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Sunday, August 31, 2014

The Look and Feel of Summer's End (Letter to Ellen)

Sunset, Grand Marais

August 31, 2014

Dear Ellen,

Ellen at work
A friend here in Leelanau County asked if David and I had Grand Marais on our minds, after our long working summer. Well, of course. How could we not be U.P. dreaming as Labor Day weekend rolls around? Just this morning (Sunday) I finished reading your wonderful novel, South of Superior, for the fourth time, which set me to wondering how you and Rick are faring after your long working summer in the West Bay Diner. It was the perfect time for me to re-read South of Superior (although I’m hard pressed to think of what wouldn’t be a perfect time to read that novel), with summer drawing to a close and another winter staring at us down the gun barrel. Madeline’s story gives me courage. It isn’t “happily ever after” but taking one step at a time, dealing with challenges as they come along and enjoying every little joy life brings. It’s real life, the way so many of us live it.

This past week I also read one of the best self-published books that has ever come my way, Frozen Moon, by D. M. Greenwald, and wrote up a little review for the Northern Express. More later on this, when I get copies in the store by the end of next week, but I’m pretty sure you and Rick would both find Frozen Moon a gripping tale. I’m ordering Greenwald’s second novel, too, another fictional tale of rescue dogs at work. Michigan writer and former dog trainer Greenwald knows winter!

Anyway, as I started out to say before becoming diverted, I wish I could say we’ll be seeing you soon, but the September calendar is filling up fast, and there is a lot that needs to be done that is not yet scheduled. But you guys will understand that better than anyone else I know.

My truck, the one that broke down in Grand Marais two years ago, vastly multiplying the cost of that particular U.P. vacation, is going into the shop for brake work on Tuesday, but it’s okay, really, that the bookstore won’t be closing soon for a long vacation, because the third printing of the Ice Caves of Leelanau book only arrived last Wednesday. I’ll also be getting ready for a fun book event with Lynne Rae Perkins, who will read from and sign copies of her new book, Nuts to You, on Friday, September 19, from 5 to 7 p.m. And, of course, the second Leelanau UnCaged street fair, with art and music throughout the village, is scheduled for Saturday, September 27.

Banner up!
And that’s only the Northport side of life. Projects on the home front also clamor for attention. But you know how that is, too, don't you?

Pile of weeds, mostly wild grapevine -- a big morning's work
And yet, astonishingly, we have managed a couple evenings out. We went to the annual Sousa concert on Saturday night at the Northport Community Arts Center, and it was fantastic, as always. David and I were commenting to each other how far the village band has come since its first days. Ken Bloomquist got it off to a great start before yielding the podium and baton to Don Wilcox. Both Bloomquist and Wilcox brought years of university band conducting to Northport. Saturday evening’s guest conductor, on his third working visit to Northport, was another accomplished musician. Director Emeritus Colonel John R. Bourgeois, USMC (retired), who was the 25th director of the U.S. Marine Band from the Eisenhower Administration through Bill Clinton’s presidency. Little Northport! Astonishing!

(David commented that the band in its long-ago first year sounded “like a high school band.” Ha! Maybe like your high school band, I told him, but not like mine. Now they sound like my high school band! I played violin in the high school orchestra, not band, but our entire music program was outstanding in Joliet, Illinois, in the 1960s. During Saturday evening’s concert, I thought several times of fellow blogger Dawn King and how much she would have enjoyed being in the audience – or onstage!)

And earlier in the week we’d gone out to the movies, something we don’t do often. “The Hundred Foot Journey” at the Bay Theatre was all I’d hoped it would be. I recommended it enthusiastically to friends who went on Friday night and were not disappointed. Where is the nearest movie theatre to Grand Marais, Ellen?

What else? Oh, take a look at this modest little plant (above), turning from summer green to fall gold. I see it along West Street when I come the back way into town, and it never fails to remind me of Seney, where I first noticed the plant. But what is it? Do you know? I would be glad to be informed.

Oh, and after pulling all those wild grapevines and other weeds in the pile above, we took a lunch break at the Narrows -- a vacation hour in August! Nothing is more peaceful than waterlilies, don't you think? (Do you think? Which?)

Yellow-gold straw is being cut and baled on the back roads in Leelanau County. Goldenrod blooms along roadsides and across fallow fields, and in low spots Joe-Pye-weed has come into its own. No asters yet. They are still to come. In my meadow at home, for now, coneflowers reign supreme.

For teachers, this is the time of year that life speeds up, but for those of us in business in tourist areas, a considerable slow-down coincides with cooler nights and mornings -- and doesn’t it always feels as if we couldn’t have gone one more week at summer’s pace? Not true, I’m sure. I think it’s being in sight of “the barn” that brings on the exhaustion, and if we knew we had another month to go, we’d summon up the resources to handle it. Oh, but it’s delicious, the feeling of September coupled with not going back to school!

There's never enough time with friends, but you are on my mind more than you know.


Tuesday, August 26, 2014

We're Gonna go NUTS!

Lynne Rae & Bill Perkins, December 2013
No, we are not planning a winter holiday party (yet); the photo above is just a fun one of author Lynne Rae Perkins and her husband, furniture maker Bill Perkins, taken at Dog Ears Books last year at Glenn Wolff's book signing. Note gently mischievous grin. Anyone who knows Lynne Rae Perkins or reads her blog knows how much fun this creative artist/author is. She’s also Leelanau County’s only Newbery Medal winner, having received the award in 2006 for her YA novel Criss Cross, which you can read about here.

In 2012 Lynne Rae did something new for her, illustrating a book written by another author, and we had a big book party to introduce Esme Raji Codell’s Seed by Seed: The Legend and Legacy of John “Appleseed” Chapman, a party complete with heritage apples, apple-decorated cupcakes, apple cider, and a real live apple tree that a lucky customer took home, along with signed book purchase.

Lynne Rae’s recently released new book, in my opinion, deserves an award all its own. The Newbery committee chair said the last time around, of Criss Cross, that “Perkins writes an orderly, innovative, and risk-taking book in which nothing happens and everything happens.” While it isn’t true that “nothing happens” in Nuts to You—which has lots of action and suspense and many surprises—there’s a lot more “happening” besides a  plot with many twists and turns.

Chapters and pictures both
“What age would appreciate the story best?” a friend asked. I’d looked into the book enough to realize it’s what kids nowadays call a “chapter book,” and yet it also has illustrations throughout, so, based on that, I guessed middle elementary. A quick online search told me that, yes, the book is recommended for ages 8-10.

Then I started reading it.

You know how sometimes a book can be just too good for only a certain age level or even only for children? The kind of book that little kids and grownups adore equally and you feel sorry for those preteens and adolescents who will miss it because they think it isn’t grownup enough for them? That’s Nuts to You. I can already hear a little boy delighting in saying to his parents and older siblings, “Nuts to you!” and then explaining that he means it in a good way, a squirrel way! I also anticipate many adults who will begin reading the “Author’s Note,” as I did, expecting a straightforward how-I-got-the-idea-for-this-story story, and then find themselves hooting out loud with laughter at the author’s meeting with a talking squirrel—and at having a sense of fellow feeling for the squirrel.
“What I love most about peanut butter,” he said, “is how it transports me to my youth. The first taste always takes me back to the very first time I had it. For an instant, I am young again, and strong. And probably foolish.”
I didn’t care for peanut butter as a girl, but for all of us there are certain tastes that carry us back to childhood, and so the adult reader is hooked then and there.

Someone I love was slightly dubious. “You’re not an ordinary grownup,” he said (not for the first time; he says it to me often). But the next day he walked into the bookstore while I was reading a page of Nuts to You to two or three friends my age, and he laughed with delight along with them. “Is that the squirrel book you were talking about?!”

But I don’t want to quote a lot from the book or say too much about what happens in the story because every reader deserves the joy of surprise that comes with turning from one page to the next. I'll tell you that there are serious, weighty issues here, below the surface, but Perkins never lets issues overtake story: when she does turn “didactic” for a brief moment, even resorting to what would formally constitute a footnote, she does it with a gentle wink:
If someone, your teacher maybe, ever asks what “irony” or “being ironic” means, you can say it’s when a squirrel says, “our friend, the hawk,” and you will be right.
Adults who read this story to young children will take a tip, I hope, from the author and not go off on a tangent and start preaching to the kids about moral equality, fair play, race relations, natural habitat destruction, immigration, and so on. Stick with the story. It's a story of adventure and friendship. Little kids will want to hear it (and older kids read it) again and again. (Grownups, too.) The lessons will come through on their own. So will the humor.
Nuts to us all!
Book party with Lynne Rae Perkins is scheduled for Friday, September 19, from 5 to 7 p.m. If you can’t be with us that day, I’ll be happy to take your prepaid order and ship a signed book to you in the mail.

Warning: There will probably be nuts and peanuts and peanut and nut products at the party. I’m hoping Lynne Rae is not planning to bring any live squirrels. An apple tree was great; a squirrel, indoors -- maybe not. Anyone wanting to pretend to be a squirrel, however, is free to do so. 

Friday, August 22, 2014

A Few Local Farm Friends

Approaching the farm market in Northport

Friday mornings are a bit like holidays in Northport. That's when producers of local fruits and vegetables and meat and eggs, vendors of local bread and honey and jam and such, gather around the old Depot down by the marina, and everyone turns out with market baskets and shopping bags. 

I wrote the Bare Knuckle Farm people a check early in the season and have been drawing down on my credit. 
That would read "Northport" and "Michigan" if I'd gotten the whole sign
Here is just a tiny sample of beautiful things at their tent this morning.

The bread lady's line is always long. I got fooled because she was facing into the park rather than out onto the parking lot this time, but she'd been so busy when she arrived that the croissants hadn't even made it into the counter display.

As has become almost a weekly habit, I bought beef and bacon from the woman selling meat from pasture-raised livestock but didn't get a picture of her tent. If you squint through the bread lady's line, you may be able to catch a glimpse of the meat tent in the background. I didn't make it to the Idyll Farms tent this morning, knowing I can buy their goat cheese tomorrow across the street at Motovino at the end of the day.

My total expenditure this morning was $55 (including $18 deducted from my BK credit), and I feel great about the way I spent that money. Look at all this great, wholesome food (you can't see the meat because it's on top of the ice and underneath the vegetables): Swiss chard, fresh tomatoes, a couple of eggplants, sweet little cucumbers that look like "watermelons for Barbie," as someone remarked last year; bread and croissants; beef and bacon:

Everyone loves market day!
Last week, uncharacteristically, I missed market day in Northport, because friends with a share in a CSA down toward Cedar were out of town and offered us the chance to pick up their weekly portion. It had been a couple of years since we'd visited Jim and Judy Schwantes at Sweeter Song Farm, and the place and people and customers and ambiance were as wonderful as ever. 

 There were lovely, big, flat green beans that I cooked up with with ham the next day. Delicious! We also got one of the biggest kohlrabi I've ever seen, radishes, carrots, lettuce, beets -- what else? Oh! There, on the board below, you can read what each family's share included last week:

I like the little note in the bottom right corner saying that if there's anything in your share you don't want or can't use you should put it on the "Up for grabs" table, where anyone who wants to can help themselves. Great idea, isn't it? I also love seeing the chickens walking around in the sunshine, clucking happily.

After picking up the CSA share at Sweeter Song, we decided to visit another farm, down south of Cedar, to try their Mexican menu. We'd heard good things about it and were not disappointed.  

Hydroponic farming would not be the way I'd go -- I'm much too interested in soil -- but the greens we saw growing at Cedar Sol Hydro Farm looked beautiful, and my taco salad was enormous and delicious.

Summer bounty in Leelanau -- what can be better? 

Will there be more farming books coming in the UPS truck today? I live in anticipation!

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Down the Fictional Garden Lane

Image has no relation to text following

Jennifer is 33 years old, unmarried, “sturdy, heavy, shortlegged,” and has been a slave to her widower father for “twelve solid, faithful years” when, unexpectedly, “without saying a word to a soul,” that father comes home with a new wife, Netta, much younger even than Jennifer. Father is concerned that Jennifer will feel displaced and bitter, but his daughter’s overwhelming feeling is that of being released. Freedom! When her father and new bride leave for their honeymoon, buoyant Jennifer sings for joy. Her joy increases when she finds an advertisement for a couple of cottages to let by clergymen in Sussex, and off she goes by train to Sussex.

The first cottage doesn’t work out. That unmarried clergyman’s household is run by help who are afraid of him, and no one lasts long, and when he comes home to find Jennifer wearing his coat, thanks to one of the maids, he and Jen get off on the wrong foot right away. The second clergyman, also unmarried, is looking for a strong male renter, not a single woman, but he is under his sister’s thumb, and the sister agrees to let Jennifer have the cottage solely because her brother does not wish it.
Jen couldn’t believe her eyes when she first saw Rose Cottage—and indeed in anybody’s eyes, who should have been passing and not gone inside, it would have seemed extremely attractive. For one thing, you could hardly see it for roses; hence its name. And it had a thatched roof, and latticed windows, and a little garden with a brick path to its porch, and an orchard sloping part of the way up what she presently learned was Burden Down, and really it was exactly like the cottages artists paint.
So there our story begins: the “old maid” daughter, free at last; her demanding father, a well-known novelist; the father’s new young wife; a henpecked clergyman and his bossy, henpecking older sister; and an older, crotchety clergyman in the next-door parish. An astonishing number of cross-purposes and misunderstandings animate this simple village story. It isn’t that so very much happens in it but that the small things that happen create huge upheavals in the characters' lives, and the author opens the door into their thoughts and dreams, reflections and second thoughts, so we see all the inner doubts and hopes and concerns and misapprehensions (both positive and negative), all the things people are not saying to each other, all the changes of mind they go through and why, although sometimes the ‘why’ is not even immediately apparent to the character whose mind is changed. It's the god's-eye view, as a philosopher would say.

So there’s that, the characters’ inner lives, and there’s a lot of description of natural beauty and the charm of simple objects, such as cut roses in a teakettle. No one familiar with Elizabeth’s novel Enchanted April will be surprised or disappointed.

But who was this “Elizabeth,” and hadn’t she any other name? In fact, she had many.

Elizabeth von Arnim, as she is most often known, was born Mary Annette Beauchamp, according to Wikipedia. That was in Australia. The same source says she became a countess by marriage to the Count Henning August von Arnim-Schlagenthin but published under the name Elizabeth, rather than Mary. In fact, most of her books give no name beyond “Elizabeth” on cover or title page. She was taken from Australia to England by her parents at the age of three, later traveled in Italy where she met her first husband, and lived with that husband in Germany (Berlin and Pomerania). That she left him (there was a divorce) and returned to England helps explain part of the inspiration for Solitary Summer and Elizabeth and Her German Garden, as well as the strange and different Christine, a novel disguised as a series of letters from a daughter to her mother and published under the pen name Alice Cholmondeley. It’s fairly clear from these books that Mary/Elizabeth/Alice was not enchanted either by the Count or by his country.

After a second ill-fated marriage, this time to the elder brother of Bertrand Russell, the 2nd Earl Russell, Elizabeth fled to the United States but later recrossed the Atlantic to live again in London, as well as in France and Switzerland. World War II sent her back to the U.S., where she died in 1941 and was cremated, her ashes returned to England to be mingled with those of her brother. She was 74 at the time of her death. A complicated life, and yet in her writing --
Dear, simple things of life, thought Jen when, admiring her handiwork, she sat down to dinner. Wasn’t she happy? Wasn’t she just perfectly happy? She had flowers, she had sunshine, she had solitude, she had eggs and bacon....
What more could life offer?

Elizabeth von Arnim wrote and had published over 20 books in her lifetime, besides having children, dogs, and gardens, and she lived on three continents and several countries. Both of her husbands had titles. Most of the chief female characters in her novels, however, find their joy in simple country living. As for romance or passion in the novels, one can’t help wondering, even reading of those characters who find love, if Elizabeth herself didn’t regard physical love with suspicion, perhaps even repugnance. Thinking of a distant beloved often seems more satisfactory in her books than being with him. 

Whatever her own feelings might have been toward men in general and husbands in particular, the charm of Elizabeth's settings and the convincing way she allows a reader into her characters’ hearts and minds makes these books excellent escape reading. Even the very happily married woman can enjoy her stories.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Turn Back! This Way Lies Madness!

View from my bookstore counter

I’ve gotten into the habit this summer of telling people when they bring their chosen books to the counter, sometimes even before I start writing up the sale (if they’ve got a big stack or an expensive book), “I only take cash or check. No cards.” Better to let them know right away, up front—in case they missed the little sign on the front door, which is my early warning system. You might be surprised how seldom the no-cards reality presents an insurmountable problem. Someone will turn to a friend or a spouse and say, “Do you have cash?” or ask me for the location of the nearest ATM, or they’ll get out a checkbook or go into their secret, hidden cash stash. I’ve found that since I’ve become more up-front about what I accept for payment, I’m more relaxed, and my customers take it better, too. Almost always....

Then comes the rare exception, like the man at the counter on Saturday who told me high-handedly (reminding me of the Rebecca Solnit essay, “Men Explain Things To Me”) that I won’t last long in the business with such a policy. But I’m more relaxed about these rare remarks, too. After all, Borders came, and Borders went, and I’m still here. Of course, as I acknowledge with a smile, it’s only been 21 years, and there’s no telling what tomorrow will bring. I don’t add that there’s no telling what tomorrow will bring for any business, regardless of what kind of payments it accepts. It feels good not to go on the defensive and not to feel threatened.

But you know this is building up to something, right? The man on Saturday couldn’t stop telling me how my business should be run, even after he’d found a $100 bill in his wallet and been told with a smile that I’d been in business 21 years, because in his eyes I was still wrong. He couldn’t (or wouldn’t) let it go. “Well, it depends on how much money you want to make,” he remarked next. Okay, I could let that go by. But then he asked, flat-out--and I’m not making this up--“What’s your income?” Excuse me???!!!

Up to that point, I’d been good-natured and easy-going, despite the stress of a crowded shop and a fairly loud conversation going on right behind me, despite this man at the counter predicting my imminent business demise, but to be asked how much money I make pushed me over the edge. It shouldn’t have, but it did. I told him it was none of his business. And it was not his business, and he shouldn't have asked, but I could have gotten the message across more graciously, more kindly. He was probably just clueless about how to talk to a woman in business. (Or maybe anyone? Some people are just clueless. In fact, most of us are clueless about something--if not one thing, then another.) If nothing else, I could have said “None of your business” without modifying the noun. Yes, I modified the noun. No, it was not a gracious or even a necessary modification.

Then, on top of my harsh retort came laughter from one of the friends who’d been engaged in conversation before stopping to eavesdrop on an exchange he found more entertaining, and out the door the potential customer went, tail between his legs, no longer confident that he had all the answers.

Let me be clear. I’m not upset about losing the sale. Win some, lose some, and taking crap for a buck is not my way. It’s not that.

I wouldn’t change my message, either. It was not the man’s business, and it was rude of him to ask.

But his rudeness doesn’t excuse mine.

Humiliating him publicly, making him a laughingstock, was not my intention. It was, however, the consequence of the way I made my point. I could have drawn my boundary clearly by saying simply, “Thank you for your concern, but I do all right.” Instead, in responding the way I did, someone left my shop feeling worse than he’d felt coming in, and that goes against everything I want my bookstore to be, and for that I’m disappointed in myself. I failed in my own mission.

Do you see? It wasn’t about the money.

That’s not the end of the story, though. Curious about how other people would see the episode, I posted a paragraph on Facebook describing the incident. The results were interesting. One stream in the comment thread had to do with people rallying to my support, saying, “Good for you!” in many different ways. Well, good for me to draw a privacy boundary, I thought, but not good for me to have hurt someone’s feelings. The other comment stream was from those who, while sympathetic to my “plight,” nevertheless thought the man was right, i.e., that I should take credit cards. The people in that second stream took up a position, maybe expecting me to come over to their side, maybe expecting me at least to give an explanation for my ridiculous intransigence. For them it was a debate.

One Fb friend said she would have responded to the question “What’s your income?” with “You first!” Clever, I told her, but that response would imply a willingness to share the very information to which the questioner is not entitled. No, thanks! Another Fb friend commented that she would start shopping more often at my bookstore. Not sure how that connected to the incident, but regulars are always appreciated and welcome! And that’s my real point. I want everyone to feel welcome, and one man now won’t. I ruined it for him.

As I say, the Facebook conversation was interesting. I appreciate my friends’ support and am not offended by their advice, but neither comment stream addresses my real concerns. (1) Answering rudeness with rudeness does nothing to reduce rudeness in the world. (2) As for payment methods, as I told a friend many years ago, with regard to moving my bookstore from Traverse City (where I’d been for a little over two years) back to Northport (its place of origin), “It isn’t a debate. It’s a decision, and it's mine to make.”

Maybe someday some go-getting young couple will buy my business. They’ll put in sophisticated point-of-sale equipment to track inventory and customers. They’ll add credit and debit card capability. They’ll whip up a whole new streamlined website that lets customers halfway around the world order online and pay by credit card. They’ll sell e-books. Who knows what changes lie over the horizon? Maybe those energetic, visionary future owners will decide that a bricks-and-mortar store doesn’t make sense, and they’ll run the “bookstore” out of their basement at home. 

I am not those people. Their business is not mine. I’m here now.

Retail was never my big dream; it’s books I love. But I love my loyal customers and all the friends I’ve made over the years, and I love being my own boss, making my own decisions, and bringing my dog to work with me. For these rewards I have foregone a regular paycheck, sick leave, paid vacation, and a pension. It’s a  cost/benefit analysis, or sorts, but it's also a question of priorities. 

So the next time someone is rude to me I need to remember my own #1 priority: everyone who comes into my bookstore should feel at least as good going out as they did coming in. Many feel better when they leave, and that feels like success.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Putting My Money Where My Mouth Is, Part I (The Big Unveiling)

UPS came today with the shipment I’ve been eagerly awaiting. Here’s the story.

People often ask me (because so much of my stock is used books), “Do you buy books?” Yes, I do, both new ones and old ones--it's impossible to have a really good collection without making at least occasional good purchases--but I buy, of necessity, very, very selectively. No bookseller lasts 21 years in the business by buying everything. Dog Ears Books was originally Dog Ears Used Books, and it was only after half a dozen years of sending potential customers elsewhere when they asked for new nature field guides that I set up my first account with a new books distributor. Guides to birds, wildflowers, trees and such, then, were the first new books I stocked. Next came specific Michigan titles and children’s books. After a few more years I connected with a second, larger distributor, giving me the capability to order almost any new book anyone wants.

As for which new books I order for store stock—“on spec,” as it were—I'm still careful. Demand for hardcover bestsellers usually sends people to cut-rate online sites, and paperback bestsellers are available at grocery and big box stores. So I’m careful. Buying inventory is an investment, and deciding where to put the money in a business is an important decision, regardless of how small the business may be.

One of my personal interests for decades, however, has been agriculture. My fascination may go back as far back as childhood, when one Ohio grandmother had a cow and chickens (and an outhouse and pump for plumbing), and at home in Illinois we watched the sun set behind the cornfield—soybeans in alternating years—across the road. Oh, yes, and I yearned for a horse, too. But whenever that farming seed was planted in my soul, it took hold early and stayed strong. I’m always happy to recommend Louis Bromfield’s Malabar Farm, the books of Gene Logsdon, and anything by Wendell Berry. I have old Yearbooks of Agriculture in stock, and just the other day a customer came along for an old copy Forage Crops. I’ve also (and have written about this before) subscribed for a couple of years now to AcresUSA...

...And so (flourish of trumpets), meet my new distributor, AcresUSA, and the first order I've received from them:

I am very, very excited to expand my new book offerings in agriculture this way. Added to what I was already carrying, the section is looking very good indeed. 

But poets, never fear! New poetry books, already a mainstay, will continue to be prominently featured in the front of the store.

Farming and poetry. Poets and farmers. I stand behind them. I support them by putting my business money where my mouth is.

Part II of "Putting My Money Where My Mouth Is" will have nothing to do with books. Stay tuned for that surprise project, to be announced as soon as I get it together.