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Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Country Mouse Dreams of City Life, Then Thinks Better of It

In deepest winter, when skies are grey and spirits tend toward blue, it’s hard for the small-town bookseller not to let her imagination wander to dreams of what a bookselling life would be like in a big, lively city. There would be a line of cars parked at the curb (not just speeding down the street one lonely car at a time) and people constantly passing by, bundled up against the cold in northern cities but eager to escape the confines of their familiar apartments to explore the larger world at their doorstep. Some of these passers-by would pull open the bookshop door and hurry in, stomping snow from their boots.

My imagination, of course, was fired years ago in childhood by THE HAUNTED BOOKSHOP, by Christopher Morley: “He stumbled down the three steps that led into the dwelling of the muses, lowered his overcoat collar, and looked about.”

Back to the dream: Visitors might or might not be in the mood for conversation. Some would gravitate to the jigsaw puzzle (Susan helped so much with that on Saturday) to amuse themselves with it for half an hour, while others would avidly scan the New Arrivals shelves, chatting about the weather with the bookseller while grabbing up attractive volumes to peruse, asking eagerly, “Have you read this one?” or “Do you know what this is about?” Other browsers, shy but serious, would disappear into the stacks to become part of the furniture until, one at a time, emerging at last (blinking like owls) with stacks of treasure.

Morley again: “The shop had a warm and comfortable obscurity, a kind of drowsy dusk, stabbed here and there by bright cones of yellow light from green-shaded electrics.”

Ah, the dream! Every town, of whatever size, deserves a bookstore, I like to say. I believe it, and in general I love having my bookstore in Northport. Luckily, book-lovers from the big cities find me here, especially when they arrive for long summer vacations. From Grand Rapids and Chicago they come, from Ann Arbor and St. Louis, from the East Coast, West Coast and even foreign countries. Not so often at this time of year, though.

On the other hand--. “There will be days when the only person you’ll see will be the mailman,” predicted a friend in business in Traverse City when I moved Dog Ears there from Northport in 1994, and she was right. Bigger isn’t always better, and many of the customers who loved Dog Ears in Traverse City have stayed loyal, trekking all the way out to Northport several times a year. “We’re your best excuse for a beautiful drive” is the motto I’ve used more than once. Northport is mini-vacation territory for Traverse City residents, less than an hour away.

Today traffic is light. Snow plows. School buses. Trucks filled with stacked firewood. I leave a friend watching the shop while Sarah and I go for a walk, returning to take up again a conversation on the history of ideas. When a book order arrives from one of my distributors, I have customers to telephone or e-mail and can look forward to visits from these good friends. Summer feels faraway, like something I dreamed, but it will return. For now there is the peacefulness of winter to savor. Sarah has a rawhide bone, and I have plenty of books.


Anonymous said...

This is so nice! I'm not in a small city, but I do feel remote, all snowed in. I work from home, so it's just me, my toddler boy, two dogs, and two yappy parrots. My only visitor is usually the mailman! But I'd sure love to come help you with that jigsaw puzzle...

Anonymous said...

What a marvelous picture you paint. Even your quiet days seem to have a certain romantic feel when you put pen to paper and describe them. Soon the quiet hush of a snow shrouded world will burst forth with the activity that spring brings.

P. J. Grath said...

Diane, I wish you could drop in, too. I still have a fantasy of walking into a certain bookstore in the Berkshires and meeting face to face the congenial bookseller who shares my birthday, month, day and year.

Someone once accused me of romanticizing my life, and my response was, "If I don't, who will?" What have I got to gain by giving that up? I'm glad you get the feeling of pen and paper, z, even when the reality is keyboard and light!

The puzzle is coming along well. Soon all that will remain to be done will be the boring SKY! Remember, z, that next Saturday is Winter Carnival! I'll count on you and your lovely partner to add at least one puzzle piece apiece.

Unknown said...

On my drive in today from Suttons Bay to the big city of Traverse, the view from the top of Hill Top Road was harsh greys. Grand Traverse Bay was still and cold. The sky was angry with low hanging, dirty clouds. Down the hill, round the bend and alongside the bay a few minutes later, the sun had broken through shining on Power island like one of those green shaded lamps. Robin's egg blue skies hugged the hills of Old Mission and the waves seemed to reach for the sunshine, twinkling. It was an inspiring vision and I felt like I could take on the elements.

It took only moments for the city, our reasonable, quaint, peaceful, friendly city to push that inspiration to the fringes. And even with that vision a few blocks from my city office, it seems far away in the country. Our streets are full--and so are the parking lots. After trudging across unkempt parking lots, slogging over mounds of piled up snow and stumbling over the now-frozen foot prints of dozens ahead of me to get to this computer, I'm jealous of the convenience you have in your small town. You have your choice of parking spots. The footprints you follow are your own. And while I wouldn't trade you my job (marketing Traverse, Northern Michigan's Magazine), today I might trade you my busier, well-traveled location.

Rachel North

Anonymous said...

It's deal, we'll be there.

P. J. Grath said...

Rachel, nice to hear from you. Before your envy gets out of control (not that it would), I need to tell you that I'm teaching at NMC two mornings a week this semester, and the drive this morning (Wednesday, 20 Feb.) was HORRENDOUS in the extreme. Left the house at 6:30 a.m. (class is at 8 on Wed.), and the roads got worse, visibility decreasing, as we approached Traverse City. {Usually it's the opposite: the worst part is closer to home, easier part closer to town.) What a relief to get back to Northport in the afternoon! What greater relief to reach home this evening!