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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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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How to Be in a New Place

As Jack and I cope with book launch day, Andrew-the-shopsitter guest blogs about living in new places and making new friends. Take it away, Andrew!

How do I write about Big Stone Gap? I think there’s a temptation to cram it into an existing small-town narrative. Something about nostalgia for times past and simple living:

The local diner feels like a time machine, a place where people still get together and talk over a cup of coffee…

I didn’t expect to find ___________ (iPads, greek yogurt, movie snobs, a good slice of pizza) once my Greyhound pulled away from the island of Manhattan.

Seeing photos of bluegrass and country stars stretching back 40 years on the wall of Maggard Sound is a reminder of the rich cultural traditions of the region…

Community still means something in Big Stone Gap…

None of these things is completely untrue. The Mutual Pharmacy and Diner actually is a great place where people know each other. And yes, my bloodstream has been enriched by their grits and two types of gravy (I know the brown is made on-site, but I still prefer the white). People have been friendly and welcoming, demonstrating the hospitality and the occasional Yank-ribbing I had expected.

But to take any of those stories and make it what Big Stone Gap is about, now that’s just unfair. But I think there is a real lesson to be taken from being dropped into a new place, whether Big Stone Gap or Atlanta. How we experience the identity of a place isn’t so much about a cliche you can drop on an entire populace, but about how we as individuals engage with those around us.

When I moved to Seattle after college I found myself learning the city: its streets, restaurants, bars, and parks. But there were some ways in which I would never know the city like my native roommates. They were of the place and had absorbed a culture that would never be totally mine. Still, there were times when I felt like I had the edge, whether knowing the restaurants in the International District, or the best bars downtown.

My point is not just that I’m a freakin’ genius who is better at living than others (maybe I’ll save that argument for a later post). My un-genius became clear to me when I went back to Columbus, Ohio, where I grew up and lived for 19 years. I’d borrow my Dad’s car and get lost for hours trying to find a sandwich shop I ate at every day in high school. Or I’d go to get Chinese food and realize that the place had closed and I didn’t know where else was good. Or friends who lived in Columbus would tell me to meet them in a certain district (I’m looking at you Victorian Village), and I had never even heard of it.

I never had to engage with Columbus. And while my heart knows it and is of it, I never gave the city the thought it probably deserved, because it was never forced on me. In Seattle (and later New York) every step down an unfamiliar street, every trip on the bus, was entirely new. My engagement with the city had to be a conscious one, or else I’d probably still be wandering around the Central District, lost and hungry.

When I’m walking around Big Stone Gap I am entirely out of my element. So I’m back to needing conscious, constant engagement. Every step, every opportunity to meet someone new or try something different deserves my full attention. Amazing people (Gappers? Stoners? Biggers? Gappees? Gappinites? Gapperois?) have been open to sharing a bit of themselves, but it’s ultimately on us as individuals to grab at any chance we’re given to learn more about our surroundings.

And I think that’s a point worth making. Perhaps with some effort we can even try and see our own communities in the same light. Look at it like an outsider and grab at those chance encounters and friendly offers that we so often pass up. Could I hang out in a diner in Brooklyn and jaw with regulars? Or catch a Celtic concert and swap stories with the musicians? Or drop by the work of someone I’ve only just met, just to see how cool their job is? Probably, yeah. But I wouldn’t. And I didn’t. But I have in Big Stone Gap.

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A Good Hard Smack

My husband and I went to Verybigcity, VA so he could take his citizenship exam and become an American. On the way up, we listened to the CD of 100 potential questions he would be asked about the due processes of our government. (He got 94/100; I got 89/100.)

It took us 7 hours to get to Verybigcity, 15 minutes for Jack to take his test. Congratulations, Mr. Beck; now when people ask, you can say you’re an American.

Then we got back in the car and drove to Bigcity, VA, to record a radio program about our Booking Down the Road Trip and my forthcoming book. Sarah, the show’s host, made us feel at home and asked many interesting questions: “Why did you open a used book store in the first place?” and “What’s a trailer park intellectual?” (That’s how we describe many of our customers, people who are intelligent yet didn’t get a higher education, who often have jobs that don’t require–or perhaps even value–their innate smartness and problem-solving abilities.)

The night before the show, we had a lovely dinner with a friend from Bigcity who brought along two of her friends; the five of us laughed so hard as we got to know each other that other restaurant patrons cast glances in our direction–mostly envious. Such fun we had, discovering kindred spirits through casual conversation, enjoying the moment and each other’s ideas and stories.

Taping the radio show was relaxing, Sarah being so good at her job of listening carefully and asking probing questions. As we left, she gave us a verbal list of bookshops and some arts contacts. A little Middle Eastern lunch downtown cheered and warmed us.

All the above is very pleasant; Jack gets to be American so he can vote and be voted for on issues that are important to us; I got to record a radio program about books and people and publishing things useful to humanity; we had a lovely time chatting with an old friend and making new ones; and we walked around a pretty downtown area browsing and eating great ethnic food unavailable where we live. It’s fun to visit a city.

Would it be fun to live in one? A persistent undercurrent beat against our naivety once we left the shelter of existing relationships. “You’re from where?” “You wrote about what?” “You’re who, again?”–all these questions set against some unseen yet very present assessment activity. Is this person worth my time? Can she do anything for me?

I remember a Canadian spoof news show (think Stephen Colbert) where one of the reporters went to Washington DC, and described it as the kind of place that you wanted to give a good hard smack. I don’t want anyone to get the impression that I’m dissing Verybigcity or Bigcity, VA; both have charming architecture and people in them. It’s just that from the hotel clerk to shopkeepers to state agency directors, one gets the impression that they have better things to do than pay attention to who is in front of them. “I’m only doing this until I can [insert other work here].” “Don’t think I’m going to spend my life doing THIS” whether “this” meant direct an artistic endeavor or serve coleslaw.

Everyone seems to be assuming that any comment you might make couldn’t possibly be as important as the plans in his mind, the paperwork on her desk. A clerk at a bookstore: “Mmm, you just became a  citizen? How nice. $5.24 please.”  A waitress: “Bookshops? I don’t know. What did you want to drink?” At an arts society: “Do you have any questions?” and when I started to ask one, overtop of me, “Well, I have someone coming in a moment, so thanks for stopping.”

It’s the small town ethos, I suppose; after all, we are from Southwest Virginia, and Jack is from Someplace Else besides. We’re not interesting, or powerful, or useful and unless we become one of those things can’t have purchase on that slippery ladder of the elusive ranking scale. In SW VA, Gott Sei Dank, that’s not how we handle people. The person in front of you is the person you’re talking to, the most important moment of the moments you are having. He or she is a human, a customer, a citizen of the world who is treated with the kindness and friendliness that are our trademarks.

Don’t get the wrong idea; SW VA can be downright brutal to those who are from someplace else. And yet, in all honesty, I’m beginning to have more empathy for why we have that reputation. If a person from Smalltown goes to Bigcity and gets the intellectual condescension equivalent of “y’all ain’t from here, are ya,” it’s pretty hard to not retaliate when the opportunity arises.

And, sweet irony, being from SW VA is a serious handicap in Bigcity. We’re supposed to be the wee bit ashamed, or at least humble, about where we’re from, because clearly it isn’t powerful, or interesting, except in a quaint, “Hey, can you churn butter” kind of way.

I couldn’t be prouder to be from a place where people live in the moment; are proud of themselves and their families NOW, not for what they’re going to do next month when they REALLY get the job they deserve; honor the right of every person to have an opinion, to voice an intelligent thought; and where we listen to each other.

Because for all the power these cities exude, all the influence they bear on the rest of us, if the trade-off is living a life ranking people by what they can do for you, thank you, no. We might have missed the joy of meeting our friend’s friends if we’d played that game. We might have redirected the radio host’s questions to “this is what you NEED to ask us, dear.” (Not, I think, that she couldn’t have handled that; Sarah gave the impression of having seen everything, twice.)

How much fun, how many interesting people, Bigcity citizens must miss. How many we in Smallville miss by playing the same silly game. Wouldn’t it be nice if this mutual animosity tournament could end so none of us miss out, because my impression is that no one ever really wins a round of “you’re not from here.”

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