Tag Archives: ethnography

Food for Thought

Living in a bookstore is cozy and fun, but also challenging. At night, trolling for a good read, my fingers ripple across the shelves, seeking back cover blurbs that make sense, authors’ names I trust.

Because I know what I like. I know what I want to hear–and what I don’t, going off in my head, voices planted by print that will chase me down hallways, seek me out in quiet moments, and start in: “Yes, but” or even the dreaded “What if?”

These voices ask us to re-examine not so much what we believe as why we believe it, a far more intense scrutiny. What did we inherit, and what did we swallow without question, and what have we observed that supports or belies these things?

A wonderful book called Women’s Ways of Knowing says the continuum of human wisdom runs from a person who “stands in her shoes and looks out” to synthesizing pieces of knowledge to create new knowledge.

Do we only read the books that agree with us? No, probably not; most bibliophiles don’t. But do we only want from books we disagree with a sense of why their argument is wrong, invalid? Or do we listen to viewpoints we would never seek out in the greater world? Is that what bookstores are for, to let us experience–at somewhat lower risk than attending a rally or visiting a friend’s church–ideas that don’t rock our world, but could sink it?

I read certain books in certain moods. Some days I want challenge; bring on Simon Schama and Jonathan Safran Foer; yes, I will try the sushi today, thanks. Other days I want comfort; yesterday, seeking familiarity, I reread Clyde Edgerton’s Walking Across Egypt. It’s as comforting as veggie lasagna, with an equal amount of thoughtful chewing.

Books make us think, and a healthy diet includes the ones that ask us to consider another’s viewpoint. I used to teach my students, back when I was teaching, that the job of the anthropologist was to help society live with ambiguity, to put two people who believe oppositional things into a room and help them shake hands and agree not to order their subjects to kill each other. Live and let live is the motto of the ethnographer.

And the bookshop owner.

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Filed under book reviews, bookstore management, folklore and ethnography, small town USA, Uncategorized

An Intimate Evening

The last stop in Philadelphia was in Manayunk, with Ann (and staff cat Amelia) of the Spiral Bookcase. Spiral Bookcase is full of recessed shelving in white wood with graceful arches and elegant long-necked martini-shaped lights hanging from the ceiling. In short, it’s gorgeous–and Jack’s worst nightmare, because I aspire to “gorgeous” instead of “cheerfully chaotic” in our own store. Ann and Amelia keep the place tidy without it looking military, and its charm swings between the old world gentility of Philly overall, and the energy that young Ann, a DC escapee trained as a folklorist, brings to the mix. (Folklore and ethnography are the same degree, BTW. Ethnography is the “cover” name for folklore on the academic market, as it sounds more encompassing of power structures and psychology, while folklore rings redolent of fairies and plant lore.)

And Ann has LOTS of energy. She is in with the bricks, only two years into her shop. As Jack and I wandered the streets of Manayunk, weaving in and out of wee specialty shops, the Philly-friendly shopkeepers often asked what brought us to town. Well, ask an author in for a book signing that question, and you’re going to get the mother load. Inevitably, the shopkeeper would say, “Oh, so you’re the author Ann has in! I got her email.” Turns out that Ann is not only known, liked and respected (three different things) by the Shopkeepers of Manayunk, she also runs a fall festival and with her husband tries to keep nearby Pretzel Park green and family-friendly. Community: Ann builds and guards it.

We talked about this as we prepared for the signing; she said her shop was as much a space for like-minded minds as a retail concern, that she sold books but also anchored a growing community of “the new kids on the block” —literally. Manayunk has seen recent upgrades and accompanying upheavals, and while it hasn’t quite got everyone on the same team, it has a big enough team of same-siders to be getting stuff done.

I guess all that was on my mind when we started the book signing. A dozen people crammed into the tiny space, knees toward the center and inevitably touching someone else’s, so it was intimate from the word go. Intimate in a nice way, because almost all the attendees were customers Ann knew by name: Suzan the poet; Brittany the part-time shop assistant; Joanna, a local grant writer for the resident dance company; Carol an avid reader who along with another attendee had serious thoughts about starting a used books store someday.

In fact, the whole evening hinged around two concepts: starting a bookstore, and creating community. The participants asked erudite and deep-reaching questions about what each entailed, like “how did you know when you were actually bringing community together, as opposed to people just being quiet and muttering?” Everyone offered thoughts and observations, and laughed at our earnest statement that we thought Manayunk pulled together more than any of the other places we’d seen, and that although we’d only been here two days, we considered it the New Jerusalem of “save downtown and shop local.”

The evening couldn’t have been nicer. On the silly side, Jack discovered “Peeps,” those seasonal marshmallow candies covered in day-glo sugar colors. He found them rather “more-ish” and ate about half the box Suzan brought–which Suzan considered very cute.  Guys with Scottish accents can get away with anything.

On the lovely side, Ann is a kindred spirit, a student of one of my academic folklore heroes, Dr. Erika Brady. As we traded notes and munched pizza after the event, Ann said that she used her ethnographic background more as a community bookshop owner than she had in her job in the archives of DC, which had required the degree to get in the first place.

“Knowing and understanding the people who come in, discerning the patterns of the community, supporting both: that’s the best use of my degree yet,” she said.

Amen, sister.

These photos were mostly taken by Joanna “Jo” Mullins, the grant writer mentioned at the beginning of the blog. That’s shop owners Ann and Amelia (on Ann’s lap) to the right, downtown Manayunk on the left.

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Filed under book reviews, folklore and ethnography, humor, small town USA, Uncategorized