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!

No comments:

Post a Comment