Yesterday was Shopping Bag Day in my quaint New England town. The streets and stores, parking lots and sidewalks were jammed with people come to get 20% off one item or their entire purchase at most of the stores in our downtown. Once in a store, once in a full-blown buying mood, who could buy just one item? The local newspaper provided the 20% bag for our goodies in Thursday paper. Hordes of people surged through town in a shopping frenzy which was so contagious that even reluctant anti-shoppers (who perhaps had forgotten that it was Bag Day) joined in and spent money too, swiping their credit cards with abandon. Up with the local economy!
I ventured forth with a list in my fist and the iron focus of an actor doing tricky blocking through treacherous territory. One false move and I could plummet into spending too much of my hard earned money on things nobody needed. So I had my shields up against opportunistic buying of shiny this and sparkly that. I felt smug and safe as I whizzed past $500 sweet nothings.
“Oh, I read your book,” said the store manager (proprietor?) in a lovely boutique.
She and I chat from time to time as I regularly buy clothes to wear at conventions or readings or lectures from her. Her store is always filled with lovely hand-woven, hand-dyed, wearable art, and if you know me, you know I have a jones for wearable art (see Bill Clemente photo of me at Peru State College). Over the years I have often shopped in her store, celebrating five thousand words written, a book coming out, a tour, a play opening, or just a beautiful day.
“I loved your book,” she said.
What author wouldn’t be pleased? I smiled, encouraging further comment, even though the store was jammed with fervent Bag Day shoppers starting to look feral as the sun dipped behind the hills.
“Loved it.” She shook her head. Maybe that was all she had.
“Thank you,” I said.
“It was hard getting into at first.”
“Oh.” I wasn’t really looking for a critique at the moment. I assumed she read Mindscape. The first fifty pages might give anyone pause. But, what could I do about that except write a better beginning to my next book?
“Really hard.” She furrowed her brow, remembering the effort.
I had my eye on a purple and green reversible jacket with wonderful buttons that would lift any mood, even in the middle of a dark New England winter. It was only four thirty, but the sun was now a fading memory on the horizon.
“I’m white, you know, so it was hard,” she said.
“Uh huh.” I realized everyone in the store seemed to be white with her, except for me. Race hadn’t been on my mind, and her being “white” certainly didn’t explain her response. All white people wouldn’t read any book the same way. I’m sure she knew this too, but was running for cover under a monolith. I nodded politely and grabbed the jacket that was actually 50% off. “This has my name on it!” I said.
“The language was hard you know,” she said. “That dialect thing, but it wasn’t just that. The language is beautiful really. And after a while you’re caught in the rhythm of it. Not hard at all. It was, you know, the whole deal, the guilt, the hard, painful history, just glaring at you, not just black and white, Indians too—who wants that when you’re trying to have fun?” She was talking about Redwood and Wildfire, not Mindscape.
Everyone in the store was listening, feral energy focused on us now.
“Is everything with a red dot 50% off?” I asked. I didn’t want her whole deal, her guilt, or hard painful history when I was trying to buy some glad rags to strut my stuff!
“But you got me,” she smiled. “No, you really did. I just kept reading. It was beautiful. You just made me read and read to the end. That’s good writing. No. Really. All the way to the end.”
Redwood and Wildfire had hoodooed her!
The shoppers were riveted. They looked up for that kind of art. So I said, “Well, you can buy it just down the street. Broadside Books, 20% off. Redwood and Wildfire—Andrea Hairston.”
A few people laughed, one woman clapped, a husband shook his wife to get her back to shopping.
“No. As a writer myself…” She had written a novel and asked me once for advice about getting her book out into the world. I don’t recall having much good advice. “We’re losing touch with that history you write about, conjuring and all, and we shouldn’t, but…Well I wouldn’t dare touch that kind of material,” she said. “That’s writing. I’m jealous.”
I quickly bought my bargains and escaped out into the night (4:45) air.
The next stop on my disciplined shopping list was a boutique that sold the German face cream I love to pamper myself with. Short of flying to Munich, this is the one store where I can get it. The 20% discount is a big help to my cash flow.
I was at the counter with my happy purchase and the owner said, “I read your book.”
I tried not to cringe. “Redwood and Wildfire,” I said, remembering that I’d told her about the book coming out. She liked historical novels.
“It was such a weird experience for me,” she replied.
This store was not as crowded as the last, but everyone tuned in, curious to have an author who offered weird experiences among them.
“Good weird,” the owner said. “I’m from where the book is coming from. And, well, I have visions of those conjure women from your book. I do. All the time. Before reading your book. Those women are with me. I couldn’t believe you were writing about my visions. I had to put the book down and catch my breath. I mean, you were describing just what I see in my visions! Colored women, tall, stunning, just like your characters, conjuring up a storm. It was amazing. Incredible. Isn’t that incredible?”
“Yes,” I said. “Incredible.”
The owner’s a white lady close to fifty or just looking back at it. She sounded like she had a Southern accent once upon a time. We hadn’t talked enough for me to know where she was from. Who’s from where they are anymore?
“I loved the language,” she said. “It was sweet. It was home, you know. It was my story. It was our story. Wow. You’re like my long lost sister or something. Right?”
I nodded and didn’t take a bag for my tiny jar of eye cream. I had bought way too much stuff and my knapsack was heavy, yet all my purchases managed to fit. It was dark, and the cold was creeping in. I had to get on my bike and get home. I was about to go out the door but she nabbed me.
“I almost had to stop reading because the book was so close to me, you know? A me I don’t quite know. I mean, I had to stop for a minute and just…”
“Feel yourself. Written down,” I said, thinking of books that grabbed me, that shook me at my core.
“Do I sound ridiculous?” She looked embarrassed. The long lost sister and vision bit was weird, but good weird. Nobody looked disturbed. The other shoppers were riveted. Word by word, they’d been drawn into the spell.
So I said again, more shameless self promotion, “Well, you can buy it just down the street. Broadside Books, 20% off. Redwood and Wildfire—Andrea Hairston.”
Customers nodded, curious enough to go check it out.
The first lady didn’t want to deal, but Redwood and Wildfire hoodooed her, made her read on, and she was glad. The second lady wanted to deal, and Redwood and Wildfire let her embrace the hoodoo she’d already been doing, and she was glad. I rode home down the bike path, gliding over these good thoughts, oblivious to the cold edge to the wind.