Returning as a Tourist

Bayfiled Apple Festival, 2014.

Bayfield Apple Festival, 2014.

My wife’s Nissan floats on asphalt. A machine gun sky spits rain on the windshield as we drive east on Highway 13. We stop to use the restrooms at the convenience store in Port Wing. I can’t resist buying a slab of smoked salmon sitting in the freezer case. Back on the road, we share a bag of Cracker Jack. I sip lukewarm coffee from a steel travel mug and negotiate curves in the road.

“There’s the new Red Cliff Clinic I was reading about,” I remark as we pass the brand new health care facility that had been recently profiled in the Duluth News Tribune.

We slow for the town of Red Cliff, the heart of Ojibwe country on the South Shore, and pass a new casino hugging the lake.

“I don’t remember seeing that…”

“It’s been there a few years. You must have seen it before,” Rene’ replies.

I calculate the span of time since I was last in Bayfield. I haven’t been in the small tourist town, a quintessential Maine fishing village transplanted into the interior of the country, since I stopped selling books at the Bayfield Apple Festival four years ago. As we stop at the bottom of the hill leading into town to make the turn towards the school, where we’ll pay to park on an abandoned tennis court five blocks to the west of the Rittenhouse Inn, the brief moment of nostalgia and lament caused by not participating as a vendor is replaced by the realization that, for the most part, the time I spent trying to sell books to strangers was an exercise in diminishing returns. First, the economy tanked, meaning less sales because folks stopped spending their discretionary income because, well, they didn’t have any discretionary income. Then there was the weather. Increasingly, rain and snow and fog and cold ruined at least one, if not two, days of the three-day festival. And finally, the organizers of the event grew greedy. Booth prices for the rental of a 10’x10′ piece of asphalt went through the roof. Even with three days’ of pristine skies and huge crowds, I could never make enough money to justify paying the soaring rates for space at the festival. And so, along with the Blueberry and Harvest Moon Festivals in Ely, the Fall Fest in Duluth’s Chester Park, and Land of the Loon in Virginia, I stopped doing outdoor events. I put away my EZ-Up tent, anchors, and tarp, and walked away from such art and craft festivals forever.

Selling paper in the rain. How stupid.

I keep my thoughts to myself as Rene’ and I step into the milling crowd. She heads towards a clothing and gift store. I wander off to the funky used bookstore that once invited me to do a book signing during the middle of Apple Festival. After finding a used copy of Pigs in the novel section, and a few new copies of my other books for sale in the regional authors section of the bustling little store, I head back up the hill to find my wife. That’s when I noticed a new bookstore, Apostle Islands Booksellers, right on Rittenhouse. Given the steady decline and closure of independent bookstores across the country, the victim of Amazon’s convenience and instant gratification, I am surprised to find a well-stocked, packed-the-rafters-with patrons retail bookseller in a town of less than 500 people. And yet, there it is. I open the door and come in out of the cold, greeted by odors of fresh ink, coffee, and a mixture of colognes, perfumes, and humanity. I consider approaching the clerk manning the till and handing her one of my Cloquet River Press business cards.

No, we’re here as tourists.

As I mill about the store, I learn through the grapevine that internet service to the entire village is down, that all purchases in every store must be either by cash or check, the sort of old fashioned commerce that Amazon’s website would not recognize or understand.

Outside, I search for my wife. I can’t find her. So I meander through the thick crowd towards ManyPenny, where my booth stood for nearly a decade. I stand in the hesitant rain and stare at a sweatshirt vendor’s space, his tent occupying terrain that was once the annual, temporary home, of Cloquet River Press. As I lament the fact that cheap, imported clothing has replaced my words, I note the absence of music.

Pat and Donna aren’t here.

I befriended Ely singer/songwriter Pat Surface and his wife Donna the first year I was a vendor at Apple Fest. Every year I participated in the event I had the pleasure of listening to Pat’s wonderful tenor accompanied by his guitar and other musicians playing fiddle, mandolin, and bass. The silence is upsetting in that it signifies a finality of sorts. But it’s comforting to know that my choice, to pull away from the festival, mirrors another’s thinking: There’s satisfaction in knowing that I’m not the only one who threw in the towel.

Rene' at Gruenke's.

Rene’ at Gruenke’s.

I circle back and find Rene’. Of course, like any good lady shopper, she’s carrying a bag full of purchases. We decide on Gruenke’s, a funky old inn, tavern, and restaurant, for lunch. The internet remains inaccessible. It’s a good thing my wife tucked a check into her purse since my cash supply is limited and the ATMs strategically placed throughout the town have been rendered useless by the web’s failure.

The author contemplating whitefish and fries.

The author contemplating whitefish and fries.

Gruenke's bar.

Gruenke’s bar.



Gruenke’s empties out despite the throng of hungry tourists searching for a good meal. Judith, the owner, closes the place for an hour to give her staff time to catch its collective breath and recharge for the dinner rush. We step outside to a cool but dry day, the sky puffy with rain but seemingly hesitant to spoil the festival. We watch members of the Red Cliff Band of Ojibwe compete in the Apple Dance. Partners hold an apple between their chins and follow the instructions of the caller. Native drums and singing fills the air. Two teenaged girls are declared the winners, having kept their apple in place throughout the ordeal.

The Apple Dance.

The Apple Dance.

Back on Rittenhouse, I listen to the Blue Canvas Orchestra play covers and original tunes with enthusiasm. A bride-to-be and one of her girfriends dance in front of the crowd, their courage likely fueled by beer and hard cider.

The bride dancing.

The bride dancing.

Rene’ shops a bit more and then, just before we leave, I fall victim to my obsessive nature.

“Let’s stop by the bookstore on our way out,” I suggest. “I’d like to leave my card, just in case they have a slot open for a signing when I’m coming through, when I have to go to Hancock later in the winter.”

My wife doesn’t complain. We enter the store. I chat with the owner. She says she knows my work and would love to have me come for an event at the store. I leave her my card. Whatever unsettled business I have with Bayfield dissipates as we exit the little bookstore. We head back up the hill intent on buying a bag of fresh apples to lug back to the car.



Apostle Islands Booksellers

Apostle Islands Booksellers

About Mark

I'm a reformed lawyer and author.
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