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Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Everyone Here Is Behaving Very Well!

Home, sweet barn! I got used to isolation....

If you know me or if you’ve been reading this blog for the last few weeks and months, you’ll know I was very nervous about re-opening my bookstore, and I was not alone in that, either: a dear friend retired from the bookstore business was worried about me, too. So preparation, planning, and precautions were in order – as they are these days for all of us, whatever we’re doing.

First came a curatorial cleaning, in which I was helped and outright directed (I needed direction!) by a friend experienced with the care of collections. Following that came a week or two (I forget already how long the next phase lasted) where customers could stop by to pick up special orders. And then on July 1, with all due care (masks required, hand sanitizer for those wanting to handle books, limit of six customers at a time in the shop), I re-opened my bookstore to the public for the first time since the Saturday following Thanksgiving 2019.

And so far it's been going very well!

I have been pleased with and grateful to people who have visited Dog Ears Books during our first week back in business. Not one single person has complained about the mask requirement! In fact, not one person has even stuck an unmasked face through the doorway! Yesterday a couple paused at the door to ask if there was room for them in the shop, and, since they were #5 and #6, I invited them on in, whereupon another man said he would pay for his book and leave to make room for someone else. Consideration for others, wonderfully, is the order of the day in my bookstore.

Also, more than one customer has told me that one of the hardest things about the long weeks of stay-at-home/quarantine was not being able to browse in bookstores, and I sense a new realization on the part of the public that being able to visit a bookstore is not as certain as every day’s sunrise and sunset. Relief and gratitude translates more easily into sales now than it might have a year ago, too. We’re here now, but none of us can see the future, so today is the day to buy that book found so serendipitously!

I sold my last copy of Kathleen Stocking’s From the Place of the Gathering Light: Leelanau Pieces, and who knows when that book may be reprinted? Not this summer, I’m sure. Another woman was looking for something positive and encouraging and was happy to purchase Emita Hill’s Northern Harvest: Twenty Women in Food and Farming. Those oral histories are certainly encouraging stories. Other readers are grappling with difficult issues in American history – or turning to fiction for a pleasant, if temporary escape.

There are many different kinds of books and an almost infinite number of individual titles desirable and/or pertinent and/or enlightening during this strange and unsettling, very unsettled summer of 2020, a time of pandemic and a time of national reassessment. I’m glad to be here, with books available (and new orders going out and new books coming in every week), and I hope the consideration and safety of our first week continues through the rest of the summer. Thanks, everyone!

Saturday, July 4, 2020

Here, for the 4th of July, a T-Shirt and a Poem

A writer friend, critical of our nation's true history as well as much that is happening in American society today, was asked this question over and over, “Why don’t you love your country?” The person asking seemed incapable of understanding my friend’s answer, which was “I do love my country!” She loves the land, the people, the lofty ideals. My friend simply wants what so many of us want, which is for our country’s policies, foreign and domestic, to reflect our stated ideals and for all our citizens to respect and protect one another.

Perfection, of course, is a moving target, but certainly we can aim to be better and, aiming sincerely, improve. We can make the future brighter than the past has been.

Pictured above is one of my favorite t-shirts. Like so many in what I would not even presume to call a “wardrobe,” this one came from a thrift shop. I couldn’t resist it, and I love to wear it. “When was America ever kind?” the Artist asked the last time he saw me in the shirt.

I told him it’s like the Langston Hughes poem, “Let America Be America Again,” a poem written 85 years ago during the Great Depression, when Hughes and so many millions in America and around the world were struggling to make ends meet, let alone to realize their dreams. There is sharp poignancy in that word again, since the America that Hughes envisioned, as he makes clear in the poem, “…never has been yet.” 

I have a connection to Langston Hughes, tenuous but important to me. After she graduated from high school, my mother worked for an organization (perhaps the YMCA or YWCA) that sponsored a local reading by the poet, and since she was responsible for putting the event together, my mother was privileged to meet Langston Hughes, who inscribed a copy of his autobiography for her. That treasured book now belongs to me. 

So for July 4, 2020, I want to share my favorite Langston Hughes poem with you who have known it for years as well as you who have perhaps never read it before, because – you know this troubled country of ours? We don’t always act as if we know it, but we truly are all in this together.

Happy 4th, friends! Let freedom ring!

by Langston Hughes 

Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain 

Seeking a home where he himself is free. 

(America never was America to me.) 

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed — 
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme 

That any man be crushed by one above. 

(It never was America to me.) 

O, let my land be a land where Liberty 
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath, 
But opportunity is real, and life is free, 
Equality is in the air we breathe. 

(There's never been equality for me, 
Nor freedom in this "homeland of the free.") 

Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart, 

I am the Negro bearing slavery's scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek — 

And finding only the same old stupid plan 
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak. 

I am the young man, full of strength and hope, 
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need! 

Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one's own greed! 

I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean — 

Hungry yet today despite the dream. 
Beaten yet today--O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years. 

Yet I'm the one who dreamt our basic dream 
In the Old World while still a serf of kings, 
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true, 
That even yet its mighty daring sings 
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned 
That's made America the land it has become. 
O, I'm the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home — 

For I'm the one who left dark Ireland's shore, 
And Poland's plain, and England's grassy lea, 
And torn from Black Africa's strand I came 
To build a "homeland of the free." 

The free? 

Who said the free? Not me?
Surely not me? The millions on relief today? 

The millions shot down when we strike? 
The millions who have nothing for our pay? 
For all the dreams we've dreamed
And all the songs we've sung
And all the hopes we've held
And all the flags we've hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay — 

Except the dream that's almost dead today. 

O, let America be America again — 
The land that never has been yet —
And yet must be--the land where every man is free. 

The land that's mine — the poor man's, Indian's, Negro's, ME —
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain, 

Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain, 
Must bring back our mighty dream again. 

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose — 
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people's lives, 

We must take back our land again, 

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me, 

And yet I swear this oath — 
America will be! 

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death, 
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies, 
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers. 

The mountains and the endless plain — 
All, all the stretch of these great green states — And make America again! 

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Before We Get Started

Straits of Mackinac -- water, water everywhere --
If a story is told backwards, from the end to the beginning, so that both writer and reader finish where it started, maybe -- this is what I’m thinking – it will remain in reading minds with everything yet to come, anticipated rather than left behind, and that way nothing in the story will end. Because with today July 1, the first official open day of 2020 for Dog Ears Books (very late this year, and with many cautionary measures in place – please see here), I am loathe to say good-by to our little, all-too-short, pre-season road trip to the Upper Peninsula.

My favorite!
Our last stop on the way back south to the Mackinac Bridge was Lehto’s Pasties, where we got one “hot one” to share for lunch and two frozen to take home. No, that wasn’t the very last stop, though, because half a mile or so down the highway is a rest area, and that was where we ate our lunch at a picnic table high over the Straits of Mackinac.

Mary's magical garden
Back up the way apiece, we had stopped at my friend Mary’s country bookshop, First Edition Too on Worth Road, where the Artist enjoyed Mary’s magical garden setting and visited with her husband while I shopped for books (a Frank Waters; a biography of Cochise; another copy of Parnassus on Wheels; and a paperback study of Max Weber), caught up with Mary, and was introduced to her beautiful chickens. I never leave First Edition Too empty-handed but always carry away treasures, and the day could not have been lovelier, the garden pleasanter, the bookshop more inviting, or our peaceful welcome more satisfying.

Entrance to a wonderland

Bookseller behind plexiglass

Chickens behind chickenwire

Handsome master of the harem
Coming down from Lake Superior, as we’d passed through Seney on M-28 before following an assortment of inland roads down to Epoufette, I’d been delighted to see a pair of sandhill cranes by the side of the road. Lovely, rich color they were, the stately birds we have known over the years from southeast Arizona to the southern coast of Ontario. I was also still marveling at the waving sweeps of daisies and islands of orange and yellow hawkweed everywhere, wildflowers I associate with my Leelanau home and never realized were also in the U.P., since our visits there are generally fall getaways or, longer in the past, winter treks to Minnesota. At the motel where we stayed in Grand Marais, I was charmed to note that the management (did John do the mowing, as well as check-in?), when keeping the lawn neatly trimmed, had mowed around the colonies of flowering hawkweed, just as I do at home. And of course the bright, brilliant, floridly perfumed roses – at any time of year, they capture my attention.

At home in Leelanau County, sunrise is over the woods, sunset over Lake Michigan, straight across. In Grand Marais, the sun comes up at one “end,” as it seems, of Lake Superior and sets at the other, never touching the far northern horizon. I slept late, for me, but was up in time to see sunrise and read a while and go for a walk with Sarah before the bank opened and I could take care of the business that had occasioned the trip.

Sunrise, June 29, 2020

To our eyes, unaccustomed to the bustle of summer’s longest days on Lake Superior, the town seemed very full of people. (ATVs, I noted, are the snowmobiles of summer.) More people picnicking this year, naturally, with only one restaurant/bar open (and too packed for us to brave the crowd there). The campground was full to overflowing, and one enterprising entrepreneur has opened a little espresso coffee shop in a beautifully restored VW bus on the same street as the campground entrance. She had just closed up shop for the night when we walked past on our Sunday evening promenade.

Espresso! In Grand Marais!

Our friends at the West Bay Diner are not yet open for the season, still working on figuring out how they will manage this year for COVID-19 safety and without regular help, but Ellen and I had a nice visit on the shady end of the deck Sunday afternoon, where Rick joined us for a while, also. Such hard-working people! Though I’m impatient to have Ellen’s fourth novel in my hands -- to sell it as well as to read it, her books being such a delight to share with my own bookstore public -- I’m glad for her sake that publication has been put off until 2021, as this is a very difficult year for authors with new work coming out.

“Is the town busier than usual this summer?” I asked Ellen. “Are there more people coming north this year?”

No, she said – things are relatively quiet this year. In a normal year, it would be “crazy busy” at this time. This isn't crazy-busy? We didn’t know. In prior years, for over a quarter-century, we have been too busy in Leelanau to take time to drive to the U.P. at the end of June.

But yes, we got a room, where Sarah was welcome, also. Right on the ground floor, with all amenities and comforts, looking right out at the pretty little harbor. 

Looking back from Coast Guard Point to our motel in town

The only other stop we made on our way to Grand Marais had been the quiet fishing harbor at Naubinway. I love a working harbor with serious fishing boats, serious and workmanlike even on their day off, a quiet Sunday. It was good to enjoy that calm oasis before rejoining traffic on U.S. 2.

I’d been concerned all the way up about our chances of getting a room for the night, as vehicular traffic seemed very heavy to us. So many people parked along U.S. 2, families enjoying the beach there at the top of Lake Michigan! Never had we seen so many people there! Just as, earlier, passing through Oden, we had been shocked at the line of vehicles towing and waiting to launch boats, as well as trucks and empty boat trailers lining the highway past the launch site. Not the quiet little lake I’d always thought, apparently. But then, September is a world apart from summer’s longest days.

Not all is hustle and bustle in and on the way to the Upper Peninsula, however. It is still possible to find relative peace and quiet in little lost-time islands along the way, and we are hoping that September 2020 brings us another few such days, as the couple we had passed all too quickly. Too quickly but very, very happily.

Open? I don't think so....

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Quiet, Rainy Day Meanderings

Bubbling in the pot

One of my resolutions for 2020 was to make my rhubarb chutney closer to the time of cutting the rhubarb, rather than waiting until fall to dig it out of the freezer, and Tuesday was the day. (I started to type “Saturday was the day.” Why did Tuesday feel like Saturday? I can’t tell you.) First batch now neatly in jars, second batch will follow on another day at home. Because I did stay home on today-Tuesday-that-felt-like-Saturday. Home with rain on the roof, fire in the fireplace, dog stretched out close to the hearth. Being at home has become a habit, and one to which, for now, I cling. 

Daisies that seemed to float in the sea of tall grass are looking bewildered today, not lifting their faces to the sun but gazing confusedly in all directions. The grass is equally confused and discouraged, bending this way, drooping that way. Only the jewelweed maintains its posture, and its leaves hold forth raindrops like offered pearls.

This morning I finished my reading of The Kennedy Imprisonment: A Meditation on Power, by Garry Wills, and the impression I formed halfway through the book was only strengthened by the remaining chapters. Wills shocked me with the realization of how much the Kennedy presidency presaged that of Donald Trump: disdain for experts and professionals; placement of yes-men and toadies in important positions; exaggerations, lies, and coverups; attempts to manipulate the press, whenever possible; impatience with normal channels of procedure; decision by impulse and instinct rather than knowledge and reflection; intolerance of disagreement; and, always, first and foremost, overwhelming concern for personal image. The big difference was that the Kennedy family and in-group were more successful at manipulating and controlling their presidential image than the current president has been.

Democratic Party? Republican Party? Philosophy and ideology ride in the back backseat when demagoguery is at the wheel.

No one goes into the presidency prepared. (In that respect, it is like parenthood.) While wise presidents make it their business to learn on the job, as quickly as they can, one who enters office as if he has, by winning an election, conquered the country and become its reigning prince does not recognize that being chief executive is a job and that the job carries duties and responsibilities. He sees only his privileges and his authority over others. It is a quasi-solipsistic L’état c’est moi state of mind. Has anyone with that perspective ever wakened from his dream of absolute power? Wills aptly notes that such power does more than corrupt: it self-destructs. 


To shift topics rather abruptly and radically, another realization that’s been on my mind in the past few days has to do with the collegiality of bookselling. The very word ‘collegial’ calls up the Ivory Tower, the quadrangular greensward, and men and women in medieval gowns and mortarboards, a world in which I did spend a few years. What I realize now, however, is that not only is bookselling very much a collegial line of work – I believe it to be a more collegial world than that of acadème. 

Because a bookstore is a business venture, one outside the bookselling world might be excused for thinking that bookstore owners would regard each other primarily as competition. In general, I have not found that to be the case. Other than the online behemoth who wants to put all others out of business (all retailers, not just bookstores), we booksellers applaud one another’s successes. We want to see all indie bookstores, not just ours, flourish. We see each other and treat each other not as competitors but as colleagues. 

In the Ivory Tower of the academic world, such collegiality is the ideal, but I saw something very different on the inside. It may have been otherwise fifty years ago, but nowadays, when colleges and universities are being pushed more and more into a “business” model, each department is in competition with all other departments, and each faculty member not yet tenured (tenure much rarer these days than formerly, with adjunct instructor positions replacing tenure track positions, as adjuncts are so much cheaper) in competition with every other faculty member and wannabe-hired, making for a rather cutthroat world. Harsh. Catty. Unkind. Unforgiving. Pretty depressing.

In contrast, we booksellers know from the start that we will never have guaranteed tenure. We will never have a guaranteed salary or benefits. We went into this with our eyes open, we’re on our own, we know it from the get-go – and so we recognize other booksellers as being in the same fragile, easily swamped kind of boat, and when our boats get close enough, we salute each other with encouraging smiles. “Hey! Still sailing? Great!” 

So I have no regrets about the world I have chosen. None of us is seeking world domination. Each her or his own little bit, and we’re happy to share the pie.

Sunday, June 21, 2020

What Happens When We Buy the Sizzle

This weekend I’m reading a deeply fascinating and unbelievably depressing book, The Kennedy Imprisonment: A Meditation on Power, by Garry Wills, published in 1982, and this morning, having progressed beyond the midpoint of the book but still far from the end, I find myself coming to a rather startling conclusion, one that, in its specificity, would have been impossible in 1982. Simply stated, I have come to see that the presidency of John F. Kennedy had much in common with and in many ways presaged the presidency of Donald Trump.

(If you believe only books written contemporaneously with events are worth reading -- that they have in them somehow more truth -- you would bypass The Kennedy Imprisonment, because it was written years after the JFK’s assassination. In my years in the secondhand book business, I have heard more than once from readers who reject out-of-hand any kind of secondary research and any account offering historical perspective. I believe, to the contrary, that perspective is exactly what we could use in much larger helpings. The more time elapses, the more can come to light.)

Wills, I need hardly say, was not offering a comparison of the two presidencies, since in 1982 the election results of November 2015 could hardly be imagined, but the subtitle of his book, A Meditation on Power, encourages me in making the comparison and offering it today.

Obvious similarities are not necessarily unimportant for being obvious: 

o  Both Kennedy and Trump had influential, larger-than-life fathers who gave their sons much more than example to put them on the road to success. 

o  Both families downplayed their ethnic backgrounds: the Trumps claimed to be Swedish rather than German until the 1980s, and the Kennedy family did everything it could to appear English rather than Irish. (Only to win the Irish Catholic vote did JFK claim his ancestry and even then refused to wear a hat, because, according to Wills, hats were symbolic of Irish-American politicians.) 

o  Both presidents, while campaigning and while in the White House, distorted and even falsified numerous facts of their own lives, exaggerating or even inventing achievements for themselves while sweeping under the rug (and attempting to nail down the rug’s edges) unsavory actions and events.

o  Both surrounded themselves with family guaranteed to be loyal to their images and swelled the ranks of courtiers with other yes-men and toadies. A parallel to Mafia organization is not inappropriate in either case.

o  For both Kennedy and Trump, appearance trumped substance, and attempts to control appearances were (and are today) for them the most important aspect of being president. 

These, as I say, are obvious similarities, and while obvious they are far from trivial, but there are other ways Kennedy and Trump presidencies mirror one another that speak more directly to the executive function of the presidency itself. 

o  Both presidents placed friends and relatives in key positions, rather than relying on more qualified, experienced men and women. Career diplomats were particularly despised.

o  Both shunned meetings of any kind, especially Cabinet meetings. These presidents were not interested in consulting others and informing themselves but in “shooting from the hip” and making decisions on the fly.

o  As for established governmental departments, both felt challenged to bring them to heel rather than work with them, let alone learn from them.

o  Congress, when it failed to fall into line with the president’s wishes of the moment, was regarded by both these presidents as the enemy.

For all the above-listed reasons, these two presidents tended to move (‘govern’ seems too grand a word) from crisis to crisis, unprepared for each as it came along. They were thus “exciting” presidents, always in the news, dominating American life with larger-than-life personalities out front and, behind the curtain, a woeful grasp of the duties and responsibilities of the office of president.

I grew up in a Republican household, where even we three children wore “I Like Ike” buttons. We – and I say this in full recognition that, as children, we tended to parrot our parents’ views – were unaffected by the charm of “Camelot” as applied to JFK. Still, my mother and I cried when he was killed. He was the president, assassinated! It was a terrible, fearful time. 

I bring my family background in only to say that Garry Wills did not destroy a grand illusion for me with his book. He did, however, show me depths and details I had never suspected in the darkness that preceded Kennedy’s death, a terrible darkness behind the glamor and style of that era’s White House. And now – this glaring similarity I see between the showman of the 1960s and the showman of today. A “cult of personality” is one in which personality rather than accomplishment takes center stage. We had it in the 1960s, and we have it again today.

President Kennedy wanted Americans (in a speech written by Theodore Sorensen) to ask what they could do for their country, but everything he did was for his own image. 

President Trump promised to “drain the swamp” but has only introduced a new cast of swamp creatures – and again, he is in service primarily and always to his own image.

What lesson do I take away from this? Primarily, that while the two major political parties of this country have very different ideologies, neither party is immune to the dangers of a cult of personality and the way it erodes government, that of the United States no less than any other country. And unfortunately, “strong” personality is easy to sell. 

It’s advertising. You don’t sell the steak (substance) but the sizzle (desire). By the time the buyer figures out his plate is empty, you’ve already captured his vote, and he won’t want to admit later that he was hoodwinked.

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

See Other Blog

See the current story over on Northport Bookstore News. I'll be my usual discursive self again on this blog in the near future.