work there are certain historical problems relevant to that work which for the present he proposes to treat as settled; though, if they are settled, it is only because historical thinking has settled them in the past, and they remain settled only until he or some one else decides to reopen them. 
In the end, Collingwood comes to a coherence theory of historical truth. Any historian will be selecting among bits of evidence to construct a story, but that story cannot be “arbitrary or merely fanciful,” although it will be “essentially something imagined” in the gaps between what is known, and here the work of the imagination is structural, not merely ornamental. Like a novel, history but “make sense.” It must present a “continuous and coherent picture.” But unlike the novel, “the historian’s picture is meant to be true,” and this truth demands that the picture be localized in space and time; consistent with itself; and stand “in a peculiar relation to something called evidence.” Collingwood having rejected authorities and fixed points, i.e., bare facts, you will not be surprised to learn that his attitude toward evidence is not a simple one 
Everything is evidence which the historian can use as evidence. [Emphasis added]
I have italicized that sentence and left it standing alone because for me it shines light on Rachel May’s imaginative reconstruction of nineteenth-century lives, both black and white, beginning with an unfinished quilt. Collingwood goes on.
Everything is evidence which the historian can use as evidence. But what can he so use? I must be something here and now perceptible to him: this written page, this spoken utterance, this building, this finger-print. And of all the things perceptible to him there is not one which he might not conceivably use as evidence on some question, if he came to it with the right question in mind. 
I read: This quilt. This box of letters. These printed images. These houses and the much more simple buildings behind them. Historical markers in certain places, their absence in others. 

History is never finished, once and for all, writes Collingwood, but this is not an argument for skepticism.  History is a process, and the historian is part of that process. 
[E]very new generation must rewrite history in its own way; every new historian, not content with giving new answers to old questions, must revise the questions themselves….
And here is the heart of important revision, it seems to me. “Settled” history, that which we learn in grade school, answers a limited set of questions, but as we grow older we realize how many questions were never asked in those books. Could New Englanders have become so wealthy with their cotton mills if not for cheap raw material from the South, its very cheapness made possible only by the institution of slavery? What picture does the word “slave” bring to mind? How might it be possible to give a fuller picture not only of national economics in the nineteenth century but also of individual human lives? How can we possibly imagine what might have been going on in the minds of those who could see other human beings as property, in the minds of those who were considered little more than livestock or chattel? 

Much necessary historical revision is enlargement. It looks to answer questions that previous historians did not ask (or dismissed from consideration), and it looks to give voice to what has hitherto been kept silent. It is not suppression of truth but the bringing to light of more truth than had been made easily available before. 

What historical facts will you accept? What answers?  What stories? Each of us who reads history is a student of it, and the more we read and learn, the more critically we can assess what we read, by putting it in the witness-box of our own imaginations and cross-questioning it. 

Here’s why it matters. Another phrase from Collingwood stood out for me: 
Every present has a past of its own….
It is this truth, in part, that drives Rachel May’s investigations. Just as she asked about Southern slave-owners, how they could come to a comfortable acceptance of owning other human beings, so she also asks of our time, how did we come to be where we are today? What questions have we failed to ask ourselves? What are we not seeing, and whose voices are we not hearing, whether willfully or ignorantly?

Rachel May will be my first Thursday Evening Author, presenting her story of historical reconstruction at Dog Ears Books on June 21, beginning at 7 p.m. She is, I should add for the reassurance of crafters, a serious quilter herself and a student of historical patterns and methods of quilting, as well as a researcher of documents and places, so she will have something to offer every member of the audience, and I hope the audience for her presentation will be numerous.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Dip Your Toe in the Water!

Two beautiful and exciting new books this season for readers from ‘tweens through adult in age (and heart) come from northern Michigan writers. 

Newbery author Lynne-Rae Perkins, with her characteristic gentle but offbeat humor, introduces her young characters and readers to the ocean in Secret Sisters of the Salty Sea, capturing once again the wonder of first-time experience, as she does so well. Secret Sisters is a “chapter book” that also includes charming black-and-white illustrations by the author.

Linda Nemec Foster and Anne-Marie Oomen, for their part, decided that freshwater should have mermaids as well as saltwater, adding illustrator Meredith Ridl to their team, with most delightful results. The Lake Michigan Mermaid: A Tale in Poems offers a complex story in compelling verse and images and a wonderful souvenir of Up North vacation.

Secret Sisters of the Salty Sea, by Lynne-Rae Perkins. Greenwillow Books, hardcover with dust jacket, $16.99

The Lake Michigan Mermaid: A Tale in Poems, by Linda Nemec Foster and Anne-Marie Oomen. Wayne State University Press, hardcover with illustrated boards, $16.99

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Typical Day in This Bookseller’s Life

I am up before sunrise for a first cup of coffee with Henry James, Portrait of a Lady, this month’s selection for our little reading circle, but a long, leisurely morning of reading is not in the cards and will not be for many months to come. First order of business, i.e., work, is the straw bale garden to be fertilized and watered, Day 8 of its 10-day conditioning before planting can occur. Ten days takes us up to the holiday weekend, and I never plant tender vegetables before Memorial Day, so the timing works out well. Sarah comes outside with me, and I supervise her first morning sortie. Happy to be back home and off the leash, she is listening and obeying and wagging her tail.

While I water the bales, a mockingbird sings to me from the trees at the edge of the meadow, reminding me of a morning companion in Dos Cabezas, the mockingbird in the wash. How different the places, how similar the delights of the songbirds! I notice sweet, long-stemmed yellow violets in tall grass, blooming near china-blue forget-me-nots — some pink ones, as well — and I fetch a cream pitcher from the house to hold a small bouquet. When I come home at the end of the day, while I might forget to look in the tall grass, little flowers on the porch table will add to the enjoyment of our evening meal.

Soon there will be a coffee shop interlude, offering me a chance to download and answer the day’s e-mail and check into Facebook. (Doing those online chores only once a day keeps me sane, I like to think.) Later, at the bookstore, I can work on a flier for my June TEA guests. That’s “Thursday Evening Authors,” this year’s guest writer series at the bookstore. I have two lined up for late June, the 21st and 28th, with three slots already filled for July.

My first author, Rachel May, wrote the other book I’m reading these days (besides Henry James), An American Quilt. Since May grew up in New England and went to college in the South, I was surprised and pleased to learn that she is now on the faculty of Northern Michigan University in Marquette. Rachel May fell in love with a 200-year-old quilt, an unfinished piece — a quilt top, really — with old paper backing pieces still (since the quilt was never completed) in place except where brittle pieces of the old paper hexagon patterns had fallen away. The backing pieces held random bits of writing, some a child’s, another from the hand of an adult with business interests, many with dates, and these bits of writing, together with 1830s-era fabrics of the hexagonal pieces, constituted for the author “a treasure trove, an unfolding, every-expanding story with hints buried like a crooked trail to follow….” Then a box of letters emerged from archives to enrich the emerging story, and writer, quilter, researcher, historian, and material culture devotee May gradually assembled the story not only of a family and the enslaved people who served them but also a story of the United States that seldom sees the light — a North made wealthy by trade connections with slavery in the South. You don’t need to be a quilter (I’m not) to find Rachel May’s story fascinating!

There are connections everywhere in the world, if we but look for them. I note that a character in the James novel, 
…was the proprietor of certain well-known cottonmills in Massachusetts—a gentleman who had accumulated a considerable fortune in the exercise of this industry. 
Caspar, that is, was a Northerner whose wealth had been assured by cheap cotton from the South, produced by the slave plantation system as it existed before the Civil war. James says nothing about slavery and next to nothing about the Civil War, certainly nothing about the reasons for it. He only tells us this about Caspar:
He keenly regretted that the Civil War should have terminated just as he had grown old enough to wear shoulder-straps, and was sure that if something of the same kind would only occur again, he would make a display of striking military talent. 

Well, if today is anything like yesterday in Northport, there will be a long walk to the post office, long because the street and sidewalks are still torn up in that block of Nagonaba Street, making any trip to post office or bank — and these are daily village errands, whether on foot or in car — a lengthy detour around along block. (There will probably be time also for a walk with Sarah down by the creek, another place forget-me-nots are blooming in profusion, along with sweet little English daisies in the grass.) But I don’t want to miss the UPS man’s bookstore stop, as I did yesterday! Over the years, I have grown to expect him in the early afternoons. Well, yesterday he must have seen me out on the sidewalk earlier, because he left a note on the door between 10 and 10:30. Darn! It’s my first new book order of the season, and I am impatient for those boxes! It isn’t that I am not working before 11 o’clock, only that there is work outside the bookstore that needs to be done before opening!

Once the OPEN flag was out yesterday, there were visits from old friends, and visitors to town streamed in, as well. Quite shy of the holiday weekend as we still are, there were only a few minutes in the last half-hour of the day that Sarah and I were alone in the store. Northport is certainly livelier than it was a decade ago! But who specifically may come in, and what topics of conversation we may cover, and what particular book treasures my visitors will find on any given day — all that is never the same from one day to the next, so today, like all bookstore days, will doubtless be one of surprises. 

Finally it will be time to come home to start supper and water plants in pots and boardwalk garden and relax on the porch for half an hour on the front porch before another evening of mowing. In May and June, the grass grows almost faster than it can be mowed, so work often continues as long as the sun shines. The evening before last, however, having accomplished a difficult and heroic task of physical work directed by the genius of the Artist in residence, we drove to another village in Leelanau County for the evening meal, taking in beautiful scenery along the way. Oh, the smell of horses! — And now this morning, the perfume of blossoming cherry trees, and once again, I feel a vague frustration at not being able to include aromas in this blog, which reminds me of a frequent exclamation when people first walk in the door of Dog Ears Books: “Oh, I love the smell of books!”

The smell, the feel, the sight of books … and the worlds they contain, worlds within worlds. This is my life. Books and bookstore and garden and meadow and the fields and orchards around us,  woods and back roads, horses (other people’s), dog (my own), wildflowers (nature’s gifts to all) …. I am at work before the sun is up (often in summer, though not this morning, hanging laundry on my backyard lines) and fortunate to be, while no Superwoman, healthy and strong enough still to do what needs to be done.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Dear Friends, Nearby and Faraway

Moist, misty, marvelous
Saturday morning is here, overcast, softly rainy, still, and with this rain, my freshly mown grass will need mowing again in a couple of days. It might have needed mowing that soon, anyway, of course, since spring is when grass grows most wildly after its long winter sleep, but at least I am saved by the weather from trying to mow this morning the last areas we haven’t gotten to yet. I can use a little break. I am trusting the rain to soak my straw bales this morning, too (on days two, four, and six of their conditioning cycle, they don’t get fertilizer, only water), so that’s another chore not needing to be addressed immediately.

Some of Thursday's progress
The other day at a local coffee shop, the barista asked in the course of our conversation, after I’d admitted having spent the winter in Arizona, “So you come here for the summer?” Come here for the summer? Like a summer person? “No, we live here,” I  said gently, “but some winters we go away.” The way I figure, it’s about one in three winters we’ve been gone, two winters out of three we’ve toughed it out in the farmhouse. One way we rationalized going away is that we generally save money by living somewhere else when the snow is flying in Michigan. One January plow bill of $1,000, added to heating costs, convinced of that. But I will admit that, much as I have loved winters for most of my life, much as I longed for years to go all the way to the Arctic — Michigan winter in those years was not challenging enough to my soul, despite paralyzing blizzards — I’ve reached a point in life where I love being warm. And not just any kind of warm, either: I love being in the sun.

“If you’re not careful, you’ll turn into a wrinkled old tortoise,” the Artist cautioned me. “And what about skin cancer?” he added, to strengthen his case. 

I told him I would be indoors, in the bookstore, all summer while “everyone else” (a slight exaggeration) would be at the beach, and those April days in the high desert were my substitute for summer days at the beach. No water, of course. No waves. No fresh-fishy smell of the Great Lakes. (I love that fresh-fishy smell!) But over the winter I grew to love the smell of dust and cows and was not pining to be anywhere but where I was. 

Home now in Michigan, outdoors yesterday morning, mowing and gardening, I thought at ten o’clock how warm the day would already be back in Cochise County, Arizona. It would be time, if not to seek shade, at least to stop working hard in the sun. One woman who grew up on a ranch told us she and her siblings had been rousted out of bed at three a.m. in the summer. Three o’clock was breakfast time, so they could get their work with the cows done before the heat of the summer day. There are ways around the limitations of climate, adaptations, and not all of them involve fuel oil or electricity. Rather than simply dash between heated houses and heated cars, winter in Michigan makes more sense with a lot of warm clothes, from good boots to earmuffs and mufflers, layers that make outdoor exercise possible. Enjoyable. Exciting! As for the desert, I have never been a fan (really — really, no pun intended!) of air conditioning, and there’s no air conditioning the range! So getting up in the dark to work and napping through the early afternoon makes sense to me. 

I won’t be doing a lot of napping this summer in Michigan. It’s the 25th anniversary year of my little Up North bookstore, and I’ll be focused on business and working every day. Since retirement is not an option for me, I’m fortunate to be still in good health and also to have the kind of work that, like farming, lets me be my own boss, even if “my boss” sometimes works me harder than I would like!

And so, the plan: I’d promised to be open by Memorial Day weekend, “if not sooner,” and so I will be, but I’m also going to have the bookshop open today, Saturday, May 19, with a — here’s the surprise — big one-day sale of everything in stock. I’ve got my flowers planted out front and made my first pass through the shop with broom and dustpan, and it’s too wet a day for you locals to stay home and mow your grass and plant your gardens, so come on down and see me on Waukazoo Street. Everything in stock, including all new books, will be 25% off today!

Thanks for the sidewalk comment, Erika!
One of the challenges of a bookstore, whether the business deals in new books or used or a combination of the two, is inventory control. Dear Prudy Meade of Leelanau Books told me that years ago, when I was just starting out, and I think of her often when I’m pruning my stock. Books have to go out to make way for other books to come in. Hence the periodic purging, and hence today’s sale. 

Faraway friends, I know you won’t be able to drop by in Northport today, but I appreciate having you drop by Books in Northport. It’s important for me to keep in contact with you, too. I live in Michigan. Michigan is my home. But Arizona, where we own no property and have no family, has somehow become my second home, a second heart home, and I miss all of you out there. So welcome to Michigan! You’ll get a good dose of it here on my blog, along with book and bookstore happenings. 

Another cup of coffee. Helen, thank you for the mug with first lines of well-known works of literature! It will keep you in my thoughts every morning!

Reminder to local Leelanau friends: Today only, Saturday, May 19, all books in stock, new and used, 25% off. Rainy days are excellent reading days!

From one bookseller to another: Good morning, Helen!