Saturday, October 31, 2009

Books and Bookshops of Vermont

The End of the Vermont Summer Bibliotour

Vermont is such a bountiful place in a whole host of ways--least of all does it lack of books. And so, I was driving south, back toward New York state when I found an array of bookish nooks along the country and village roadsides. Someone had suggested that I check out a place called the "Flying Pig Bookstore" in Shelburne, Vermont. I nearly missed it as I drove by, but managed to pull my car into the gravel lot, and check out what exactly the Flying Pig was all about. I must admit that anyone, who has a desire to start up some sort of business, whether cafe, specialty shop (save a butcher's shop!), or even a bookstore, using the word "pig" creatively will garner a lot of support and ultimately sales. It just seems like I've come across a number of great little businesses, who tout our porcine friends for capitalistic gains, and these businesses always seem to do well. Hmmmm, I mean, this is no Animal Farm I'm talking about, and there are no talking pigs named Napoleon!

See now, there is this gentle, flying pig made of some sort of metal works. It does remind me of a Chicago institution of similar hospitality and charm: the Bourgeois Pig Cafe in Chicago's Lincoln Park. For those of you who don't know it, and are living in Chicago, you can check out their website and maybe even take a field trip there sometime: -- I must note here, though, that there is another Bourgeois Pig in New York City, but as far as I know these two establishments have no relation to one another.
But as you may see, the "Pig" seems to promote a special character among its mammalian friends, something that we bipedal readers find attractive and often cute--like Wilbur from Charlotte's Web to Babe the talking pig. These smart animals convey a sense of intelligence that is not often seen among the common variety farm animal, at least this is what people always seem to be saying: "they're smarter than dogs!" Whatever the case, I found a new combination on this day's tour: books and pigs.

As it turned out, the Flying Pig Bookstore was primarily aimed at kids. I wasn't disappointed at all, though, since I think it a very worthy cause to have good children's book stores in our society and world. We don't come by these things that easily, after all. This does remind me of a fine lecture I went to this fall, at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. I attended the annual meeting and lunch of the library honor society Beta Phi Mu, which I am a member. This year's speaker was the delectable Betsy Hearne, professor emerita at the Library School, and former director of the Center for Children's Books at the university. For those interested in the great work Prof. Hearne does, you can go to her website at the URL below. Her talk at the honor society event was simply wonderful. After recuperating from a lengthy illness and hospital stay, the kind professor unraveled a yarn of narrative so beautiful and descriptive that it had all of us captivated and charged with an energy of focus. Well, at least I could say that about my own reaction and reception of her words. She had done her dissertation years ago on the tropes of the classic tale "Beauty and the Beast," and had continued to work on women's themes in children's literature. And her latest work was as editor of a fine volume entitled "A Narrative Compass: Stories That Guide Women's Lives," (2009), and includes various insightful autobiographical pieces about stories, which have driven and guided great contemporary women; Hyde Park's very own Professor Wendy Doniger is a contributor to this volume.

Professor Hearne's Website:

Perhaps what I took most from this lecture was that it informed me of how to teach better, even in areas that didn't on the surface seem to have anything to do with children's literature. I'd been preparing to teach a class on theology and St. Augustine, when I'd heard Prof. Hearne speak, and it gave me a sense of recognizing the value of narratives and story-telling, which are found at every level of human experience and conditioning. I began to recognize that I could learn a great deal about teaching narratology, perspective, and general theological method from the basics and fundamentals of children's literature and the art of story-telling.

Vagabond Books? Free Books on the Street?

After leaving the fine Flying Pig and considering the wonderful bounty of books that I'd come across in the Vermont land and mind-scape, I nearly drove off the road with glee and delight, when I saw an old table set up and piled high with boxes of books! More specifically, it was the little signs that read "FREE" and "Wood Smoke Books" that piqued my curiosity. So I pulled over ever so unsophisticatedly, into a bit of a run-down gas station and garage. I jumped out of the car and ran over to the table to see what delightful little pickings there'd be. Unfortunately, the books were old and weary, weathered and dirty. Not all of them, but many. It had looked like someone had moved and didn't have room for them and couldn't be bothered with carrying a dozen boxes to wherever they were moving to next. And so, they appeared to be orphaned. These were what we might call "I can't be bothered with" books. You can get that feeling when you see their state, their treatment, their disheveled countenances.

Poor old books. Poor Wood Smoke Books! What was strange about the whole thing was that there were pieces of trash and junk scattered amid the books, like empty tubs of butter and oil! And there didn't seem to be anyone around to claim that they owned the books. They were on someone's property, but the table and books were so far away from anyone's house in particular that it felt like the abandonment had been complete. The only relic of ownership was the sign that read Wood Smoke Books.
Wood Smoke Books, as you can see the sign reads: "Free Books, Free Books, Visit Us on the Web!" It almost reads like "Free Children, Free Children, [We can't change diapers any more!] Visit Us on the Web!" Okay, that's taking it a bit far, but one might wonder why someone was actually giving a bunch of books away? Granted, they weren't great books, but perhaps it was better to give them away, rather than tossing them into the dumpster.

Wood Smoke Books, it turns out, is a simple and moderately elegant website, which deals in Cookbooks. If you go to their website, as noted in this photo (, you will discover the array of cookbook options and some blogging about kitchen libraries, baking, and cordon bleu, among other delights. What exactly this has to do with free books on a Vermont road, I'm still not quite sure. Perhaps there is something buried in this website that will tell us good readers, but I have yet to find it.

Corner Stores, Book Sheds, and Trap Doors

Once I'd experienced the sighting of "Free Books," I managed to pull myself away, back into the car, and continue on my journey. I drove into the warm afternoon, on an old country road, which rose and sank through fields of yellow grasses and flowers. As the road narrowed, I came to a flat stretch with regal old maples on either side, where a car had stopped and had its flashers on. As I slowed in my approach, I discovered that another car had run off the slim highway and slammed into one of the venerable trees! Some other commuters had pulled over and were helping, so I decided not to clog up the thoroughfare any further. No one seemed to be hurt or in harms way.

As I continued driving, I came upon a sign which read "Book Shed" with an image that pointed "this way." How could I ignore fate, once again, good readers!? Of course, I slammed on my brakes, and turned into the even smaller country road. Sundown is coming, I thought, and I don't want to be out driving in the dark in an unknown country, but I had to go to the "Shed!" Less than two miles down the road, I came to the four corners of Benson, Vermont, where I found the "Book Shed" and this fine sign that read "Book Sale" (Books for $1-$5)--though, as it turned out, I did not find those "cheap" books all that easily. But before I drape you with another tale of a quirky bookstore, I must say that adjacent to the "Book Shed" was the local fire and police station. And feeling that I had some sort of civic duty to uphold, I promptly went and told the only man in the station that a car had hit a tree a few miles back, up on the main country road. He thanked me and told me that they'd already sent a truck and some men up there.

Of course, I felt relieved. So now I could satiate myself and my tastes with a little wandering around a country bookstore. There is something to be said about a town, especially a small town, where among the main attractions and local businesses you have a fine old bookshop. And this bookshop was right on the main four corners of this town! I could certainly come to live in a little place like this! Books and food, that's all you need! Now the rusticity of the "Book Shed" is not to be reckoned with. It's a paradox of culture and grit, highbrow and roughness, but that's what I loved about it. The prices were high, and that's what I did not love about it. But the quiet proprietor behind the desk portended a sense of devotion to his craft of bookstoremanship. He had piles of books on the history, care, and propriety of book collections and collecting. And even if you go to the "Book Shed" website, which you may find here: (, you may see the roles it plays and associations it belongs to.

Surely, being a member of the "Vermont Antiquarian Bookseller's Association" is a noble and right gesture. But more curiously, membership, as a Vermonter and an American, in "The Anthony Powell Society" seems downright oddball. But! But!--that said, I like that kind of oddball! I mean, let's face it, I didn't even know there was such a thing as the Anthony Powell Society! I knew of the Dickins, Trollope, and Zola Societies, among others, but the Powell Society? Might some say that be premature? Anthony Powell died only a decade ago in 2000. Well, I suppose it is one's dedication and devotion to his masterful and Proustian efforts in his twelve-volume cycle of novels, A Dance to the Music of Time. Ah, well, if only I'd known that this bookseller was such a great fan...the conversations we could have had! That's okay. At least next time I'll know. And then I'll be able to read up on Mr. Powell more thoroughly.

Now as I take you through the various nooks of this old book shop, enjoy the views of old Vermont. The last image above was from the second floor of the bookshop, where books piled up high and sometimes precariously. The framed antique windows opened up to the streets below and one could see in various directions: over to the grocery and local shops, the gas station, someone's backyard.

There were many specialty books, from "books on books" to "books on boats" like this Illustrated History of Paddle Steamers.

And here was a fine piece of artistry: a bust of Bill. Yes, it was, to my discerning, a "piratey" version of ol' Bill Shakespeare. He was surrounded by multiple versions of his own works and other "classics" of Western civilization. He sits there wondering, in a pensive mode, over his quietly leaning books, plays. "Who shall come up and buy one of them today...?" he asks. "Ah, I'm sure I'll have to wait another summer, for anyone to buy these old things!" Or, perhaps that is what the proprietor was thinking! I do wonder how many visitors come to a quiet backwater like this; or how cost effective it is to have a little shop in a rural setting. But pigs, free books, and Shakespeare!? Now that is some combination for an afternoon drive. I have certainly been pleased by the wealthy content of Vermont's biblio-offerings, and this afternoon's treats were surely part of that buffet. Perhaps the greatest part of these jaunts through Vermont was the continued surprises, where I'd find a book, a box of books, or an entire shop that I had not expected. I suppose we go through our wanderings, through out lives wandering...and wondering about the next thing, the next "find," and we expect too much. And that is where disappointment comes in. Look for adventure, with some expectations, and when you find that extra special thing--bookish or not--you'll surely be pleased. Like stepping through the rustic "trap" door in the "Book Shed." We've entered into another world of discoveries. Who knows where that next "trap" door will lead us!

Monday, October 12, 2009

Books of Burlington

Ben and Jerry's or Books and Jerry's?

The once quiet town of Burlington, Vermont is where the Ben and Jerry's ice cream empire has its roots. In fact, as far as I know, its offices are still located in South Burlington. I say "once quiet" town, because my memories of good old Burlington from a dozen years ago, when I last had the pleasant opportunity to visit this lovely locale, were of a not-so-noisy or active place. On my visit this summer, though, the place was not just in full bloom, but buzzing like a hot weather fan on hi-speed. People were all about, in this street corner or that stoop; buskers were busking, families were nibbling on sandwiches on street-side cafes, and college kids were washing down greasy burgers with pints of ale and other jolly drinks. Of course, I'd hoped to spend more time in Burlington, to get a real sense of the place, a lay of the land, and maybe even catch a museum or historical society visit or two. Unfortunately, the sun in the sky was slowly moving toward the horizon, and I had to truck on back south before dark.

Now this is not the first time I've captured the image of a book truck, but I thought that this book truck, belonging to the Fletcher Free Library of Burlington, was a fine example of bibliotravel (first image above), one replete with pirates and all the best (fictional, or not) characters a child's imagination could garner. I parked near the library, and set off to find some lunch. I spotted the bookmobile and then this fine mystically-entranced book store called "Spirit Dancer Books...," but it wasn't open at the time. The fact that a bookshop like this could be sustainable here demonstrates the interests of the Burlington population. So if you're ever driving through a town, and you say "why, this place looks nice, quaint, pretty..., maybe I should move here," well, check out the local book shops and think it over carefully. Because maybe you don't want a Spirit Dancer in your neighborhood. Or, maybe you really do!

This brings to mind two specific thoughts about how bookshops (or even libraries--such as this image of the inside of the Fletcher Library) can determine, through the semiotics of their contents, their books, whether or not a person like myself would be comfortable living in a given town. The first thought concerns something I experienced this very week. I had a dentist appointment, and before I made my way to the dentist, I stopped to peruse the Borders bookshop down the street from the dentist. I'm always curious about how books and other items are placed or displayed in bookshops, specifically the mega bookshops, which are still working under some marketing and corporate guise. It was, for the most part, unremarkable: the latest books staring at you blankly, just as you walk in, 3 feet from your face; various dining room size tables piled up with the most recent novels, biographies, self-help, travel books; all of these positioned to make you negotiate a subtle labyrinth, which is meant to steer you toward something else to buy: cards, chocolates, bookish trinkets. At our local Borders, the magazine section is perhaps the most used, and situated immediately to one's left as you enter the store. But the real point of this exposition is the thing which struck me as most out of the ordinary, and in fact, was not actually out of the ordinary at all, because it symbolized far more than I realized: the wretched music blasting from the ceiling. The music was loud, pounding, unabashed, and primal. Some form of contemporary rock, for which I could not classify, but that reflected the needs and desires, surely, of the clientele.

I recalled from previous visits that this giant Borders bookstore was not a used bookstore, the grand old (or even quaint) bookshop of the past. This was the new, modern, one-stop-shop locus of contemporary fast-paced bourgeois (whatever that means or whomever may be classified as such!) One summer, years ago, there were a few blistering days in Chicago, which hit near 105F. Our AC couldn't deal with the heat and apparently no one else's could either. I spent a good part of the day in the AC'd shelter of the Borders, along with scores of other Hyde Parkers, including the local homeless, who'd taken up parking themselves and their wares under the window sills, sleeping in piles of themselves till it cooled down enough to go outside. On the second floor, there is the now ever-present "bookshop cafe" (usually a Starbucks), which serves a similar purpose of local meeting place for either peddlers or the ever-present chess clubs. At least a year ago, I overheard the proprietors of the legendary local used book shop Powell's talking about Borders closing, because of bad business. But its more than this, more than bad business. For me, and for many perhaps, who are part of the Hyde Park (and especially university) community, there is a sense of understanding or even subconsciously being aware of the aesthetics of a bookshop. Of course, I'd prefer being in a bookshop (even a new one), where the music is soothing, preferably something along the lines of a Mozart or Haydn keyboard sonata. To be pummeled by incongruous and debilitating muzak is not the experience of a book store that I'm looking for. And I'm not sure the 20-year-olds behind the counter controlling the stereo understand this. Or maybe they do, too well!

My second thought is along the same lines: On a trip to Mackinac Island in northern Michigan two summers ago, I drove up the west coast of that state, and stopped at every bookshop and library book sale I could find. In Traverse City, for example, I found a number of lovely book shops, but when it came to actually assessing the collections offered by these shops, I was sorely displeased. You see, the reading selections in many of these bookshops were sub-par for my tastes. And you may all shout a collective "don't be such a bibliosnob!" and I'll wink and concede. But the fact is, if the bookshops (and there are many of them in Michigan!) contain no or very little material that interests you, that indicates in some measure the reading tastes, interests, and to a lesser degree, habits of those in that area. And from this, we can also say that if those reading habits are not like yours, you'll surely have a harder time relating to the ethos of that area. Some of you may disagree, and admittedly this is seismically-less-than-scientific; but this is my primal assertion.

But Burlington...what about Burlington? Yes, well, I managed to find myself a suitable sandwich, pickle, chips, and soda. I walked around and scoped out the downtown. And then I went to the library. It was packed. Everyone was at the library. Its sale books? Adequate for my consumption, even though I didn't buy any. And adequate for any future possibility of moving to Burlington or Vermont in general. Books continue to tell us things, more than just their narratives and stories. Some people look at the facades or occupants of buildings, industry, or restaurants to determine the makeup of a community, in order to see its compatibility. I look at a place's bookshops and libraries. Try it out yourself sometime. One last thing: I like Burlington, but don't expect me to become a Spirit Dancer.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Books of Saint Albans, Vermont

The South was in the North?

Now for those of you who think that the American Civil War (affectionately known in the South as the "War of Northern Aggression," among other titles) took place only in the south or thereabouts, well, think again. And if you ever go on Jeopardy! and something about the Civil War in Vermont comes up, the answer (or question!) is yes. Confused? Saint Albans, Vermont, not too far east of Lake Champlain, holds the distinction of the supposed northern most location of an American Civil War battle. Though, more accurately, if one were to ask historians about this, it should be called or considered either a "raid" or a "robbery," but one committed by Confederate agents. And as an agent of historical curiosity myself, I was drawn to this not-so-quiet upstate Vermont town (not quite city), with its busy downtown area, precisely because of this "military conflict" history.

The story goes...that a band of ~21 men, led by Bennett H. Young, a confederate soldier, came into St. Albans under the guise of a hunting party. The week prior to October 19, 1864, a few men at a time would arrive at a local hotel, joining this "hunting party," until the appointed date of October 19th, the group of them simultaneously robbed all three banks in St. Albans, stealing over $200,000.00, which was intended to be funneled back to the Confederacy. The raiders fled to the Province of Canada (as it was not yet the established commonwealth it is today). They were captured and tried in the Canadian courts, but freed as military combatants, rather than held as thieves, to which the US government saw as a not-so-subtle recognition of the Confederate States of America by the British government. The remaining money on the caught raiders (some $88,000.00) was returned to St. Albans--though, it is a curious thought: where did the other $110,000+ go? Liquor and cards? Or buried somewhere in the borderlands still?

Bennett Young himself had to live a bit of a life in exile for a few years during the ill-fated presidency of Andrew Johnson, as Mr. Young did not find or rather was not granted safety under the president's amnesty proclamation. He spent time studying law and literature in Ireland and Scotland before returning to the United States around 1868. He became an attorney and settled in Louisville, Kentucky, where his largesse was widely known. Perhaps the most paradoxical for modern readers to know is that this Confederate Veteran opened the first black orphanage in Louisville. Paradoxical, because of the South's position on slavery. Young traveled north later in his life to visit Montreal, apparently, and even met with some of the notables of St. Albans nearly a half century after the infamous raid. The first two images here are of the historical museum, which unfortunately was closed during my visit. The third photo is of the town library.

I found the entryway sign of the St. Albans Free Library to be very distinguished looking. It was gilded gold paint letters surrounded by a rough looking earth tone, all framed in stylized brick. Of course, this was a fine entree into the library itself, which surely gave me a feeling of the "old fashion," while being adapted to the modern age: computers, good lighting, all mixed and mingled with wood paneling, old lamps to accent special lighting, a fireplace, and of course many old books.

Now you all know that my specific interests in these sorts of libraries are with the local collections. And so, for today's visit, I was curious about Vermontiana and anything St. Albans. The librarian on call, who was shuffling books behind the desk, was very friendly and accommodating. Though, unfortunately, he did not know the St. Albans history as well as I'd hoped. I'd wanted to take a tour of the historical parts of the village, but they didn't have anything available. Nonetheless, I made my way around to the local history section. And I snapped a few photos of the Vermont materials. Like my visit to the Great Barrington, MA library this summer, I was pleased to find a fine collection of local history books. Such books, though, are often older and not in the best shape, but these seemed to be holding themselves together against the trammels of time quite well.

The Locality of Books and Lives in Turmoil

The fragility of unique or uncommon material is always a concern that I face as a librarian, especially if I am dealing with archival works, rare books, or special collections. Writing these words now about uncommon materials, and reflecting upon my summer visit to St. Albans just days after the disastrous earthquake hit Port-au-Prince, Haiti, certainly gives me pause to consider not just the bibliographic and archival world and its fragility, but our world in general. When I visited Puerto Rico back in June 2009, I went to several libraries and visited various archives. Some of you may recall that I was shown a Haitian archive, held in the hinterlands of archival preservation behind lock-after-lock of protection. The curator, Aura Diaz Lopez, showed me several archival boxes filled with Haitian French material, including a letter from Napoleon himself! Ms. Lopez had said that the collection housed in the University of Puerto Rico library archives had come from Haiti, because the facilities were not adequate in that home country. Whether or not there is veracity to this story, I am curious about the state of affairs of such collections in Haiti right now. But these are the least of our worries and the worries of others. As much as cultural heritage is important and really central to human societies, our true concerns and good will should be toward the people that have made that and other cultures, who are now suffering interminably under the unthinkable duress of this tragedy.

I will certainly continue my bibliotours; this is part of who I am and what I do. But events of human tragedy such as this earthquake afford us (and force us) to consider the vulnerability of the world we live in, and ultimately how we need to continue to be just and responsible custodians in all things we do. I look around the room in this photograph, of the neatly ordered books, and the tidiness of the spaces, and the ornate station of its ambient decor: sculptures, framed prints and photographs, maps; an open dictionary affording us the moment to pause, look down, search an elusive term, consider its meaning, and walk away in subtle comfort and contentment. And then we may close our eyes and transport ourselves back to all of those Associated Press images, now plastered all over the New York Times, of bleeding men, women, and children, pulled from the wreckage of cemented buildings collapsed upon themselves like unforgiving dominoes. Are we in the same world?

On the way out of the library, I looked up the magnificent staircase, leading up to the library offices. I snapped another photo. And went out into the street. I walked a block back to my car (image below of church near the green) and stood just on the cusp of the village green, where almost 150 years ago, locals were held at bay by the Confederate Raiders and one person killed. Time, like space, creates a barrier to how we see and experience the world. It is hard for me to imagine the conflict borne out upon the very spot I was standing that day, a century and a half earlier. And though that is part of the reason I am so devoted to history, my devotions are also to the present, to both experience new histories and record them. Haiti is far away, but not that far away. And yet, it is another world completely, now driven into the earth by the hammer of nature. What will the book of the future say about all this?

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Books and the Shrine of St. Anne (Isle La Motte)

Virgins in Trees and Other Sightings

Now there are some moments in my wandering around the country, which are marked by a general sense of commonality, simplicity, and the usual. But then there are moments like this: driving down a country road, in the most rural of places, and almost driving off that road, because you think you've seen an apparition of the BVM (yes, Blessed Virgin Mary)! Well, I'd been exploring the islands of Lake Champlain, and had just come from examining a now-defunct missile silo, when somehow the knowledge of a moderately famed shrine-site came to me. I don't know if someone from the tourist bureau mentioned it to me, or I got the information from somewhere else, but somehow I discovered that not too far away, on one of the islands near Grand Isle itself, was a Catholic Shrine to Saint Anne.

So naturally, I was quite curious. And I eventually found myself driving along another plaintive country road, across another causeway, and onto the isolated Isle La Motte, which also apparently was home to a paleontological park. Yet, as you can see above, my reasons for being startled while driving were not completely unfounded. It was not an apparition in the strictest notion of apparitional science, but a statue positioned cautiously, and intended to pull at the heart strings of traveling pilgrims, in search of cures and remedies of quotidian maladies. And surely, people and pilgrims have come in droves, like cattle or bees to the comb of sweet, luscious beatified honey. I was again surprised by my surroundings, partly because I'd never been to a real, bone fide shrine before; one that had been turned into a pilgrimage site. Though, I do remember being in Montreal many years ago, and one of the major cathedrals was passing out square-inch size cuts of cloth that had been blessed with the reliquary bones of some long-dead saint. And there too were hundreds of long lost (or left?) crutches from believers, who'd been cured of their own maladies and disabilities.

There was not so much of that, but there were some crutches, which had been placed above an altar inside the main shrine area. Above, you can see the pavilion, which covers parishioners and pilgrims, protecting them from the elements as they sit in contemplation or ritual prayer. Now as you can see from this sign here, the site of the erstwhile Fort Ste. Anne was located here. "Built in 1666," the sign reads, "by Capt. Pierre La Motte for defense against the Mohawks. The Jesuits celebrated the first Mass and erected the first Chapel." Of course, Capt. La Motte is where the name of this little island came from. Now some 340 some years later, I stand on these shores, marveling at the curiosities and refinement of religious observance, and how they have become something almost (or perhaps "not almost!") commercialized. It was moderately startling to find the shrine so enhanced and built up, as if waiting for the masses of tourist or cure-seekers.

Admittedly, this would all be much harder to imagine in the winter months, as the shrine is outdoors, and the sitting area/congregational pews are open to the elements. When I arrived, there were a few others sitting and praying in these seats. One woman seemed to be praying the rosary. Her head covered respectfully for prayer. It was quiet and a subtle breeze kept lapping up and across the adjacent fields from off of the lake. There were crosses everywhere, in little nooks, in grottos, in meadows, on the beach. Everywhere you turned you could, and perhaps were almost obliged to say a prayer or ask for some divine intercession. One biblio-note: there were no visible books nestled away in their supposed book slots here. As you can see most of them are empty. I wasn't sure where all the books went, but I think that the bulk of the prayer and liturgical books were kept toward the front of this outdoor chapel area, protecting the books from the elements.

The chapel, if we may even call it that, was situated in a little building (which you can also see more fully in the last photo on today's posting), and was accessible by a slight staircase. An altar table, pulpit, and other amenities were situated in the small space. One of the interesting things to think about when in a place like this is the intense French influence and sphere of culture this region had experienced for generations. In fact, a shrine like this is testament to the origins of French exploration still having a cultural reach into the present, especially if you consider that many of those who come to this shrine are from French Canada, which is, as I mentioned in an earlier post, not too far from Isle La Motte; and Montreal itself is perhaps no more than an hour's drive away from the shrine.

Above and below are images (and a close up) of a grotto, along with a mosaic of a rosary.

Books and History of Saint Anne

Now for those of you interested in the general history of this shrine, you can visit the link to the Saint Anne Shrine website:

The real beginnings of the shrine date back to the late 1850s, when the cornerstone of the "new" Church of St. Anne in Milton "was blessed and dedicated," (see website above). And back in 1976, an estimated 7,000 visitors visited the shrine in a 3-day period!

As I wandered around the fairly expansive grounds of the shrine, I discovered a building up on the hill above the shrine itself, which had been designated the office of the shrine and "history room," (see above image). This, of course, sparked my interest, so I made my way into the so-called lair of shrineological history. It was, to my disappointment, a very small hallway and entry-area, with coat hangers and chairs, and one sad bookcase displaying but a handful of biblio-curios.

There was this little statue, which shows St. Anne with her daughter the Blessed Virgin Mary. Yet, what is so interesting is that they are holding a book! Though anachronistic, especially if the idea is that St. Anne and the Virgin Mary were reading the New Testament, which of course did not exist yet, it is important once again to recognize the semiotic value of the book (and specifically, this ceramic mini-book in the hands of saints) to convey such bits of religio-cultural information to the masses: at least, that these are holy people, conveying a holy message. Below is the image of a carving and sculpture in a more rustic mode, and perhaps trying to convey some message about the conversion of native populations centuries ago.

More Books!

Surely we could not continue without any more book sightings! Indeed, I was again pleasantly relieved to discover this fine little book and gift shop, though it seemed to be a bit more heavy on the book side of things. And yet, that's a good thing, especially for my writing needs! And it seems to make sense, considering the scholastic traditions of textuality wedded to good old fashioned Catholic learning and schools. I snapped a few photos of the books on the shelves in the book shop, including the second image below, which shows a book on Pope Benedict XVI, affectionately known by the Catholic masses as "B-16"! Hmmm, sounds like a bomber flying over the globe to reinstate orthodoxy to me; you've gotta love these papal monikers.

A chapel by another name...well, I'm not quite sure what qualifies as a chapel in the lexicon of chapelology, but this was one of the most magnificent (albeit small) and yes, cute chapels I've ever come across. Its simplicity was both darling and powerful, and entering into such an intimate space that forces you to focus your contemplation was a very new and different experience for me. You see, it's one thing to be in a church or cathedral or other worship space, which is grand and expansive: you are afforded the opportunity to be anonymous among others, or to lose yourself in the expanse and either emptiness or fullness of God, the divine, the heavenly Other, but in such a small space as this, you cannot do that. The intimacy of space is incredibly forceful, pressing, and encapsulating.

Surely, for me, this was an adventure not just in the the curiosities of the road or even finding the next book-in-a-different-place journey. This unexpected stop made me reconsider the idea of space (and place), which I continue to consider in all of my daily practices, because it is space and place that we occupy in our lives. And space directs, drives, and influences how we not only see the world, its places, its nature, its trees, its boats, its books, ...its contents, but how we live in this world and interact with it. So, whether you are a genuine pilgrim, devotee of the BVM or simply a traveling biblio-seeker like me, take another look at your own spaces today, look at them, feel them, smell them, vocalize them and listen to them. You might see and find something different.

Books and Missiles of Grand Isle County, Vermont

A Secret Sort of Place

For some reason, for many years I've had the desire to travel to out-of-the-way places; places that look geographically different and interesting. And one of these places has been the island (or as it actually is, islands) in the middle of Lake Champlain. I'm not certain why, but it has always held a certain mystique for me. So, when I was on the banks of Lake Champlain this summer, I reconsidered the possibility of discovering what was actually on this and other islands in the grand old lake.

Driving north through hilly Burlington, Vermont, first on the Roosevelt Highway, which then turns into Route 2, I wended my way through the ever more rural landscape, passing towns like Colchester and Walnut Ledge, and the lacustrine inlets of Mallett's Bay and Great Back Bay, before crossing the bridge (though, more like a causeway) which brought me onto Grant Isle, and the ever so modest village of South Hero: a name all too evocative in a country that has been at war for nearly a decade. I didn't dig too deeply into this, so I don't have an answer to the questions "what heroes? when? And how did this town get its name?" I must say, this ranks up there with some of my other favorite small town names: Surprise, NY and Triangle, NY (both in rural upstate, not far from Ithaca, NY and Cornell University), or my all time favorite Lower and Upper Economy (located on the north shores of the Bay of Fundy in Nova Scotia--I couldn't believe that such a place existed when I drove through those little backwaters!) Nonetheless, the "Heroes" are little towns, hamlets in fact, located on the islands here in Lake Champlain. Later I would drive through North Hero, which seemed even smaller than South Hero. Who says the North always gets the better deal? Here I passed by the old general store, which had since lost its mercantilic soul, and was up for sale. I pulled over and took a photo of the old place, and continued onward.

Just as I was crossing onto the island, I saw one of the most extraordinary events I've yet seen on one of these flaneuric passages: an old bearded Vermonter, sitting in the back of his pick-up truck, with the gate down, reading a book! I was driving so fast that I couldn't take a picture of it, but it was so beautiful, wonderful, magical! If only I'd taken it! That image stuck with me for the rest of my trip. So you can't say rural, bearded, woodsmen-like characters don't like books! Of course they do! Two more points for us and biblios!

Anyhow, even after this sighting, things seemed rather quiet and uneventful, and I had been a bit wary that I would not be finding anything worthy of bookishness on this drive around the islands, but my fears were put to rest, as I came upon the local Chamber of Commerce. As it turned out, the Chamber of Commerce building doubled as a mini historical society, with a room dedicated to showing off the wares of local history. And as we all might expect, this local history included books! Not a surprise at all! When I was thinking about how to describe the display cases and the contents of the little museum, it occurred to me that this is precisely the value of books in small town society, in small town America, and elsewhere: the value of the semiotic book, a vestige, a remnant, an artifact of the cultural small town past, which conveys various levels of our understanding of not just that past, but the past in general, the greater past, which continues to be fleeting, in decay, and a lost existence in human memory. The local elders only remember so much, and those memories are always in flux and not to be fully relied upon from the historian's point-of-view.

Nevertheless, it made me fully aware of the possible trauma on society in future generations, when historians and scholars in 100 or 200 years from now will be decrying the paucity of tactile information and archival material for research to be done on; can one imagine if this were the case here, in this Chamber of Commerce, walking in and seeing displayed floppy disks from 1983 or empty husks and skeletal remains of the PS2, antique modems, or Zip drives? Surely, every object in nature has its semiotic value and imprint, but the carriers of the written work, such as books, are far more symbolic, accessible, and ultimately powerful as objects than the trash worthy edifice and facade of mechanical ingenuity, which make up the basic computing system. Much, if not all, of which is basically inaccessible without the amenities of fossil fuel and other consumptive powers continuing to give it life. Surely, the pundits and naysayers will pounce, and declare: "yes, but it took these same energies to MAKE the book that you so tirelessly, and foolishly seem to cling to like a nostalgic gadabout!" Ah, I say, but they miss the point.

It was a truly bucolic place, Grand Isle. As you can see from this next shot, taken from inside of the Chamber of Commerce, looking outside, a patriotic stars and stripes hangs loosely in the morning breeze, a slight haze dances over the lake, and the lawn is freshly cut. The next few photos are from the Chamber as well, and include more images of the display case, some Dry Goods expense booklets from 1893, and the main sign declaring the Chamber of Commerce to all those passing by.

Books and Maps on Grand Isle

Right near the Chamber of Commerce was a fine cafe-bakery-gift and bookshop (I think it was actually called "Hero's Cafe.") It was one of those multi-purpose stores, which sells everything for the happy tourist, because there's nothing else for miles around. And surely they must do quite good business.

There were two floors to this business. In the front was where you'd buy your coffee, bagels, croissants, and sandwiches. In the back was the gift shop, and above that gift shop on the second floor, was this great book and map shop. As you can see from the photo above and the two below, they had a rather wide variety of books and maps. I was so taken by the display, that I craned my neck to see the maps splayed across the slanted ceiling, wishing that I could afford to buy all of them and bring them home to put on my ceiling! When I was a young lad, perhaps in my teens, my brother and I taped all of the National Geographic maps we had (and there were scores of them!) on our bedroom walls and a couple on the ceiling, though, admittedly, the Scotch tape didn't have the strength to hold them up for very long. It was "pretty" while it lasted.

Protecting Them Books...with All the Power You've Got!

Now for you more bellicose readers, or those just intrigued with missile defense systems and wondering "what the heck are you talking about missiles and books together for!?!?"...well, this was a bit of a surprise for me, but figured that it would fit in just nicely to my biblio-narrative.

You see, as the sign reads here, at the very top of the set of islands situated in Lake Champlain, in the town of Alburg, VT, and not a dozen miles from the Canadian border, the US government (specifically the Air Force) built its "first intercontinental ballistic missile site east of the Mississippi River" between 1960-1962. This was, of course, at the height of the Cold War, commenced during the Eisenhower administration and completed during the Kennedy administration. And its location seems rather obvious: a rural, northern, border town, in the right position to aim at the Soviet Union. I guess they figured they could make a decent three-pointer from Grand Isle pretty easily. I drove down the old back road leading up to the site, after visiting another Tourism Center. The woman in the center, who was organizing some travel brochures, told me to drive 100 feet north of the center, turn right, and drive down the graveled road with the giant sign that used to say "No Entry!" I did. The sign had been weathered, and crossed out. A quarter mile down the road was a broken down fence and a couple of weathered quonset huts (real ones!) It looked like the local transportation department had taken over the deactivated missile silos (which were underground, and covered by the quonset huts) for storage of their snow plows. I wasn't sure whether or not to say a silent prayer to Mr. Reagan for saving us from the Soviet apocalypse, or simply go about my usual touring and fill up the car with gas. I did the latter. I'm not that religious.

So that was the end of the road on this little journey. I turned around at the missile site, and headed back south. Any farther north would have brought me to the border patrol and the Canadians. The land seemed to be getting flatter up by Alburg, and the only way to get "back into" the Vermont "mainland" was to go back south. I wanted to see the Alburg Public Library, as that was my main interest in coming so far north, and seeing this gem of rural biblio-Americana. I drove by the darn place three times, missing it each time. It blended in with all the other houses: simple, white siding, usually one-level, with plain windows and little detail. I finally found it. Alburg Public Library (House Number...16?). Green letters announced a "Book Sale," which I was ready to jump out of my car for, but unfortunately, both the library and its book sale were unavailable for my visit: closed for the day. Just my luck: Library--Closed; Book Sale--Closed; Missile Site--Closed. What's a curious biblioholic to do in these parts!? Well, you readers will have to wait a little longer to find out. In the mean time, I'll continue to while away my days wondering who's protecting our national treasures, if not the Alburg missiles. Hmmm.