Friday, September 28, 2012
Walking into Elk River Books in downtown Livingston, Montana, is like walking into a closet.
A closet packed with some of the finest, well-tended literature you'll ever find in a shop its size, that is. It's a place where you are struck not by expanse, but by intimacy--which, in today's world of plush toys and hissing espresso machines competing for our book-centered attention, is a good thing. A little cozy quiet focuses us on the matter at hand: buying a book, plain and simple.
Entering Elk River Books is like entering a comfort zone, a womb of paper and ink. Shelves striped with multi-colored book spines crowd in on all sides; a quick glance at the parade of books reassures you that you're in the heart of literary Montana: McGuane, Harrison, Kirn, Crumley, Kittredge.
Marc Beaudin and Andrea Peacock are your tour guides. They may be soft-spoken, but they are passionate about books and are quick to recommend a title to the rare customer who wanders in without a specific book in mind. This was the case when I came to the store last year, weeks after it had opened, and discovered a first edition of John Cheever's The Wapshot Scandal in pristine collection. It was one of the happiest book purchases I've made in recent years.
Since the store on Callender Street opened a year ago, Marc and Andrea have also been committed to enhancing the already-existing community of writers in Paradise Valley with Elk River as ground zero. Two nights ago at my reading, there was a healthy turnout of readers--and fellow writers. In an email to me the next day, Andrea said she counted only four non-writers in the crowd (and two of those were probably my wife and my mother). It was gratifying to see such support for this debut novelist on a Wednesday night.
Before I read from Fobbit, I had the chance to chat with Marc off to one side. He's a poet by trade who has lived in various places around the valley before finally settling in the town itself. When I asked what prompted him to open a bookstore in a small (but vibrant) community in southern Montana, he grinned and said, “I had too many books. I had to do something with all of them, so I figured why not open a bookshop.”
Across the room, I saw Jean perk up. “I heard that,” she called out.
“Oh God," I said to Marc. “Don't give her any ideas.” In my mind, I was already building protective fortresses around the 8,000-plus volumes of the library in my basement. Jean would love nothing more than to see them lining the walls of my own bookstore, I'm sure.
Reading from Fobbit in Livingston was a homecoming of sorts for me. This town was, after all, where I got my first job as a newspaper editor (at The Livingston Enterprise--which recently wrote this article about my time in the valley back in the late 80s). It's where I first discovered Richard Ford. It's also where I made the life-changing decision to join the Army. At the time, I was a young husband struggling to provide for a wife, two young sons, and a daughter on the way. When I enlisted in the military “for job security and steady paycheck” reasons, little did I know I'd be back here today standing in front of the Livingston literati with a published book in hand, reminiscing about the good old days when I walked four blocks to work, head down against the legendary Livingston gusts in frigid wind-chill weather because I couldn't afford the gas money. Full circle, my peeps, full circle.
Claiming Ground by Laura Bell now happily joins the other 8,121 books in my basement. Released two years ago, it's the story of how Bell, according to the publisher's jacket copy, “left her family home in Kentucky for a wild and unexpected adventure: herding sheep in Wyoming’s Big Horn Basin.” It's the kind of book with passages soaked in lyricism, the kind of book which causes writers like Mark Spragg to say things like: “First, it is the language you notice: phrases, whole passages composed with the musical authority of psalms. Then it is the evocation of place, Wyoming rising from these pages as actual as a wild perfume. But, start to finish, it is her honesty that keeps you up in the night, wondering at the frailty of what it means to be human and glad and brave and, at times, broken. Laura Bell’s Claiming Ground is the finest memoir I’ve read.” This is high praise, indeed, since I consider Spragg's Where Rivers Change Direction to be, hands down, the best memoir I've ever read.