Last week I read this wonderful book, My Bookstore: Writers Celebrate Their Favorite Places to Browse, Read, and Shop. I lapped up every syllable about 82 independent bookstores, envious that I don’t have a bookstore where everybody knows your name, where books are recommended, where your own books are promoted.
The first bookstore I ever entered was Books and Cards, located in an industrial strip shopping center by a gasoline tank farm. Glamorous, it wasn’t. But I was seventeen, and could not believe such a wonder existed in Fairfax County. The store carried greeting cards, stationery supplies, and paperback books stacked on tables.
I snatched up the new U.S. Ballantine edition of The Lord of the Rings. I’d read library editions of the trilogy, out of order because some clod would have checked out The Two Towers or The Return of the King. At home I handled the 95 cent paperbacks like the Book of Kells. Lined up, the covers formed a small version of Barbara Remington’s famous Middle Earth poster. Now that I owned books, I wanted more.
The next time I remember going into Books and Cards I was eighteen, out of school and working as a secretary. With my first paycheck, I bought ten Yearling paperbacks: Elphi the Cat with the High I.Q., The Furious Flycycle, Charlotte’s Web, and others. I added a one dollar book rack and gave the bundle to my seven-year-old niece. It was the best, most heartfelt present I’ve ever given. Susan read all the books, even the hard ones.
Books and Cards closed and for a long while there were no bookstores in my life. Eventually, chain stores popped up in malls: Brentano’s, Waldenbooks, B. Dalton. While I loved having access to books, the stores looked alike from mall to mall. I knew about bookstores with cozy reading nooks and resident cats that were like second homes to real book people like me. Where were those stores?
Crown Books opened, the first big box bookstore. I loved Crown. It was close! It had a lot of books! But it wasn’t a second home. Neither were Crown’s replacements: Borders, Books-a-Million, Barnes and Noble.
We have a B&N and BAM in Fredericksburg. About once a week, I walk into one or the other. And walk right back out again. I rarely buy anything. I don’t feel comfortable. I don’t feel welcome. I don’t even feel like I’m in a bookstore.
When I finished reading My Bookstore, I felt bereft. And then I realized—there was one of those bookstores nearby! I just hadn’t properly claimed it. Riverby Books has been in downtown Fredericksburg for years. I’ve gone in occasionally. I liked the store, but didn’t trust that it would stay in business.
One day this fall I stopped in. Sunlight sprinkled the linoleum floors with gold coins. I went up the stairs and pulled out a book on wildflowers from a pile on the steps. I went down the stairs and sifted through a box of vintage Golden Books, a bargain at $2.50 each. I snapped up a dozen.
Riverby Books is located in a quirky old building. There are plenty of reading nooks. No resident cat, but that’s okay. They sell used and old books, interesting books, books you can’t find at Barnes and Noble. Books you didn’t know you wanted until you saw them.
I never walk out of there empty-handed. Or empty-feeling. A trip to Riverby fills up that book-shaped space. At home, I’ll read my new acquisition, then make room for it on one of my bookshelves. If the book is very special, it might sit next to my prized Ballantine edition of the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
The early stages of working on a novel are like the bright winter sky the day after a snowstorm. Clear, expansive, filled with promise. You and your new project stride hand in hand toward a great working partnership.
Then you get busy and soon it’s been months since you and your novel have so much as glanced at each other. Oh, you keep the research notebook on your desk but not front-and-centered the way it was during those lovely bright-sky days. It’s as if you went on an around-the-world-trip and sent your novel one lousy postcard—from the airport.
Novels-in-progress, like couples in a relationship where one partner has wandered off, have a right to be miffed. Expect a cold shoulder when you finally get around to picking up your project again.
You skim your background material, reread the paltry handful of chapters, cluck your tongue at the ambitious schedule you’d set way back then. Worse, you realize your main character’s voice has grown silent. It had been growing quieter day by day, week by week, and you knew the risk of ignoring it, but all that stuff got in the way.
How to get back in your novel’s good graces? Chocolates and roses? Nope. Apologize and vow, “I’ll knuckle down and work every single day all day long?” Nope. You know that’s a promise you can’t keep. All that life stuff is still going on. Some days you won’t get to your desk. Some days you’ll work on something with a higher priority.
Enter the mini-book.
As an amateur photographer, I’ve found when I’m not taking cat pictures, I photograph subjects that pertain to my work. Even if don’t know why I’m taking a particular photograph, later I’ll look at it and realize it’s a facet of some new work. I believe the seeds of projects are planted much earlier—often years—before the work reveals itself.
Like a lot of us, I’ve made keepsake books using commercial labs like Shutterfly—albums of our house, trips, etc. When the finished product arrives in the mail, it’s a book! I can hold it in my hands, open the covers, turn the pages!
One afternoon I was looking at my on-screen file of images compiled for the novel. I thought, I should make a book about my book. Portable, purse-sized, a little book to keep me connected to my novel-in-progress.
I turned to my favorite photo processing company, Artifact Uprising. Based in Colorado, Artifact Uprising uses only recycled materials and promotes the practice of moving images from cameras and computers to something tangible and lasting: prints, calendars, cards, and books.
Because I most often shoot in a 1:1 aspect ratio (square, reminiscent of Polaroids and sixties Kodak prints), I chose their Small Square book, a softcover format perfect for my 5 by 5 images. I designed the layout with a photo on one side of a double-spread, text on the other. The text is mixed: dialog and narrative directly from the novel, sprinkled with quotes that reinforce my theme. I didn’t use the working title of my novel for the title page. The mini-book has its own title.
Creating these little books (I’ve made two) takes several days of concentrated effort. I comb my notes, reread the chapters, mull over my intentions, and listen to my characters. While this seems like make-work, I’m actually reconnecting with my novel. The process of choosing photos, selecting texts and quotes, and matching the narrative to the photos pushes me deep into the project.
And when the package lands in our mailbox, along with Artifact Uprising’s classy thank you card, I’m so excited. The fine paper and high-quality processing make even my photos look wonderful. My words seem more real than they do on computer print-outs.
Best of all, my novel and I are back on speaking terms! The mini-book is small enough to fit into my slimmest cross-body bag. I can take the mini-book with me everywhere, pull out a tangible piece of a project that mostly lives in my head, drink in the images, and hear my main character’s voice, clear as the winter-crisp sky.