Roadside rests and Saskatoon hospitality

With earplugs, a bandana for the eyes, and a couple of beer, it’s possible to sleep pretty much anywhere. I have a soft spot for economy motels where life is unregulated. Where the breakfast nooks smell of bleach cleaner and the restaurants encourage you to dine on Atomic Wings, warning, if you can eat a pound you get ‘em for free. And where fellow guests — higher than the local water tower and more tanked than the transport trucks rumbling down the highway — run past your room in the middle of the night, occasionally slamming into your door while discussing whether to crash the pool or have another drink.

But once in awhile it’s hard to say no to a little luxury that can transform you from dusty tumbleweed to roadway royalty. Enter: the Senator Hotel.

It has real brass room keys, white duvets, and a 1 pm checkout. The marble staircase, wrought-iron railings and candlestick chandeliers date back to 1908. The dining room ceiling has wreathes of rosettes surrounding the crystal chandeliers and Grecian frieze around the windows and doorways, and Winston’s English pub is as comfortable and laid-back as they come.

Love all the old signage on the brick buildings in downtown Saskatoon. And the fantastic McNally Robinson Booksellers. Thanks Alicia and Helen for the welcome. And farmers, librarians, school teachers, nurses and university professors who stopped by to chat and talk about Saskatoon, nurses, whores, books, farming, the election, and life in general.

Apr 2011

Perdue: my kind of town. 500 people; 300,000 books.

Along the CPR railway just west of Saskatoon, we take a detour to the Village of Perdue. I spot a stately two-storey brick building that’s packed full of books and decide to return the next day to find out what the story is. But when my sister and I arrive the next morning, it seems that we are the story.

At Crawford’s Used Books, we’re met by Mayor Dave Miller; former Mayor Kelly Dwyer; Village administrator Nancy Dun; local author Bob Mason; Kevin Brautigam, the photographer from The Biggar Independent; and Ralph Crawford, owner of Crawford’s Used Books. Seems it’s not everyday a Perdue comes to Perdue. Actually, none of us are even sure a Perdue has ever been here.

The Village was named after my Great Grandfather who was Chief Justice of Manitoba. At the time it was determined that the railway needed a stop every seven miles because that was a reasonable distance for farmers to haul grain to the line and back. A hundred years later many stops have all but disappeared, but not Perdue.

For a village of four to five hundred, Perdue has an incredible infrastructure. There’s a community centre with a skating rink, a curling rink, and bowling lanes. There’s a library and a kindergarten to grade 12 school. There’s a golf course, two parks with ball diamonds, a post office, a grocery store, a daycare centre, E-zee Wrap assembly plant, two service stations, two restaurants, a Hotel, pub, credit union, and one majorly fantastic bookstore.

Ralph Crawford moved his business to Perdue six years ago from New Brunswick, bringing with him roughly 300,000 books. Located in a building that used to be a Merchants Bank, it’s packed floor to ceiling with stacks organized by category. Whether you’re looking for a recent bestseller, a Victorian poet, or a book on astrology, chances are Ralph has it, and he can find it for you. And as he says, if you knock a stack over while you’re browsing, no worries. It’s a great way to find something. Big thanks Ralph for adding I’m a Registered Nurse Not a Whore to your collection.

After spending a half day in this village, it’s clear that it not only endures but thrives because of individual hardihood and incredible community spirit. I owe a big thank you to everyone I met in Perdue, for overwhelming hospitality, friendliness and openness. This village has got ahold on me and I’ll definitely be back. After all, where else can you browse for hours in a bookstore and then go for a coffee and a chat at the rec centre and leave your car unlocked? With the keys in it.

Apr 2011

Postcards from the road

Travelling the Crowsnest under blue sky. Ice melts off the Selkirk Mountains and big horn sheep graze at the side of the road. Grasses burning fill the mountain air with the smell of campfires. Ribbons of CN cargo trains decorated with graffiti roll along the tracks. Variegations of dirt on snow banks imitate exposed rock. Traffic stops for fifteen minutes to let a road crew push massive piles of snow back from the highway.

In Cranbrook a white cone ridge of Rockies appears. Traverse into wild rose country through the spectacular Crowsnest Pass. Within an hour we’re the other side of the mountains, crossing the rolling grasslands of big sky country. Wind turbines line the horizon. Signs advertise: Top Notch Taxidermy, Buffalo Head Veterinary Clinic, Bull Sale in Taber.

In The Hat, deer feed on a patch of grass in the centre of town. Through the fields of Saskatchewan, turn north towards Saskatoon. With less than a third of a tank of gas, luck out to find a gas pump in Fox Valley, where Dirk’s lined the ceiling of his garage with caps. There’s a tad just short of one thousand, he says.

Apr 2011

Admirable Nelson

At each bookstore along the way I peruse the shelves for a book with a local connection. At Ardea’s I purchased Beggar’s Garden; Laughing Oyster, Broken Ground; Hooked on Books, Lakeland.

But in Nelson the book … came to me — whisked off the shelf, slapped down on the table in front of me. This is my book, a woman said, grinning.

Jennifer Craig’s Yes Sister, No Sister, is a memoir of being a trainee nurse in 1950s Yorkshire. Dedicated to Registered Nurses everywhere, it tells the story of the goings-on a half century ago at Leeds General Infirmary.

Thanks to Jennifer and all the friendly locals and tourists who stopped by Otter Books on a sunny afternoon. Thanks to Letty and the two Catherine’s at the bookstore. And thanks Nelson for being one funky city full of artisans and writers. Love the Hume Hotel and Wait’s News for one of a kindness. You kick major ass for authenticity and for being non-generically modified. Long may you exist.

Apr 2011

the hand of God

A quiet Good Friday on the Crowsnest Highway. Dramatic curves and climbs wind through orchards along the Kettle River Valley, past vineyards, tumble-down ranches and trailer towns. Passed through wild west prospector country where the smelter stack at Greenwood used to extract copper along Boundary Creek.

Spray-painted on the rock face: prepare to meet God. Depending on your mood, this reads as either exciting news or a threat.

Stopped for a coffee at the Grand Forks Hotel that serves up Canadian and Russian fare. (This is Doukhobor country.) Met a man who told me he died once. For three hours. He’d been snowmobiling and fell through the ice. Kept his head above the surface by letting his sleeves freeze onto the ice surface. Mentioned that he used to run a centre for teenagers and that he would have no difficulty killing a pedophile with his own hands.

Back on the road, tuned into the CBC and heard Mary Hynes interview Mavis Staples. I’m just about the happiest person you’ll ever meet, said Mavis. You gotta be sincere, make it plain, sing it from the heart.

On the highway just outside of Nelson, I see a man standing at the side of an intersection, wearing white gloves and holding a bible. It’s almost sundown and he’s been out here all day. Tells me he’s had a tough life but he’s hoping for two things: a 500 square foot house and a wife. Says he’s a sexual person but he hasn’t had sex for 21 years, because the bible says he needs to be in matrimony to have such relations, so he masturbates. I wish him well without shaking his hand and continue on.

When I tell people I’m headed to Nelson, the reply is often the same: you’ll like it there. It’s full of urban refugees, bohemians, and alternative people. Considering what I’ve encountered thus far not sure what the alternatives are, but looking forward to it.

Apr 2011

Ogopogo country

The pubs were full. It was game five, Vancouver versus Chicago, and the special for the night was a 20oz Canadian and a bacon cheeseburger with poutine for $15. Meanwhile, in another part of town, the local writers’ group was holding their monthly meeting. So it was a select and stalwart gathering at Hooked on Books. In fact, two of the attendees hadn’t planned on coming, but walked by and decided to come in when they recognized us from having eaten dinner, just a half hour earlier, in an Indian-food restaurant down the street.

As a rainbow appeared against the gunmetal-coloured sky, questions arose as to how the Let’s See How Far This Car Can Go Book Tour came to Hooked on Books. After a reading from The Dry Well, a fun, informal Q & A lead to talk of houses, guns — we concluded it’s a good thing we don’t have easy access to them! — and how easily working long hours can lead to eating junk food.

We talked about floods and bugs in Manitoba, and the need for the local economy to expand beyond peaches and apples (although the arable land in this narrow valley is being aggressively challenged by the burgeoning wine industry and an accompanying palatial urban sprawl).

Later, in the pub, the hockey game over, it’s Mansbridge and Harper on the TV screen. They’re standing centre ice in the middle of an empty hockey rink somewhere, talking to each other like they’re best pals. I’m thinking their feet must be freezing, just like Harper’s hair. And I’m thinking how grateful I am for the candid and fun gathering tonight at Hooked on Books. Thanks Judy and Marcel for opening up Hooked on Books eighteen months ago — a charming bookstore that is incredibly inviting to readers and to writers, and to people we recognize from the restaurant down the street.


Apr 2011

Gold rush

It’s an odd experience to stand inside the entrance of a bookstore and peddle your wares. It can feel a little crass, like you’re a sales rep flogging hot tubs or magic dusters at a Better Living Convention. And it can feel a little lonely, like you’re a dinosaur in search of other giant lizards to engage in social interaction. It’s very humbling.

People are busy. People have only so much time. They’re on lunch or a break. They have to meet someone. They don’t buy print books anymore. They didn’t put money in the meter.

Then — and I’ve learned there’s no predicting how, why or when it will happen — someone stops to talk. The conversation might go anywhere, from why this person’s job makes him feel like crap, to the fact that Flin Flon is the only place in Canada named after a fictional character: Josiah Flintabbatey Flonatin. Josiah, from The Sunless City, was a grocer turned explorer who built a submarine that took him through the Petrified Forest, the Hall of Jewels and the Sea of Earthquakes, to the Valley of Gold.

As a writer turned travelling shelf-talker for my book, for bookstores, and for books at large, my valley of gold today was when a woman explained to me that she has sworn off print books for eBooks (except for cookbooks). Can I purchase this as an eBook? she asked. (Yes, I told her, or you can buy it here, now.) Then she had a sudden change of heart or momentary lapse of resolve and bought a copy of my book. Maybe because I offered to sign it and throw in a button and a bookmark! I don’t know. But I like to think it was because no matter how you slice, dice or pretend nice it, a little face time triumphs anonymous exchange a million times over. As all good nurses and whores can attest.

If you’re in Kelowna be sure to visit Mosaic Books. A family-owned and staffed bookstore with a fantastic inventory of books, magazines, CDs, vinyl and cards. Sarah, Michelle, Trevor and Rob, thanks for a wonderful day in your beautiful store.

And thanks Kelowna for Spring Pale Ale.

Apr 2011

Pearls in the rough

Thanks to everyone — including a high percentage of registered nurses — for taking time on a sunny Monday to stop by the Laughing Oyster Bookstore. And thanks Evelyn, Karen, Susan and Dean for making me feel very much at home.

On the ferry back to Horseshoe Bay, visited the Chief Steward to see if there might be an opportunity to offer a few books for sale in the gift shop. After all, there was an hour and a half ahead of us and even if no one wanted to buy a book, it would be a fun way to pass the time. Worked out a pitch that could be used over the PA system: We have an author on board who is loitering outside Passages with books and buttons…

There are rule enforcers and there are rebels. The second I looked into the Chief Steward’s eyes I knew my mission was doomed. Her mouth pursed and then she informed me that there were rules about things like this. She said I needed to contact BC Ferries to seek permission. So I did.

Talked to Natasha who talked to her supervisor and then came back on the line to explain that there was no protocol around such activities. Suggested I go back to the Chief Steward and work it out with her. Good luck, she added.

But the Chief Steward was resolute. We can’t sell anything on the ferry that’s not in our inventory. Can you come back some other time, like between 9 and 5? Then she informed me that the shop had a preference for BC authors!

So I visited the shop to see if that was true. On the BC authors shelf I found Charles Dickens, Nora Roberts, and Maeve Binchy. Oh, and an author who lives in BC: Caroline Adderson! And many books on bears: Never Trust a Smiling Bear; A Bear Stole my Fishing Boat; Bear Attacks II: Myth and Reality.

I left the store to find someone to talk to. Introduced myself to a woman who was reading Billie Livingston. She offered to pass on one of my books to the owner of a bookstore whom she knows. She mentioned he carries an eclectic mix of books and he takes risks. Basically, she told me, if you can buy it on the ferry, he doesn’t sell it.

Apr 2011

Independents’ Day

April 16: Independent Record Store Day. So here’s to small businesses and vinyl heads. And independent bookstores. Thanks to Ria and Emily at Ardea Books and Art for hosting a wonderful night. And family, friends, old and new, who came out, mingled, enjoyed the Dirty Apron munchies, and celebrated books and art.

Arrival at Departure Bay. Here’s to the cashier at Giant Dollar in Nanaimo who patiently provided directions and refused to be influenced by the other cashier who authoritatively dished out erroneous directions.

And here’s to Mark at The Sun the Stars and the Moon — a vintage store along the Island Highway filled with all manner of collectibles, including an amazing collection of vinyl — who has never heard of Independent Record Store Day.

And hats off to troubadour Dan, Tony the Tiger, and the Easter Bunny.

Apr 2011

The wise men

It was a great night at Pages on Kensington. A warm and friendly crowd. Many thanks to Simone Lee for letting me be part of the event, along with the wickedly funny Zsuzsi Gartner and the kinda bluesy, kinds folksy, kinda hickey, fabulous hickey’s.

Leaving Calgary the snow began again and we were delayed as the plane was deiced. To keep us safe, first, they sprayed the big bird with a high-powered stream of liquid that looked like blood in bathwater and then a second shower that looked like slimy green pond water.

I was seated next to a man who was speed-reading Classic Wisdom for the Good Life. It took him about twenty minutes. Then he took out EnRoute magazine and took strips to it, literally, tearing up various pages, including the first prize CBC Literary Award winner for Creative Nonfiction — a sad and touching story by Gina Leola Woolsey, titled My Best Friend.

Second time through Classic Wisdom, he placed the bookmark-sized strips between various pages and drew stars next to quotes. Including this one, which conjures a rather disturbing image: Do not bite at the bait of pleasure till you know there is no hook beneath it. When he finished I asked him if he was feeling wise. He explained that he was coming to Vancouver for his daughter’s 21st birthday party. It was expected that he would give a toast at the party and he was reading the book because he wanted to pass on some words of wisdom. Instantly, I forgave him his noisy trespasses.

Within two hours of arriving in Vancouver I’m invited, twice, to a service tomorrow. I’m not sure what’s happened to Jesus these days, but does he not look like the son of George Clooney and Justin Timberlake?

Apr 2011