Friday night after work. A long, long week in the court system trying to use only a computer (no paper files) to do my job. Arraignment week, five days of constant sitting and dealing with criminal defendants, has left my neck and back in knots. Physically, arraignment week is akin to an endurance sport. Add trying to learn our court system’s computer program’s digital imaging protocols (we’re moving to a paperless eCourt model) to the mix and you’ve got the makings of a melt down. But I made it through in one piece, an old dog learning new tricks, and, my blue Pacifica loaded with copies of my Finnish tomes, Suomalaiset and Sukulaiset, a change of clothes, and a ton of optimism, I head north on US Highway 2 on a mini book tour of Itasca and Hubbard Counties.
I settle into my chair in the mezzanine of the mall in Grand Rapids, my table and chair set up in front of Village Books. I’ve done nearly a dozen book signings at Village, soon to be the last independent bookstore on the Iron Range (though Piragis, the outfitting store in Ely still has books for sale, it has always been,and remains primarily a clothing and outdoor equipment store) since becoming a published author. Mike, the owner, and now Meade, his daughter, are always welcoming to regional authors. Tonight is no exception. The young clerk in charge welcomes me, buys me the traditional writerly cup of coffee, and I go to work. There are folks milling about; most of them patrons of the Chinese buffet across the way or teenagers attending the Magic tournament down the hall. My friends, Randy and Kathy McCarty show up. They’re a couple who has, on occasion, opened up their lovely home on Lake Pokegema for this itinerant author to spend the night. I’m not staying with them on this trip as Kathy has girlfriends in for the weekend. Randy buys a copy of Esther’s Race, a book he’s already read but lost somewhere along the way. We make plans for dinner and my friends and Kathy’s girlfriends depart.
I return to reading an article by Jim HIghtower critiquing the labor and business practices of Amazon.com. I do a lot of business with the online octopus. Out of necessity and a sense of survival, my books are for sale there in print and Kindle formats. And, because of the costs of printing, shipping, and procurement in the book business are so high, my backlist (older) titles are now printed by Amazon’s digital printing service, Create Space (CS). It’s not a decision I entered into lightly, feeding the beast, the online predator that has gobbled up hundreds of independent bookstores and an entire bookstore chain (Border’s) over the past decade. But a writer wants his or her words to be available and frankly, in the current marketplace of ideas, it makes, as my accountant friend Burce would say, “business sense” to print through CS. As I read Hightower’s words and a companion piece by The Reader, where local business owners are interviewed about the impact of Amazon on main street America, I find my stomach churning and my resolve fading.
Maybe I shouldn’t be feeding the beast.
I say goodnight to the young lady manning the store and wander off to dinner. I have a lively time conversing with the McCarty’s and their friends. The ladies buy me dinner because, as one of them says, “you’re entertaining”. I leave Randy the Amazon piece because I know he and Kathy (who works for Village Books) are interested in the travails of the book publishing world.
“You shouldn’t use Expedia,” the clerk at the hotel says as I switch my $94 room, the one I lined up on Expedia, a room which turned out to be a smoking room (didn’t know they existed in mostly smoke-free Minnesota) for a $134 non-smoking suite. “They don’t always tell you whether a room is smoking or not. Better to book directly with us.”
I nod and head towards sleep, chastised for the second time that evening for using an online merchant to bypass main street America.
The photo isn’t as clear as I’d like but if you look closely at the picture, you can see the eagle’s nest that caused me to stop on Highway 2 just outside of Cass Lake. My blue Pacifica purrs and gurgles while pulp trucks, campers, and Harleys roar past. I stare at the empty nest and consider why I am alone, on a beautiful Saturday morning, headed to Park Rapids. The photos taken, my lament cured, I put the old van in drive and head to the next bookstore.
Jen, the young lady in charge of Beagle’s Books and Bindery, and her mother, Sally, greet me as I walk into the cheerful store crammed to the ceiling with new and used books.
“You’re a bit early,” Sally says. “I was just going to clear a table and get you set up.
I decide to take a walk. It’s nearly eighty degrees outside and the sky is full to the brim with sun. I follow a sidewalk. Downtown Park Rapids is alive. Cars are crammed into every parking space due to a variety of events. The commercial section of the county seat of Hubbard County is dominated by the spire of a restored movie theater anchoring a host of vibrant, locally owned shops and restaurants. I see a woman struggling with a box loaded with T shirts and hoodies trying to open the door to the town’s armory. I step in and hold the door for her.
“Mark, what are you doing here?”
The struggling young woman is Heidi Holtan, program manager of KAXE radio in Grand Rapids and former host of “Real Good Words”, a radio show that once featured interviews with writers known and unknown. Randy McCarty told me that Heidi was in Park Rapids to host the Great Northern Radio Show, a locally produced effort that mimics a Prairie Home Companion. I explain I’m in town signing books. Heidi invites me in to meet Aaron Brown, another Minnesota author (Overburden) who I’ve exchanged emails with but never met. Turns out Aaron, who is co-hosting the event with Heidi, went to college with my oldest son Matt. Small world. The pair invite me to stay for the show but as much as I’d love to stay, I explain my wife is waiting patiently for me back in Duluth.
Settled in behind a table stacked with copies of Sukulaiset, Jen and I discuss the Hightower article. I sense she isn’t too happy to hear that the author she is hosting is using CS to print his older titles.
Bad form to promote such thinking while a guest at an independent bookstore.
In the end we reach a place of mutual understanding if not consensus. I sell some books to Hubbard County residents and leave signed copies of Sukulaiset for Beagle’s shelves.
The ride home across a country filled with lakes large and small, and across the Father of Waters, is uneventful. I arrive home, empty the van of my duffle and my books and walk into the house to give me wife a well deserved kiss.