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Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Where the Past Never Dies

In a recent issue of the e-mail book world newsletter “Shelf Awareness,” the “Quotation of the Day” came from a bookseller opening a new shop on September 1, who said he thought of a bookstore as a “cultural anachronism.” He meant it (as one would have hoped) in the best possible way:
... A place where time itself seems to slow. People linger. Few are ever in much of a rush or put out by a line. We've all made a decision about what we value more than a discount.

Maybe this is what people really mean when they talk about their love of the smell of a bookstore. The anachronism of ink and pulp amidst the daily sterility of point and click.

If you are interested in more of what Brad had to say, follow this link.

My own experience (24+ years of running my own indie bookstore in northern Michigan) tells me that many people my age who deserted print books are coming back to them and, moreover, that much younger people, who grew up with electronics and take them for granted, are discovering physical books with wonder and awe. One lovely day near the end of summer three girls in their early teens were combing my shelves for the oldest books they could find that would fit their budgets. Their eager questions about copyright and printing dates or lack thereof led me to point out differences in paper quality, binding, and illustration. They could not have been more attentive. They purchased their treasures and came back in the afternoon for Round 2, eagerly shopping the past. A couple of weeks before that a young father had earnestly impressed on his child that “This book was published when Thomas Jefferson was alive!” Yes, he bought that book, too.

Some scholars and commentators have remarked, in loving, neutral, or derogatory language, depending on their own perspectives and purposes, on books as “fetish objects.” (Here is a sampling of articles—x, y, z—and you can easily find more yourself.) I would remind those who look down on our love for physical books that we ourselves are physical creatures, not immaterial angels but living, breathing animals, borne of earth, mortal, gravity-bound, and conscious of our ultimate earthly destiny, death. Is it any wonder, facing our own time limits, that we are fascinated by objects that predated our births and can easily live far beyond us? The added attraction of these artifacts, of course, is that they contain thoughts – dreams – ideas – memories – which means that human minds can outlive human bodies and speak beyond the grave to later generations.

Part of my life-long fascination with Modern Library books is their hand-friendly size, and there is something quite endearing about books that size or smaller to many book-lovers, so you can easily see how this tiny volume, printed in Glasgow in 1836, charms me for its size and its binding. The ninth edition of The National Minstrel: A Collection of Popular Songs, containing only lyrics, no music, you might expect as I did to find numerous copies available, but I found the work only in libraries. (All the photos in today's post are of this little book.) Doubtless because it was so common and widely printed and purchased, the little book was not considered valuable in its time and so was not carefully preserved. As with those once-ubiquitous Dick-and-Jane readers, however, its survival intact is what today gives value to The National Minstrel. Its rarity – and its charm.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

We Came Back Early

A week or so before we left, we thought of going somewhere different this September, but when the time came we were too tired for adventures, and it seemed the wiser course to steer for the Mackinac Bridge, as usual, and “do the things we always do,” as David put it. 

And so our first stop was Bentley’s Cafe in St. Ignace. Nothing has changed at Bentley’s, thank heaven! The malts are as thick and delicious as ever and still served in the tall chrome container in which they’re mixed, and our Finnish waitress is as teasing and funny as the last time we were there. In a world of rapid, mind-bending, swirling storms of novelty and obsolescence, it’s reassuring to find an anchor here and there.

Another reassuring anchor over near Brevort is friend Mary Carney’s bookstore on Worth Road, First Edition, but the shop was locked, and Mary and Warren nowhere in sight. I left a note. They’d only gone out for tacos, we learned the next day, but they could have been in Petoskey, appraising a private library, for all we knew, so we missed visiting Mary’s shelves this trip.

But we stayed on Worth Road, angling back northeast (wrong direction) until an intersection presented itself and then wandered and zig-zagged pleasantly along back roads, happy to be away from truck traffic on U.S. 2, until we reached M28, the other main east-west highway, and soon we were in Seney and turning north to Grand Marais.

A friend of mine took her children to the U.P. once, many years ago (a trip they never repeated), and reported to me in exasperation that it was “nothing but trees!” I see it very differently, terrain and plant life changing from mile to mile, with stretches so beautiful they break my heart. Also, after decades on these same roads, David and I “see” numerous milestones along the way that are invisible to other travelers: There is the place where that beautiful trailer was for sale. Remember? There’s the shack that once had a yard sale where I bought a pair of boots. Another yard sale, there where the old motel used to be, produced a cool pair of vintage sunglasses. We spent a long, claustrophobic but memorable hour or so tucked into a two-track, right there, during a rain so hard we couldn’t see to drive -- and it was just lucky that my old truck did not break down then but waited until we reached Grand Marais! A tiny river explored with the old dog ... another river captured in one of David’s dreamlike paintings ... the rest stop where the chatty ranger held us captive with tales of his life ... another yard sale, the one where I bought a pair of bookends the old man had made himself back in high school shop class ... the two-track leading off to an old pond (dam and pond no longer there), the only place we’ve ever seen a lynx ... the stretch of road where I spotted the bear -- and would never tell the guys around the coffee table in G.M. where I’d seen it. We “see” all these memories along the way, and so the road is rich and full, and time goes quickly.

Every year we find a few changes in Grand Marais but never – so far – too many. Rick G. and Ellen are still at the West Bay Diner, and Rick C. and Mary have taken over the Superior Hotel since Bessie’s passing, and the Dunes Saloon rocks on under its new name, Lake Superior Brewing Company (but always and forever the Dunes Saloon to us). The grocery store and hardware store are still in business, bank and post office still going strong, and our picnic table out on Coast Guard Point is right where we left it, though it was too windy there for the picnic we planned the next day, and we decamped to the more sheltered shore of Grand Sable Lake, where I did not this year, emerging from a terrible head cold, go for my usual September swim. Also, the pair of birds we wanted to see as loons turned out to be cormorants. But we were not complaining. Everything that was, was as it should be.

In some years past, we have made lengthy forays out from our base camp at the Superior Hotel, sometimes as far west as the Keweenaw or north all the way to Wawa, Ontario. Not this year. David was coming down with the cold from which I was emerging, and R&R was our self-prescription -- not Rest & Recreation, either, this time around so much as Rest & Recuperation. As darkness fell, David could be found taking in the Ken Burns special on Vietnam down in the hotel parlor, while I stretched out upstairs with my book.

We did make one small expedition over to Munising, after fortifying ourselves with biscuits and gravy at the Diner. In the old days, before H58 was paved, taking the shoreline road to Munising was an exciting and somewhat hair-raising safari. Blowing and windblown sand between the dunes on Lake Superior and Grand Sable Lake were only the beginning. Farther into the forest, wide, rain-filled potholes awaited, sometimes stretching the width of the road, with no indication how deep they might be. Reaching the paved stretch beginning around Melstrand felt like hard-won victory!

Now the road is paved all the way, and it’s smooth cruising. David loves it. My own feelings are mixed. I appreciate it, and I realize how important it is for those living and working along the Big Lake and needing to make regular trips back and forth, and yet I miss the adventure of the old road, too. Well, okay. I’m glad I have the memories of the way it used to be. Regardless of road surface, H58 still goes to Munising by way of beautiful Kingston Lake and my beloved Kingston Plains (above), and that makes me happy.

One year we took the boat cruise along the Pictured Rocks, and I always recommend it to others traveling north from Leelanau County, but our own sight-seeing in Munising this year was tamer, and it began with the post office. I thought I remembered a big W.P.A. mural. Apparently I was thinking of a different U.P. post office, but it was a happy error, because by going inside we were able to visit another W.P.A.-era instance of public art, a relief sculpture by Ohio-born artist Hugo Robus. The pleasant woman behind the counter sold me postcard stamps and gave us an information handout on the art.

Familiar with the artist’s name, David hoped to learn more about the material and process, but the handout said nothing of that. There was one brief paragraph about the artist’s background, and the rest of the two pages explained the legend that had inspired Mr. Robus.

The main figure in the sculpture is the Nanabozsho, “scattering the mud which the beaver has brought up from the bottom of the lake” to create the three offshore islands, of which Grand Island, or Gitche Menesing (as Robert Wright spelled it), is the most important. Since my vacation reading was Windigo Moon, with many chapters set on Kitchi-Minissing (as Robert Downes spells it), I appreciated the art work all the more on that account, while David speculated that the material used was probably Portland cement, sealed with wax. We both liked very much the explanation of the most important animal depicted: “The beaver who succeeded in his attempt to bring mud from the lake’s bottom lies upon his side exhausted.” That beaver did look worn out!

Another bit of sight-seeing perhaps peculiar to us was the roofless remains of an old building stretching back to a quiet alley. What did it used to be? What could it become? A patio restaurant and outdoor sculpture gallery? Our fevered imaginations could readily see it transformed. 

As always, for me, the little details were captivating. But, as the old Greek said, We came, we saw, we went away again.

And I was happy to get back to Grand Marais before the West Bay Diner closed at 6 o’clock for a piece of Ellen’s raspberry pie and visit with her. Friday we enjoyed our third morning coffee with Rick at the hotel but agreed it felt like time to go home. A couple of pasties from Lehto’s before the Bridge made a satisfying lunch, and a quick stop to cool our traveling feet at Elk Rapids reminded us how beautiful our own home corner of Michigan is, too.

A migraine hit me that evening at home and kept me laid low all the next day, but I think it was Nature’s way of telling me, Oh, no! You are still on vacation! No going back to work this weekend! David’s cold was telling him the same thing, and the unseasonably warm temperatures underlined the warning. Okay, we’ll rest some more! We did work hard all summer, and it’s going to be a busy fall, too.

Friday, September 15, 2017

What Can One Small Person Do?

Ten-year-old needs a little break

First things first: my schedule for September, somewhat complicated, but I’ll try to make it clear.

Friday, Sept. 15, I’ll be closing at 4 p.m.

Saturday, Sept. 16, I’ll be opening late (following an 11 o’clock memorial service up the hill) but will be open until 5 p.m.

Then, from Sunday, Sept. 17, through Monday, Sept. 25, the bookstore will be closed for vacation.

I’ll be back in the shop on Tuesday, with regular hours (11-5) Tuesday and Wednesday and Friday and Saturday, plus the evening event with author Bob Downes on Thursday, Sept. 28, at 7 p.m. (see sidebar).

*  *  *

Okay, now to come back to our sheep -- or, more literally, to books –

Last Wednesday, Sept. 13, I attended a book event at Trinity Congregational Church. Mistakenly, I expected the book’s author, Sarah Van Gelder, to be in attendance, but it turns out she will be in town on Oct. 7, and meanwhile people in town were getting together for a preliminary discussion of her book, The Revolution Where You Live: Stories From a 12,000-Mile Journey Through a New America.

Some people at the church on Wednesday evening had read the book; others (like me) were about halfway through it; and a few had not yet started. Presenters Nancy Fitzgerald and Marie-Helena Gaspari, however, had prepared and led us through a set of exercises to generate discussion and get everyone thinking about questions we might want to ask Sarah Van Gelder when she comes to town. The presenters did a magnificent job. The meeting only took an hour (with cookies and lemonade afterward), and it was an hour very, very well spent.

One woman admitted she had postponed opening the book because she was afraid it would be just one more “Ain’t it awful?” collection of horror stories around the country. Nothing, she realized when she finally started reading, could be further from the truth. Avoiding the big cities on the east and west coasts, Van Gelder visited reservations, small towns, Midwestern rust belt cities, and communities in Appalachia, finding everywhere people who loved their homes and were finding ways to come together to overcome racism, inequality, environmental threats, and unemployment. She met with activists of every stripe and learned that the solutions people were attempting to put into place were always unique to those communities, their histories and their specific challenges.

For me, a theme that ran throughout the book was restoration. Early in the book Van Gelder met with ranchers in Montana practicing restorative grazing, sometimes called mob grazing, a practice I first read about in the magazine Acres USA. Before the book ends, she has encountered a Virginia town dedicated to restorative justice, a process whereby those convicted of violent crime can begin to make amends to victims and be re-integrated into the community rather than becoming life-long outcasts. In between were burned-out city neighborhoods being restored to productive local food-growing projects and employee-owned businesses restoring dignity to owner-workers. And the stories in the book connected not only with my readings in eco-agriculture but also to more recent readings I’ve been doing in ecological economics and steady-state economy, work both by and inspired by the work of economist Herman E. Daly, so that I feel much as I did my first semester in college, learning many new things and seeing many connections across exciting disciplines.

Another participant confided to me quietly that she felt the tasks to be accomplished in our country were huge and overwhelming. Well, they are huge, and they certainly can be overwhelming, and I certainly know the feeling she was talking about. I think it’s like preparing to move from one house to another: You look at everything that has to be packed up and transported, and what needs to be done looks impossible. All you can do is start with one room or even one closet or a single kitchen drawer and make progress little by little.

For myself, I think the biggest challenge is not the enormous size of the task but how easily I can be paralyzed at the thought of my own smallness. Another message of Van Gelder’s book, however, is that people do not have to be wealthy or hold political clout to come together and accomplish crucially important work for their communities.

When I come back to my bookstore after a few days of vacation, I’ll be hosting an author presentation and book signing, and to be perfectly honest I had a little anticipatory trepidation about the book that I did not share with the author. I’m always a little apprehensive when non-Native writers create Native American characters in their fiction. I have enough confidence in Bob Downes that I know he is respectful of Native culture and history – he not only did considerable research but is also learning the Anishnabe language – but there are still sometimes touchy feelings about who gets to tell whose stories, and not all non-Native writers are as serious as Bob when injecting Native culture into their fiction.

So now, to answer Sarah Van Gelder’s question about what “one small [specific] person” (me) can do to help my community, I want to collect a diverse audience for Bob’s events – not only ethnically diverse, but diverse in terms of age – and I’ll be taking proactive steps to try to make that happen.

A bookstore, after all, especially a small, independent bookstore in a little northern village, is all about connections. Someone the other evening had the kindness to refer to my bookstore as one local “pocket of hope.” Now it’s up to me to live up to that challenging designation.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

I Am Ten Years Old

I'll explain at the end.
Ten! Not my bookstore. Dog Ears Books is (only!) 24 years old. And not me personally (and never mind about that number). No, it’s “Books in Northport” that is officially ten years old today, September 13, 2017, marking a complete decade since my first blog post.

Who would ever have imagined it a decade ago? David and I did not even have Sarah yet! It’s possible her actual birth occurred on this very day, though I use September 10 as her birthday, since when we found her at the Cherryland Humane Society and adopted her on January 10 we were told she was four months old. But the blogging bug had bitten me earlier, back at the beginning of the autumn of 2007.

In September 2007 I set out on an experiment. Looking back now, I’m glad to have taken advantage of this modest form of self-expression because, thanks to a decade of entries, I can look back not only at words but also at images from my life, from random sights I would otherwise have easily forgotten to carefully planned personal or community events. My “Books Read” lists, visiting authors and family, friends old and new, vacations, rambles (mental and physical), and more than a few rants (though belatedly I set up “Lacking a Clear Focus” for the least bookish of my opinions and other life flotsam) – all these form the log book of my journey over the past ten years. I did not, in 2007, imagine ten years of blogging. But neither did I foresee, in 1993, 24 years of bookselling. “I always wondered,” someone said to me once on a very different subject, “how it happens. And now I see. It happens one day at a time.”

A notion that fascinates me is a little pop meme going around, to the effect that each of us has a “true age” that captures our essence. You’ve heard it said of a toddler or a puppy, “She’s an ‘old spirit.’” Certain individuals seem to be born wise beyond their years – or prematurely middle-aged – while others of us retain a certain childishness (not to put too fine a point on it) clear into old age. No doubt there are self-tests one can take to determine one’s “true age,” but as soon as David and I understood the idea, we needed no tests to know that he is 14 years old and I am 10.

Ten years old. Fourth grade, crazy over Walter Farley’s The Black Stallion, suffering the pangs of transition from child to pre-adolescent. Socially awkward, physically immature, intellectually curious, and quivering with secret fears and dreams, at the age of ten I was more comfortable exploring the natural world of the world of books on my own than venturing into “society.” This has not changed, but I have come to recognize shyness and uncertainty in others, and when they enter my bookstore world I try to make them feel welcome and comfortable.

And now “Books in Northport” is as old as I am (or as my soul is). Back in the mid-20th century when I was born mankind knew only handwritten diaries, but guess what: these very words that you are reading now in Bookman Old Style font on your lighted screen first came into the world on the yellow pages of a legal pad, scrawled in pen, in the pre-dawn hours of a cool August morning (I was planning ahead), as a ten-year-old girl disguised as an aging woman sat on a porch light near an open window, dog by her side.

Will I ever grow up? Doubtful. Will I live forever? Impossible. But we are here now, you and I, on this beautiful, crazy, cruel, and miraculous planet, and I am glad for your company. Thank you for your company on my journey.

That horse up there at the top of the post? Well, you know, I am stillcowgirl in my dreams!

And for those who like counting, this is post #1721.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

When Does Summer End?

The official first day of autumn this year is September 22, making the 21st the last official day of summer, but for many families of schoolchildren and for those whose traditional minds can’t help seeing Memorial Day and Labor Day as summer’s bookends, the season ended last weekend For some others (I heard them muttering!) the end came earlier, with a couple of summer vacationers in late August shivering in their jackets and sweatshirts, feeling that fall had arrived in northern Michigan before they got here. Isn’t that always the way, though? Beginnings and endings of seasons are not like doors opening and closing all at once. Any two adjacent seasons interpenetrate and play tug-o’-war for a while before settling down to the new one.

For many years, David and I used to take off for the U.P. the Tuesday after Labor Day. (Once we fled north on Labor Day itself but only had to learn that lesson once, sitting for hours in a long line of unmoving traffic during the annual Mackinac Bridge walk.) Northport, however, is livelier these days than it was a dozen years ago: no one is rolling up the sidewalks yet, a week into September, though there are more strolling older couples now than young families in town. Two years ago we didn’t make our getaway until October, and it was short then. So yes, there have been changes over the years, some more gradual than others.

But this year has been entirely different in one very important way, and that has been David’s one-man exhibition at the Dennos Museum Center in Traverse City. A career milestone for him, it has been the focus of the season for both of us, and that’s why my bookstore, open on Labor Day itself until 3:30, was closed the Wednesday following Labor Day when old friends from Kalamazoo came up to see the show.

Since David and I were at the museum before our friends, I took the opportunity to photograph the artist with several of his paintings (below), photographing individual paintings, also, and several more inclusive groupings (above). 

When they arrived, of course my camera and I were eager to capture David and our friends surrounded by his work.

I guess it rained a bit while we were in the museum. I didn’t notice. We toured the sculpture of Sally Rogers and the Inuit gallery, as well as David’s painting exhibit, explained the new additions underway, and our friends were quite impressed by the museum in general.

Tearing ourselves away at last, we adjourned to downtown and, creatures of habit, suggested to our friends Cafe Amical, an iconic Traverse City restaurant for (I’m going to say) 23 years. Our table was back by the fireplace, and so, again, I didn’t notice any rain until we left the restaurant to stroll up and down a couple blocks of Front Street and saw that the pavement was gleaming wet. Anyway, the rain had let up, and we had dry walking, and coming back east on the other side of the street, we stopped in at the old U&I (an even older landmark than Amical) for one last round of drinks and then strolled together to the big new parking structure down by the Park Place.

(It occurs to me that I’ll probably be saying “the new parking structure” as long as I live, just as the Civic Center, or whatever it’s called, will always be, to me, “the old fairgrounds.”)

Old friends! Time together! David’s beautiful show! One more Kalamazoo friend comes up on Friday, and then Saturday will be the last day of the exhibit, and we will go in Sunday to pack up the paintings, and that will be the close of summer for us. But oh, what a summer it has been! One for the memory book!