Notes from a Bookshop: Early Summer, or Six Months In
July 3, 2013 | by Kelly McMasters
Wear the old coat and buy the new book. —Austin Phelps
When I tell people I run a bookshop, they often respond with envy or admiration. But first, a funny look flashes across their face—sometimes fleeting, sometimes not. A look that says, Poor girl. A look that says, She must be daft.
I am not daft. It’s no secret that the bookstore industry is in trouble, and, six months into this experiment, I still don’t know if this dream is viable. Aside from the question of whether people will buy books or will simply use the shop to browse and then order from Amazon when they get home—or, as Michele Figlate’s fantastic Center For Fiction piece flays, order from their iPhone on the spot using our free Wi-Fi—there are the more prosaic reasons I may not be cut out to run a small business, like quarterly taxes and mopping the floor. But people’s love of books is not something I lose much sleep over.
I’m a romantic, but I’m also a pragmatist. I did not open Moody Road Studios and assume it would pay my home mortgage or student loan, or even for my dark chocolate habit. Like many writers, I survive by keeping a dozen lines in the water. So I write. And edit. And review. And copyedit. And teach. I love each of these things and feel fortunate to be able to do work that I love and get paid for it. And I knew that in order to open this shop, I would need to continue to do all of these things in order to make it work. I won’t necessarily make money, but I can’t afford to lose any money either.
I also approached the bookshop as a way to continue to be part of the writing community after I moved away from New York City. So much more is possible because of the Internet these days, of course, and as Jason Boog’s recent GalleyCat piece points out in its seemingly obvious headline, “Writers Live Everywhere.” But leaving was still scary. In one quick cut I lost my workshop group, easy access to my friends and professors from graduate school, the classes I taught and the campus perks (free photocopies and air conditioning!), my favorite reading series and bookstores. I also left my favorite places to write, the tangential friendships with other writers whose orbit I happened to inhabit, the potential to bump into editors and agents and magazine staff while out for a drink or coffee. The physical act of writing can be accomplished anywhere, but writing and being a writer are two different things. I didn’t really understand the extent of the community I was letting go until I had already left.
This could be because after nearly fifteen years living in New York, I was so wrung out I could barely see at all. As a writer working alone in a tiny corner of the city, the intensity of the place can be crushing. I liked working late at night best, when the tires of passing taxis sloshing through puddles were often the main sounds punctuating the darkness. At night, the energy calmed, gave me more space for my thoughts.
In the city, our ears get numb to the air traffic, the vehicular traffic, the foot traffic, and our bodies adapt, like some form of protective evolution. I used to live on Spring Street across from the Ear Inn and I remember steeling myself to open the door and propel my body down the block and east of Broadway, mentally creating a forcefield between me and those about to bump and shove and jostle me. Especially in summer, the physicality of the city is draining—the heat of so many bodies, the sticky stench, everyone wrapped in the gauze of filth that sticks to the inside of your nose and the bottom of your feet. Just getting from one place to the next is tough enough, much less mustering the focus and creativity to write a decent sentence.
In the years before I moved up to rural Pennsylvania full-time and I was still splitting my week between the two places, people would ask me how the writing experience differed between them. I came to the conclusion that I wrote much more and faster in the city, pushed to produce, produce, produce, attempting to keep up with and compete with the energy surrounding me. There was this feeling that if I slowed for even a minute in New York I would be trampled—on the street, in my head, in my writing, it’s all the same. Up in the country I found that I wrote much more slowly, both in tempo and page number, but I managed to turn out finished drafts much sooner. My pages were cleaner, crisper, calmer. What took five or six drafts in the city was worked out in three while staring into my fields of milkweed. I could find and get to my point, drill down deeper, get my brain and heart to that liquid place necessary to connect with the page.
Many writers I know thrive on that frenetic energy the city pumps out. For me, once I was able to disconnect, I found that slow unfurling into the country rhythm to be so much more productive. I have never been one to sit in a café or stuff my ears with headphones while I write. I much prefer the soundtrack of the frogs, the coyote, and the birdsong. The other week, in need of a stretch, I walked into a nearby field and heard the flapping of wings overhead even before I caught the familiar honk of the geese. I didn’t know that was possible. Two nights ago, typing on my couch near an open window around nine at night, there was a sudden lull in the calls of the birds and the silence made me look up from the screen. There, skulking along the edges of the vegetable garden was a giant bobcat, tail kinked behind him like a kind of antennae, prowling for rabbits among the raspberry bushes. That slow padding along is exactly how I felt on the page at that moment—deliberate, focused, hunting for the next line.
The same goes for the shop. Books just feel different to me out here. In the city, I took for granted that in most places I lived I had a neighborhood bookstore, and I never had to walk more than a few blocks to get my fix. At various times I’ve been a regular at BookCourt, Housing Works, the Strand, McNally Jackson (when it was McNally Robinson), and Book Culture (when it was Labyrinth). I traveled to get to 192 Books and Greenlight, but never more than one or two chapter-lengths on a subway train.
I hadn’t realized how I’d hungered for books here until I saw that desire reflected in the eyes of my customers. Last week, a woman came in, ran her hand along some of the spines in a bit of a loving trance and then turned to me in surprise, asking, “Wait, are these for sale?” When you live in the country, an hour from the nearest mall, Amazon and e-readers really are the closest you can get to real live books. Used books abound in antique and thrift shops, library and church sales, but new books are a novelty. I think this reality is difficult for people living in New York or any other metropolis or suburb to understand.
This reminder not to take books for granted—that a book is still a precious object that can inspire wonder—was exactly what I needed, as a writer and a reader. It isn’t just the books themselves, of course. It is the exposure every day to people who walk in and coo over an illustrated version of The Elements of Style or Tender Buttons. It’s the amount of modern poetry that flies out my door (in rural Pennsylvania!). It’s listening to two young girls talk about the four jobs they have between them as they circle the shop, weighing the piles of books in their hands and knowing their purchases will mean the end of their shopping for the day (the week?), then seeing their excitement as they decide they just can’t live without each other’s favorite book recommendations (Lolita and Anna Karenina).
It’s feeling so full that your heart might burst, even though a moment before you hadn’t realized it had been barely beating.
Right now, the scent of a one-hundred-year-old rose is trailing into the shop from the garden a few steps from my blue door. Earlier today, chatting with Bill in the neighboring Milkweed store, I watched a tractor driving down Main Street, no one giving the Day-Glo orange a second glance, the impossibly giant tires bouncing the driver along as he shifted. A customer who has become a friend delivered some handmade jam the other day, and another artist friend dropped off a bushel of peaches from a trip to South Carolina. Someone else came in and talked for an hour about his writer’s block, and another about feeling disconnected from his current series of paintings and struggling to find his voice. Over the past few months, the shop has begun to give me much more than the kind of networking I thought I was after when my body was here but my brain was still stuck in New York City.
This past weekend, after closing up the shop, I took a ride with a photographer friend to Mildred’s Lane, an artist community deep in the woods just outside town. Every few weeks in the summer they open the space up to the public for one of their Social Saturday gatherings with tours and dinner and an artist talk, and this night happened to feature Ethan Hauser, author of The Measures Between Us, the first writer they’ve invited. My friend and I walked the mile of rutted, muddy road with two farmer friends and milled around the property’s stunning collection of semirestored barns and eccentric tiny structures.
I found Ethan standing with the artist Mark Dion and chatted with them while sipping some beer. Ethan’s book was about to be released into the world, and Mark had just returned from Alaska for some work on an installation and told us how he’d found the amount of trash on remote beaches startling—shipping containers regularly topple over and spill their contents, the beaches awash in plastic flyswatters sporting team logos or whatever junk is making its way over from China. Somehow we got onto his childhood obsession with dinosaurs and I suddenly understood his work in a way I hadn’t previously. It felt strangely natural to talk to these men, one an editor at the New York Times and the other the subject of an Art 21 documentary, in the middle of these Pennsylvania woods, like slipping into my old New York self but without dragging around the weight of that protective forcefield.
We all settled into dinner at an ingenious and plain plank table stretching out from the barn like a long tongue. An inventive farm-to-table dinner created by guest chef Athena Kokoronis was passed around, from handmade pasta to seaweed to unadorned hakurei turnips, and another friend’s toddler hopped around in nothing but her shoes, displaying her proud belly. After we were all full from seconds, dishes were collected for the communal wash line and then folks gathered near the barn, directed by the sharp whistle of conceptual artist J. Morgan Puett, Mildred’s Lane cofounder and mistress of ceremonies.
The sun set across the tops of the surrounding hemlocks and we shuffled into the barn to crunch on watermelon slices and listen to a discussion between Ethan and Mark. The sky changed from blue to navy to black as the talk touched on process and craft and instinct and gut, about balancing art with the work that pays.
The discussion was spirited and the crickets and frogs had started. The night cooled and blankets were passed around and I leaned into my little wooden chair, relaxed from the food and beer. Ethan and Mark spoke candidly about fear and the feeling of holding your own novel in your hand for the first time, as bats darted in and out of the hayloft above our heads and then a flurry of fireworks exploded just behind the hills, all noise and no sparkle. Near the end, as they worried the fate of bookstores in the age of the e-book, the men and their jelly jars of water were framed by candles and moonlight and fireflies.
In that golden moment, the question seemed blissfully irrelevant.
Kelly McMasters is a writer living in northeast Pennsylvania. Her book, Welcome to Shirley: A Memoir from an Atomic Town, inspired the documentary The Atomic States of America, a Sundance 2012 selection. Her essays, reviews, and articles have appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post Magazine, The American Scholar, Newsday, River Teeth, and Tin House, among others. She recently opened Moody Road Studios with her husband, artist Mark Milroy, in Honesdale, Pennsylvania. They hope you come and visit!