Penn Valley, CA :: Kate just told me that I stress her out more than any person she knows. I wanted to point out a few obvious exceptions – Hitler, Pol Pot, swine flu – but I didn’t go there. So I stress her out more than any person she knows; it’s not hard to see why: this afternoon I came to her with another idea.
Amidst the never-ending stream of my bright ideas, there is one dream Kate and I keep coming back to. We’ve talked for a couple years now about buying a little acreage with Dave and Kristialyn, producing as much of our own food as possible, putting down roots, and living life within a specific geographical, cultural, and community context. But we get discouraged because it feels like we’ve been priced out of the market. Property is expensive. We don’t feel like we should work office jobs we hate in order to enjoy our homestead for a couple hours a night before bed, with occasional weekend visits. (I don’t mean jobs that are hard. I mean jobs that are inharmonious with our values and priorities.) Nor do we want to wait for retirement. Why work for forty years at jobs we “hate” in the vague hope that once we retire we can finally live a life that is consistent with our principles, as well as our deep desires? This amounts to a hatred of the present tense, with no guarantee that we’ll make it to retirement anyway, and it requires us to compartmentalize our lives in a way that can’t but damage our spirits.
Going back even further to when we were just married, Kate and I had a different vision for our lives. We talked about opening up a little bookstore in some little town. I’d be in charge of the bookselling, Kate would make pastries and coffee. Between customers I would write my own books. Our little shop would sell both new and used volumes, and I would be able to promote books and authors I like. I’m not sure what happened to this particular dream. We held on to it for a while, but it got buried by the demands of daily living.
Driving around Grass Valley today, I was again discouraged by how out of reach our little piece of land seems. Then I remembered that other dream, the bookstore.
It just so happens that I’m getting ready to re-read Wendell Berry’s novel, “Jayber Crow,” for an essay I have to write. And driving around I remembered that, unlike most of the characters in Berry’s fiction, which centers around the community of Port William, Kentucky, Jayber Crow was not a farmer. Jayber’s skill was barbering. When Jayber made his way to Port William, the town happened to need a barber, and so Jayber took over the chair.
Jayber Crow performed several services essential for community life. Besides cutting hair, Jayber’s barber shop became a meeting place. Whether they needed a cut or not, men were always stopping by to share the latest news, catch up, or just watch life happen on the street outside the shop window.
No kidding, I believe access to a good local bookstore is essential to the health of a community. Bookshops are businesses, and local bookshops are local businesses. They are storehouses of knowledge and wisdom and renewal. (The word “store” comes from the Latin word meaning “to renew,” though I write this post on Black Friday, when few retailers seem especially concerned about renewal.) They can be gathering places, houses of hospitality. I also believe bookselling can be a vocation, in the sense of using one’s gifts – time, abilities, and resources – for the common good. (As one example, it seems like the folks at Hearts & Minds Bookstore in Pennsylvania approach bookselling as a vocation.)
So today I approached Kate with an idea – really a melding of two ideas: moving to a little town somewhere that needs and can support a bookstore, a town in proximity to trees, water, and room to walk; introducing ourselves to the community; renting until we can afford to buy, and then buying from a neighbor. Besides its vocational aspects, there is another, more selfish reason I like this idea. There is no work I enjoy more (or feel more called to) than my own writing, but I can’t support the family that way right now. If I had to pick an alternate way to make a living, running a bookstore would be it. So much so that when my writing career does take off, I believe I will want to hang on to the bookstore. These seem like all-important consideration.
I’m not sure how this fits in with On the Narrow Road. I don’t see how it conflicts, since it must take longer than a year to set something like this up. For starters, I don’t know how to find a town that fits the above criteria. I suppose we have to stumble upon it. Like when I drove through Joplin, Missouri earlier this fall. Joplin, Missouri – a Mississippi River town (though at 50,000 people, a little big for my taste), plenty of trees, the birthplace of Mark Twain, and, as far as I can tell, not a single stand-alone bookstore in the whole damn town.
I’m nearly 32 years old and I’m still trying to find, in the raspy words of Michael W. Smith, “my place in this world.”
What are your thoughts? Does anybody out there know a little town in need of a young family and a bookstore?