Redemption comes in many forms. Our Ozarkian odyssey ended with Julie Henigan, a folklorist in Springfield who appeared at our hotel with her gorgeous 1936 guitar. (We’d met her at lunch.) She regaled us with ballads and stories until just after 9, when my head nodding could no longer be disguised as me keeping time to the music. I think I’d started snoring, which was a pity because her music was lovely!
She and Jack went downstairs to close the hotel’s entryway lounge–the clerk next morning said it was her best night of work in a long time–while I plotted our route across Missouri and fell asleep with the atlas on my face.
Awaking refreshed but with a staple mark between the eyes, I bundled Jack into an early-but-not-marriage-endangering departure and our wheels rolled by 8:30. My circuitous route took us up another of those dotted scenic highways (Dear mapmakers: I’m sorry, but you have broken my trust for the last time) and then along a tiny grey line eastward to Lebanon.
For some reason the hotel breakfast had not stuck, and when we turned right at the tiny dot called Buffalo, I was hungry enough to concede to a fast food breakfast, despite our resolve to only eat in local establishments. At that moment there hoved into view a small, local cafe.
I pulled in so fast Jack almost swallowed his microphone. (He’s regaling me with stories of his musical exploits with Heritage back in the 1980s, and we’re taping them for a possible publication project later.) He started to say something, but saw “bacon and eggs” on the sign, and switched the mini-disc recorder off.
Truth be told, ’twas fairly mediocre breakfast, not quite as homemade as one might have expected. Not all little restaurants in small towns are magic, but it filled the need. We asked Brandy, our server, if there happened to be any bookstores in town, and she pointed the way we’d come.
“One block over.”
We’d driven right past a bookstore and not seen it? I thought our eyes had attuned to 10-point type by now, but we backtracked–and realized why we hadn’t noticed. A plywood-and-paneling shack sat next to a desultory thrift store.
“Aimee’s Books” looked….cheap and cheerful from the outside, and we walked into your basic dormer on a concrete slab. One good prairie wind, and the whole house of books would collapse. 1950s gospel played on a radio as two locals, George and Debbie, chatted about what had been in the paper that week. I took a quick look around, found a cheap book that would do, and planned to beat a quick retreat.
Debbie asked where we were from. Jack told her, adding that we owned a bookstore. Her face lit up.
“I’m friends with about 300 bookstores on facebook,” she said, and launched into her own story. Illness, divorce, grown children who’d have to leave town to find jobs, and voila, a bookstore was born. When the daughter she’d set it up for found work at the local hotel, mom stepped in to keep it going, since by then the locals were regularly coming by with trades, and happy to have her there. And the store was named for her newest acquisition, somebody else’s three-year-old she was raising to give her some stability. Aimee’s picture had pride of place in a newspaper clipping describing the store’s opening. I began to understand Debbie’s philosophy on life. Warm heart, sweet spirit, messy bookstore. Priorities are important.
Debbie, oblivious to my inner musings, said, “Take George, the guy who was in here when you came in. His wife gives her mom lunch at the nursing home every day, and he comes in here and talks to me while she does that. He comes every day.” I could see why. Debbie embodied “earth mom meets home nurse” practicality and kindness.
She’d already heard about my book, and suddenly she broke off the thread of the conversation to say, “I always wanted to write about the people who come in here. They’re a real bunch of characters. But I don’t write. Not at all. Well, I’ve done a couple of things for local organizations, and on Facebook and stuff. But I never got into the habit of writing.”
“You should!” I just about shouted. “I wrote most of my book while minding our store, between customers.” I pointed to her desk, barricaded behind the only counter in the place. “Just prop your laptop up there and write when no one’s in. You’ll be amazed how fast you amass words.”
She nodded thoughtfully, and I hope her local paper will benefit from my prodding in the future. Maybe she’ll start a blog…..
Another regular customer cruised the store as we talked, and it became obvious that she wanted to talk to Debbie herself, so after some 30 minutes of comparing notes –how hard it was to get away, how lovely to have regular customers who would step in and keep the place running, how $28 a day take-home was a good day for her–we hugged goodbye.
You can’t judge a bookstore by its cover. Debbie was absolutely lovely, and her store fit that community like a hand in its glove, reaching out to everyone who crossed her path.
We drove a lovely small farm road (without any scenic dots, but one of the nicest we’d been on) down to Lebanon, where we entered the first of several bookstores across our route named “[town name] Books and Toys.” A new bookstore with one bay of used books, in a strip mall replete with bright fluorescent lighting, the place seemed almost schizophrenic in its personality, that center aisle of battered paperbacks competing with crisp and colorful new books in side displays. The young woman working the counter gave us a bag printed with its eight or so sister locations; the shops were the creation of three brothers who distributed magazines across the state, and had started their own bookstores. I liked the mystical angle of the three brothers, picturing the youngest as the fairy tale Jack, always doing the wrong thing at the right time to win out in the end. These boys must have been doing something right, as their family-owned chain dominated Missouri.
Hopping onto the highway, we drove to Rolla, Jack picking up his Heritage stories along the way. In Rolla, we found to our surprise a vibrant downtown section, complete with renovated sidewalks, and the most beautiful bookstore we’d seen to date. Large windows in beautiful brick-and-wood settings, an old-fashioned hand-lettered sign announcing “Reader’s Corner.”
The outside should have prepared us, but Debbie’s place hadn’t matched its cover, so we walked in expecting anything, and found the most beautiful bookstore we’d seen yet.
Dark wood shelves with decorative corner work, books lined neatly along them, corner bins and turn racks neatly arranged, and unusual statuary, old typewriters and suitcases atop the lot, stretching to the high ceiling. At the back, two castle turrets stood straight and true above the children’s section, teddy bears storming their towers as a rag doll with braids looked down, smiling vacantly.
I couldn’t speak. Jack took one look and headed straight for the guy behind the counter.
It was about an hour and half later that we tore ourselves away from Larry Bowen, who probably had gotten embarrassed by our repeated assertions that he ran the prettiest used bookstore we’d ever seen. Brittany, his shop assistant, photographed us together, and we vowed to stay in touch. (His dad was a sign painter, as was Jack’s; he played guitar; etc.)
Larry told us several funny (and all too familiar) stories about his adventures as a shop owner, and this blog will feature some of those in the coming weeks. (Yes, in response to queries, I will keep blogging once we return to our regularly scheduled lives, because there’s so much to say from all the lovely shopkeepers we met, but it’s going down to once a week.)
One of the things we talked with Larry about was the ever-present local/Amazon effect. Push me, pull me, shop local, get it cheaper. Larry had instituted a policy that anything Amazon sold cheaper than his shop, he would match at $2 higher. This took into account his expenses at running it, and the low budgets of a downturned economy’s customers. It seemed a good compromise.
Not so fast. A customer who’d come in a few weeks earlier to get a donation for her church went away with $50 in gift certificates. She reappeared and showed him a book on Amazon for $13.57. “Can you beat that price? I want to shop local,” she said, smiling winningly.
Larry sighed, swallowed, and pushed up his metaphorical shirt sleeves. “I can do $15.57.”
Her face fell. “But you can’t beat it? I need 10. The church board wants these for our next Bible study.”
Larry smiled. “$15.57.”
She frowned. “I don’t think our board would authorize that extra expense. It would be $20 more than Amazon, all told. No, I’m sorry, I just don’t think that will do.”
“What about the $50 donation I gave you last month?”
She looked suddenly sheepish. “Well… I mean, we do want to shop local. It’s just we need to be good money stewards.”
Larry smiled again. “So do I. I need to keep my business standing in the community I serve.”
Larry 10 x $15.57, Amazon 0.