Wordshore

Writing in the long form
August 25th, 2011 by John

Pastries of the night

There’s a bakery and shop here in Grinnell which, as bakeries do, bakes stuff in the night and the early hours. Breads, cookies, cakes, pastries and all manner of things. It’s small, but rather good, and we’ve bought stuff from there several times before.

Sunset

This bakery is a little different in that if you go round the back from 2am onwards, and the owner is in there baking, he’ll sell you stuff that’s hot, or warm, out of the oven. Students (old enough to drink) especially take advantage of this, as the bakery is on the way back to campus from several of the bars. So I gave it a try tonight.

Grinnell isn’t the busiest of places in the middle of the day. In fact there’s only one stretch of one road where you sometimes have to wait to cross, and that during the rush hour. Downtown, which is a thriving four block business area, is quiet in the daytime – and deserted at night:

Downtown, 2am

2am rolled around, and the shop front of the bakery was unlit. Went round the back and bingo; the baker was happily rolling dough. He remembered me from six weeks ago; he was the first Grinnell person I’d met and spoken to, which was cool. And he had various racks of pastries and cakes ready, some of them warm and therefore recently out of the oven.

Purchases were made, and pleasantries exchanged. And if Becky looks inside the kitchen breadbin before she leaves for work in four and a half hours, she’ll find her present of:

Fresh out the bakery

:)

August 25th, 2011 by John

American Gothic reimagined

American Gothic 2011 Unrated Edition

And as the summer draws to a close, we continued our trips around the awesome state of Iowa. First impressions were of several thousand square miles of corn and precious little else, but perceptions are deceptive. There’s a lot in Iowa, if you look for it; more on this in future posts.

The best thing we’ve done here so far? Visited the house that Grant Wood painted in the iconic, and much parodied, American Gothic. The original painting…

American Gothic

…hangs in Chicago, but the actual house is in the town of Eldon, in the south of Iowa. Eldon has … not very much else, publicising the house in some way or other in two signs out of three around the place. From the main roads, follow the signs down various back streets, until the house comes into view.

Things we noticed when we turned up:

  • The house is surprisingly small
  • The visitor center nearby is several time larger
  • It doesn’t get visited much; just a few other people there, on a Saturday, when we were.

House

The house itself is lived in, rented out to someone who occasionally makes and sells pies. No tours inside, and signs to respect privacy, but you can get pretty close up to it.

The visitor center has a heap of exhibitions and a lot of contextual history about the house. But, best of all, they have friendly staff and a bunch of clothes you can put on to dress up like the folk (actually the painters dentist and sister) in the picture. Right down to the pitchfork, and the rather strong 1930s glasses.

So it was on with the clothes, and outside with our respective cameras.

Dressing up

And here’s the end result. The Systems Librarian of Grinnell College on the left, and me with the pitchfork, looking dour. Or hardworking. Or paternal. Or stern. Or, keeping a fixed frown as people of that era did, being dissuaded from smiling for primitive photography due to the long exposure time.

American Gothic

The visitor center, and having your picture taken, are free; donations welcome. More on their website. Eldon itself is 80 miles away from Grinnell. Enjoy.

August 18th, 2011 by John

Grinnell College

My other half started at the local college working in the library a few weeks ago. This has given me a good opportunity, or excuse, to wander around the campus (especially the library), and also to come along to various events where partners of staff are invited. These invariably involve food, increasing my suspicion that American academics and librarians bond over cuisine, whereas British ones bond over gin.

Grinnell College is a bit unusual. In British terms, it’s an undergraduate university, with staff also undertaking research. It has a very small number of students – around 1,600 – who can major in over 20 arts subjects. As Grinnell is a “liberal arts” college, with the liberal aspect taking on a sort of socio-political hue. As am figuring out, “liberal” in the US doesn’t quite mean the same as “liberal” in Britain. The chemistry department displays a map of the USA showing where 889 graduates over the decades are from. Most of these are from relatively liberal cities such as San Francisco, Denver (a lot), Minneapolis and New York. Hardly any are from the entire south east quarter of the country, arguably the most un-liberal part, despite states such as Florida and Texas having large populations.

Or, as one dean put it, “Grinnell is a liberal college surrounded by a distinctly un-liberal state”.

Student lounge

It’s also apparently one of the most “hipster” colleges in America.

The campus sits near the centre of the town, which itself has a population of less than 10,000. So, the college has a large bearing on the town. It’s quite a modern campus, with most of the buildings, new or (by American standards) old being aesthetically pleasing. And also, for 1,600 students, rather large. The swimming pool, for example, would not be out of place as the primary pool of many cities.

And it’s a pretty campus. Lots of lawns, trees, shrubs and flowers. It’s very quiet; the nearby town is in almost permanent slumber mode, and highway 6 is the only road you sometimes need to wait to cross. Interstate 80 is several miles to the south, thankfully far enough away not to be heard. So it’s mainly the song of birds and the murmer of small clumps of slowly moving undergraduates (it’s still hot here) that can be heard in a mid-August wander. And occasionally a freight train rumbling through, as the tracks separate the main campus from the halls of residence.

Campus grounds

The college is also perhaps best described as “quietly rich”. The college has an endowment fund of 1.26 billion US dollars. Yes, that’s billion, not million. Which averages out at $787K, or 492K pounds sterling, per undergraduate. Huh – why so much for such a small college? There’s several reasons, one being that the college invested in an alumni start-up company … called Intel. Another that the endowment fund has been managed over the last century by some seriously smart financial people, such as Warren Buffet, the billionaire who recently argued that he doesn’t pay tax at a high enough rate. And another reason the college has a large endowment fund is that it is apparently frugal, or careful, in how it is spent. Overall, this means that there isn’t the “we’re in financial trouble with no visible solution” feeling, or informal staff topic of conversation, that permeates some other universities. Though frugal, money is spent here; the biology labs have, even to the non-biologist eye, some seriously expensive kit in them

As an interesting side-point on the subject of big finance, it turns out that the chairman of Standard and Poor, who recently downgraded America’s credit rating, was an English major at Grinnell.

Flags

What are the people like? Relaxed, pretty much. But not lazy. The students I’ve spoken to, and eavesdropped in on, are quiet, polite, friendly … and above all, smart. I’ve heard casual but seriously intelligent conversations about Camus and Sartre, molecular biology and quantum physics, and economic models that completely lost me. By students, rather scarily less than half my age. Many of the students are from overseas; the NYT has an interesting article on the applications the college receives from China in particular.

It’s also pleasant to observe some individualism. A few months ago, at a university in southern Ohio, the conformity was striking and to be honest a little creepy. One lunchtime I walked through the basement of the library, part of which is a busy cafe. Very nearly every student looked identical (fake tan, long straight blonde hair, high-cut black sports shorts), had an identical MacBook, on which they had open Wikipedia (the irony of being in a library, yes…). If there was a college in The Truman Show, that would have been it. Here in Grinnell [has short wander around the library to collect data] yes, the students look and dress differently to each other, own a mixture of tech, and their screens show a smorgasbord of content and online services.

Old entrance

I’ve also encountered staff here. One of the pleasant surprises is that there isn’t much of a demarcation between the layers of staff when it comes to college events. I’ve found myself on several occasions already sitting next to deans, professors and heads of department, which is pleasant. For me anyway (they probably end up wondering why the chubby tall guy with the English accent is obsessed with American politics). There’s an absence of “status” in conversations with senior staff which is both weird and refreshing, and were it not for the introductions or the name badges, most of the time it wouldn’t be apparent that this is the top tier of academic staff. America does have a class system, though with different meanings attached to concepts such as “middle class”, it seems less rigid or defined as it is here in the US, and maybe this permeates through to how people are in academia. Or, it could be that liberal arts colleges such as Grinnell attract staff who, like their students, are quietly friendly. Whichever or whatever, I’ve always been made welcome here and have lost count of the number of college people who have said “Welcome to Iowa”.

Oh, one other thing. This place sure knows how to do catering. I’ve eaten better, in terms of quality and variety of food, at various social events at Grinnell College than any UK university I’ve been in. One example of many is the sushi platter at a recent “new faculty and partners” event:

Sushi

That’s the first impressions of the college, but these may change as the students start and the campus becomes busier. The college library, which I’m typing this in now (nice Mac workstations) has some unexpectedly interesting things in it; will write about those next week.

August 16th, 2011 by John

An American trip: October and November 2008

During October and November of 2008, I took a month-long trip around the US of A. The main mode of transport was Amtrak train, and the trip tied in neatly with two conferences I was speaking at – one of which was in Chicago on the day Barack Obama was elected (and one heck of an evening that was). I did a lot of writing on that trip, thinking it was just a few people in the Outer Hebrides and a few friends and colleagues who were reading it – and not realising until recently that others were too, for various reasons. I’m relieved now I didn’t delete the words.

Since demolishing my blog and, essentially, restarting all of my online presence as new as I can, the diaries have gotten messed up, but they should be restored here as a set of 32 postings.

Don’t know which post was the “best”, but a few folk have said the Surviving New Orleans posting is their choice because of the tweeted engagement story in it. Mine is the Texas one, where I seem to have just lost inhibitions and fears and just … wrote.

Oct 18th – Los Angeles and Santa Monica

Oct 20th – Pictures, not words

Oct 21st – Sleepless in Monterey

Oct 23rd – Monterey aquarium

Pier from the sidewalk

Oct 25th – First overnight trip on Amtrak

Oct 25th – Breakfast in Seattle

Oct 26th – An afternoon in the mountains

Oct 26th – New York deli breakfast in Seattle

Oct 27th – Montana at dawn

Oct 28th – Whitefish, Montana

Oct 29th – Sign of the times

Samantha at Tucson station

Oct 29th – Election, American style

Oct 30th – Do bears…?

Oct 30th – Is black the new ginger?

Oct 30th – Election day events in Chicago

Nov 1st – Whitefish to Chicago by Amtrak

Nov 1st – GLLS2008 food

Nov 2nd – American time, British time, Obama time

Nov 4th – Chicago on election day

Walkway

Nov 4th – Outside, it’s America

Nov 5th – “Oh, you look so beautiful, tonight…”

Nov 5th – The morning after

Nov 6th – In America, academics knit

Nov 7th – Goodbye Chicago

Nov 8th – Graceland, Memphis, Tennessee

Nov 8th – Memphis, and the ride to New Orleans

Nov 10th – New Orleans (1)

He won

Nov 10th – New Orleans (2)

Nov 12th – Surviving New Orleans

Nov 13th – Texas: a thousand miles of bugger-all

Nov 13th – The American Dream

Nov 16th – Trip summary

There’s also a set of pictures on Flickr, some of which are embedded in the postings anyway.

February 25th, 2011 by John

Blue Highways

My favourite non-fiction book. And the answer to the “What one possession would you take with you if your house was on fire?” question. The author is also the person, if I could pick one, I want to be.

I’ve been fascinated, obsessed, delirious, about America since I could speak and read, possibly before. My earliest memory was of watching man – an American – land on the moon, being too young to understand the excitement of a packed room of people watching a tiny, flickering television.

rural road

Every influence, from Coca Cola bottles to West Side Story, the speeches of JFK (who my parents named me after), the Stars and Stripes and the Star Spangled Banner, the movies of the Coen brothers and the journalism of the Washington Post, Seinfeld and The Wire, the optimism and a thousand influences in between, flow through me. That growing realisation that I’m an American, born in the wrong country.

I’ve had a few adventures, briefly, in America. But the adventure, the journey – and it is always the journey, not the destination – that William Least Heat-Moon describes in this book, is over four hundred pages of often transcendental observation and reflection, of America and the author, the writer, within America.

In Blue Highways, William found his life changing drastically in his late thirties, his ties gone, and took the opportunity to make a move, setting off with the bare minimum and copies of Leaves of Grass and Black Elk Speaks. He stuck to the back roads, the two lane tracks, and the small towns, people who’d never been interviewed, traveled, seen beyond their horizon but were content. Several thousand miles of traveling, and he repeatedly finds places and people he didn’t know existed; but perhaps more importantly he “learnt what he didn’t know he needed to know”.

Life as a back road in Iowa

The journey. It’s always about the journey. And there’s possibly no better place, physically and spiritually, to undertake the journey than America.

It’s a beautiful book I’ve read many times, and it smells and feels like a well-read and loved book.

Lines from a Navajo wind chant which close the book, and reminds of why we write:

Then he was told:
Remember what you have seen,
because everything forgotten,
returns to the circling winds.

January 20th, 2011 by John

Believing in America

Is it possible to watch something online and be simultaneously very happy and very jealous? Yes; today I was. Watching some of this webcam footage live, which the White House has put in the public domain.

White House

Watching the news it can be difficult at times to believe in the USA as a civilised and progressive country and society. The politics, as portrayed through television news, appear entrenched, angry, volatile and dangerous. Incidents, such as the recent shootings in Tucson, distress. News reports fill with individuals and crowds, commentators, angry, seemingly on the edge of violence. And it makes you think; here in the UK, especially in the current political and economic climate, there is a lot of anger and bitterness; see, for example, the recent protests over student debt.

Greeting Michelle Obama and Bo

But, we don’t violently attack politicians, or their families, or other high profile people here. We just … don’t. “That kind of thing happens in America, not here in Britain” is the standard view, especially of the older generations. So a viewer of the traditional news and media could reasonably assume that the USA is a country ‘divided’, with millions of people hating a group of millions of other people. Well, maybe not. TV news show the incidents, the controversy, the marches, and angry people angrily waving signs of varying degrees of literacy. Is it really like that, nationally? If you make a large and random selection of the public meet one of the most high profile people on one ‘side’ of the political ‘divide’, how many would get angry, or not be civil, or would generally be unpleasant.

Greeting Michelle Obama and Bo

How about … none?

Today was the second anniversary of the inauguration of Barack Obama, the 44th president of the United States. As an unexpected surprise, Michelle Obama and their dog, Bo, waited in the Blue Room of the White House to meet members of the public who were doing the tour. Cue lots of surprised Americans being suddenly met by Michelle saying “Hi!” or “Welcome to my house!”

Even better, this was all piped live through the White House website, so people online could watch what happened and how members of the public reacted. The White House set this up neatly, with one webcam focused on Obama and Bo, and the other on the entrance to the room at the point where visitors realise they’re about to meet the first lady.

Greeting Michelle Obama and Bo

Considering that a significant portion of the population vote, or voted Republican, and with the Tea Party, the libertarians, and the aforementioned angry and divisive nature of the politics that we see, frequently, on the news, it was a relief and good to see that no-one refused to shake hands with Michelle (apart from the kid who was terrified of dogs and ran away from Bo), or was rude or dismissive to her.

And this wasn’t staged; watching this for quite a while, it was good to see people repeatedly shocked, then surprised, then delighted that they got to meet the first lady. How awesome is that?

Greeting Michelle Obama and Bo

And Michelle was actually … hugging … random members of the public(!) Seriously. Male, female, black, white, old and young. Physical contact? Here in Britain, politicians shake hands politely, kiss babies for the media on campaign trails, and that’s about it; it’s all very … restrained and repressed. You don’t … hug politicians and they don’t hug you. Royalty are even more distant; lightly put your hand on the Queen, even if you are prime minister of another country, and face the wrath of the media. All part, perhaps, of the class structure and the doffing of one’s hat or cap to your social and economic superiors?

Greeting Michelle Obama and Bo

But there, in America, the wife of the president of the United States is hugging random members of public. Some of whom appear to be in mild shock at this, while others, especially the schoolkids, jump up and down a bit. They will remember that day for the rest of their lives, when a visit to the White House turned into something unexpectedly else.

Greeting Michelle Obama and Bo

And watching Michelle meet hundreds of Americans (and tourists from other countries) today, all of whom were polite and friendly, is one of the many reasons I still believe in America. Despite what the traditional media try and repeatedly tell me otherwise. Most, nearly all, Americans – and I have met thousands over the decades, so this isn’t a random guess – when you meet them, are decent, friendly people who just want to get on in life.

And that, alone, is reason enough to believe in America.

August 12th, 2009 by John

Orland Public Library, Indiana

Library Open

If you love books and libraries, and you are travelling around America, this is the library to visit; the Joyce library, in Orland, up in the north east corner of Indiana. I’d heard recommendations about it from other librarians in the county, especially about the old library upstairs, so it became a bit of a must-see.

It didn’t disappoint.

The library is open80

The library is open for three days a week, four hours on each day. Called the Joyce Public Library, it’s named after the person who created it, back in 1903. Orland itself has a population of just 400. So it isn’t a big place, though it has pretty houses, and a famous diner (Chubby’s) where the portion sizes are threatening and cost a pittance is next door to the library.

Walking inside, you find yourself in a single, long room with (very) neatly arranged cases, shelves and books. There isn’t a single thing out of place and, probably, not a spec of dust in the place. I’ve never seen a library kept in this pristine and neat condition. Ever. Near the main desk, where patrons discussed the plots of the books they were returning, was the catalogue. Not PC-based, but a traditional card catalogue; a rummage through showed every card typed out in the same careful style. Entries for of my favourite books in the library came up in it (probably quicker than by using a PC-based catalogue, if one had been available).

Main collection

I got chatting to the staff who, like all the other librarians encountered in rural Indiana, were friendly and keen to speak to folk (especially folk with English accents). They gave a history of the place and offered what I was hoping for, a tour of the rooms not normally open to the public.

And so, the upstairs were a complete revelation. Larger than the downstairs, the restoration and materials spread across three rooms. The first one was the old library proper, complete with bell, the original card cataloguing case, and numerous books.

Old library room

The historical books can be browsed (but not taken out of the library) …

Books in the old library

… while the other rooms contained materials included a newspaper collection dating back to the 1880s, school desks and textbooks, cuttings, pictures of the town baseball team through the last century, team clothing and tables and cupboards filled with other historical ephemera. I particularly liked the newspaper front cover detailing the massacre at Custer’s last stand, with sub-headings of “What will Congress do about it?” and “Shall this be the beginning of the end?”.

It would have taken a good few days to have had a good look through what was there, and it was obvious that there was a substantial operation underway to preserve and archive the materials. It turned out that most was donated by local families, when clearing out rooms and attics and coming across items collected, or just forgotten about, by ancestors.

Historical archiving room

Wandering downstairs, the restored pictures around the top of the walls in the public library were distracting. These were the annual school photo displays, restored and displayed in chronological order. Going back well over a century, these were fun to move along, seeing how fashion (as photographed) changed, from stern, well-buttoned turn of the (1900) century outfits …

Class of 1907

… to the formality of the WW2 years, and the more adventurous hairstyles of the 1960s. If you watch Mad Men, then the dress and personal grooming sense of the 1960s pictures are very recognisable.

Class of 1963

There was more to look at in the public library. 26 alphabet tote bags, each containing fun stuff for young kids associated with a single letter of the alphabet. The surprisingly varied public book collection itself. The wedding dress display in the front window.

So how is this, one of the nicest library and library museums I’ve ever seen, funded? Especially their library museum, which has a collection far in excess of my home town (which is several hundred years older and has a population 60 times the size). It looks like a library. It functions like a library. But it isn’t integrated into the state or county network of official public libraries because (?) there are no qualified librarians who work here. That also means it doesn’t appear on some lists of public libraries in Indiana or the USA.

Okay; get this. The annual budget of this library – including the historical rooms upstairs? $16,000. Or, in UK money, £9,400. Per year. Some of this comes from town funding; a small amount also came from out of township membership fees of $10 a year (“We could charge more, but we don’t want to.”). Some monies come from catering and meals cooked by the library staff, such as the annual firemens dinner (attendance of roughly 100 in a town of 400 residents); the staff apply for any relevant grants which they hear about.

Considering it’s a building with several floors, taxes, electricity, upkeep and maintenance, there’s a substantial historical archiving initiative going on upstairs, and that they introduce 20 or so new books to the collection every month, that’s peanuts.

Historical collection

How is this possible? Volunteer effort. It’s staffed by a handful of – unpaid – local residents, who also do the archiving and maintenance. The library board, of five people, meet once a year. And that’s about it in terms of bureacracy. People in the town come in and help with things, or donate materials or hardware. “Why do you do this?” I asked the senior who gave the guided tour, and had done much of the historical archiving. “Because we can, and if we didn’t then this would be lost, and the town wouldn’t have a library.” “Do you get many out of town visitors here, or to the upstairs library?” “Not really.” This didn’t seem to bother her; she wasn’t doing it for funding, or for public glory. She just did it for quiet personal satisfaction, and because she lived in Orland.

I dropped off 10 dollars. Inexplicably, the library doesn’t have a donation jar, the staff didn’t charge for the tour, and they seemed surprised and grateful for the donation. Unlike a few other libraries visited over the years, there was no overt revenue-generating operation; exactly the opposite. Orland public library isn’t a financial model that would work in most places. Without the considerable volunteer effort of a few locals, the support of the whole town, and the canny accumulation and use of funding, the library would become unviable immediately.

One last thing. On leaving, turning the corner outside reveals a mural on the side of the library building:

Mural

Considering the size of the archiving operation, how well materials have been ordered and preserved, the miniscule budget and the number of people working there – with the support of the town – Orland public library seems a more heroic, worthy, complete and (above all) personal effort than more well-known libraries and museums such as the Bodleian, National Library of Scotland or the Smithsonian.

So that was my trip to Orland public library; a deeply satisfying way of ending a summer in the heat of midwest America.

August 11th, 2009 by John

Conversations with librarians

Three months wandering around the Midwest of the USA come to an end in a few days, when I get on the plane from Chicago to London. It turned into a bit of a road trip in the end; during which I’ve met some fun people, expanded the social circle and contact network, eaten a spectacular range of finest American cuisine, explored cities e.g. Detroit, Ann Arbour and Toledo, wandered into Canada, swam in two of the Great Lakes (Michigan and Ontario), watched several baseball matches, seen numerous firework displays, got up close and personal with buffalo, travelled by road, plane, Greyhound bus and Amtrak train, started geocaching, and explored parts of Michigan, Ohio and Indiana. And also got some work done.

All of that was enjoyable, every last baseball observed and calorie consumed. But the most fun was visiting rural libraries in Indiana and speaking to the librarians who direct, run and staff them.

Fremont was my first experience of a rural Indiana library. It wasn’t what I was expecting. The building was large, roomy, cool and quiet. Furniture was tasteful; electricity sockets were everywhere; the wifi was free. There were areas to do historical research and to generally sit down in a group. As with every library I visited, at least one large American flag would be prominent in the building:

Comfy seating area

The computer labs would be the envy of public libraries in Britain (as well as possibly a few schools and university departments). Several banks of – new – PCs were complimented by several areas of – new – Macs with large screens:

Mac Lab

I chatted with a male librarian, who seemed pretty friendly. He, and I quote, “real enjoyed” working there and enjoyed helping out the patrons who came in.

Topeka was a small town – basically a crossroads with a few building either side – deep in Amish country. Their library building was opened in March 2009, and like many of the newer buildings was well lit, cool, and roomy:

Topeka library

The friendly librarian chatted for a while. She ran various teen programs, such as movie nights, which helped bring kids in from a wide area around. It helped that the building had a community room (free for non-profits, a small fee for businesses) which was kitted out with various media kit, plus a piano. Topeka libraries serves a rural area of some 25 mile radius – and rural it is, with the town surrounded by corn fields and much of the traffic being Amish buggies. The Amish made up a sizeable proportion of the patrons of the library, and while we were chatting several came in and borrowed books.

Angola public library was also in a new building. Actually, the old library – restored and used as the reference centre – was also inside the new building, which also included the fountain that also used to be outside. It’s not everyday you see a fountain inside a public library, but there you go:

Angola library

One of the library staff was happy to give a guided tour, then introduced the director. She explained the (horribly complicated) way in which libraries in Indiana were funded – basically a combination of property taxes, donations, fines, and fees for out of township residents. I think – the system of funding, and who was eligible to use the library, seems complicated and differs between libraries, even in the same county. For example, a town and a township are not the same thing. From what I understand, villages, towns and cities are inside townships, which are inside counties, which are inside states. And each level has its own criteria (stop press: just been told that some can be incorporated – which adds another complication).

Angola library itself received most of its funding from local property taxes, as well as some clever auctions of items and services donated by local businesses:

Angola library

The collection itself was interesting, with ‘weeding’ being a counter-productive aspect. The Amish bishop instructed the children not to read any books published after 1975 or 1980, which meant that Amish children finding a book on the mobile library would first of all flip to the date of publication before checking out the book further.

LaGrange public library was inside a cramped building. It looked nice from the outside, near the centre of the town and opposite an Amish farmers market where I bought some jam and sausage bread. Inside, it became very obvious that this is a library that needed to move to a larger building. Desperately. Signs on the road coming into town indicated (as confirmed by a librarian) that the move/upgrade was the focus of some local controversy:

LaGrange library controversy

Inside, the staff were struggling moving around a building clearly not designed for either a growing collection of the current size, or people unable to use the many flights of stairs. Like the old library in Angola, the one in LaGrange was a Carnegie Library, one of many funded partially by a Scots philanthropist during the development of many rural American towns.

Stacks

Despite the small size of the rooms in the building, like the other public libraries on this tour there were several newish PCs for free Internet access, plus a whole pile of community information. LaGrange had several churches offering community meals, as advertised through the library and other places in the town. On the bannister of the stairs in the library porch was a stream of cards where residents could advertise, and request, services and goods from others. Sort of like a localised Saturday Swap Shop.

Community swap

All these public libraries were interesting and staffed by friendly, helpful people. But my favourite public library – not just in this corner of rural Indiana, but of the hundreds I’ve visited across America and Europe – deserves a posting to itself. Next.

August 10th, 2009 by John

Emma, Indiana

Emma General Store

Emma is the name of the place. Not much there at all; it’s a few buildings surrounding a crossroads, itself surrounded by miles of corn fields. This is deep Amish country, so from a seat in the general store/restaurant people can watch the buggies go by. The strawberry sundae was awesome; wish had stayed for lunch – rural food and the menu changes every day.

I’ll be back. And I’ll take better quality footage then.

March 13th, 2009 by John

Hay-on-Wye: Beyond the long tail

(Pictures from this trip are on Flickr, and there’s a Flickr group with pictures by other people)

I’m sitting in The Granary in Hay-on-Wye. It’s mid morning. Outside it’s a little damp but in here there’s a crackling log fire. Every table is taken. Everyone is either reading, writing, or murmuring quietly to whoever they are with. Hops hang from the uncovered joists of the ceiling.

At the next table an earnest man (pointy beard) is reading Sylvia Plaths “The Bell Jar”. On the other side – and by coincidence as I bought a copy yesterday – a 20-something lady with dreadlocks and a multicoloured sweater that looks hand-knitted is reading “The Catcher in the Rye”. The couple at the table beyond nod back; previously they’d commented on the “O The President” decal on Samantha, in a positive way. Someone I can’t place but know – think he is a BBC reporter – is eating scrambled eggs on toast at the corner table and throwing little bits to an appreciative spaniel.

Bookshop

I check Twitter. My pot of tea arrives and I respond to the waitress in Welsh, constantly surprised at remembering words unused in decades.

Hay-on-Wye has the extremely justified title of the “Town of Books”. It’s not a big place; you can walk across downtown (as American colleagues would say) in less than ten minutes. The streets are narrow, but the place isn’t choked with traffic; there’s nowhere to drive to within 20 miles of here, perhaps why.

Wall of books

The bookshops and the festival are why people visit Hay. This tiny town, straddling the border of England and Wales, claims to have “more books” (easily many million) “per square mile” (one?) then anywhere else. And it would be a brave town, even other book towns, which challenged this. I wonder; does this place have the largest concentration of non-digital knowledge in the world? Possibly.

The bookshops differ, from the small and specialist, to several buildings joined together with seemingly endless corridors of books. Shelving differs, from neat and orderly, to books taking up every conceivable space on walls and floor, in some places meaning you have to jump over piles of books to move onwards. In some places, the books are precariously placed. On day one, I pulled one off a high shelf. The shelf came down with it. And the shelves below. And the cabinet. It was raining books – unfortunately hardbacks. The irony of being killed by an avalanche of books (which some librarian colleagues would have found very funny) wasn’t lost on me.

Booth's

It’s apparently quiet at this time of year, but even so the bookshops were busy with browsers and purchasers. This isn’t a place where books come to die; it’s a place where books are given another opportunity of being refound and reowned. Hay-on-Wye is the global convergence point for used books; container loads from around the world go into the bookshops; purchasers (including me) wait patiently in line at the Post Office to send books back around the world.

Useful though amazon.com is, where it fails, Hay-on-Wye fills the gap. Obscure book? Book published in 1933 that Amazon says is “Unavailable”? That collection of Ladybird books that taught you, simply, about things and which you believed unswervingly in at age six? They’re probably sitting on a shelf in Hay-on-Wye. Somewhere. And here’s the thing – there’s no instant look-up online of where that book is on the shelf. You have to go hunt, and that is part of the fun. In some stores, the staff can help. In others they have a vague idea. In some you are on your own (literally, as some shops are unmanned with just an honesty box for payment).

The problem (is it a problem?) in my case is that, in the hunt for one book, I found and bought more than 30 others on the way. Which lead to several more trips to the post office for despatch, as a swathe of my American colleagues will discover next week.

And it’s not just the bookstores. There are books for sales in cabinets bolted onto walls, in gardens, on tables outside, under a marquee next to the converted cinema (converted, inevitably, into a bookstore), on cabinets in the grounds of the castle:

Cabinets of books

So that book you remembered about from your youth is here. If it isn’t, it isn’t likely to be anywhere else. J. R. Hartley wasted his time wandering around the local bookshops of his small town; he should have taken the bus across the Golden Valley to Hay-on-Wye and tracked it down here.

The Globe at Hay, a converted chapel, was a revelation and my base for several days. Entering takes you into the most relaxed cafe possible. Sofas, cushions to sit and lie down own, various tables. Free wifi and a formidable menu of excellent and well-priced food, tea and coffee. People tap away on laptops. More of them ask about the decal on Samantha.

Downstairs, the basement is used for classes, keep fit, and as a makeshift cinema where I rewatched “Mulholland Drive” one evening on a comfy sofa while drinking good tea in a proper cup. The Odeon this was not.

Comfy seating

The residents are noticeably affluent, in how they dress and shop. This is, to use the increasingly dodgy British classification, an upper middle class town. I suspect the newspaper demographic is about 80 percent Guardian, 15 percent Independent and 5 percent the rest. But whilst people who (tediously) revel in the “grittiness” of “working class” living will automatically assume that means snobbiness, it’s exactly the opposite. I don’t think I’ve visited a more relentlessly friendly, approachable and relaxed place in Britain.

It’s probably helped by the range of shops. As well as over 30 bookshops, there are many foodie shops, from delicatessans to cafes to restaurants to (several) grocers. Many of them selling high quality, organic, and varied, fruit and vegetables. And not at extortionate prices, so it’s not just for those affluent people. Hay-on-Wye isn’t near anywhere significant; Hereford is the local city, nearly an hour away by bus. It’s on the edge of the Brecon Beacons, a wild and empty place I distantly remember from childhood. The town is proof that, with effort and a positive attitude, a relatively ‘remote’ place can have a wide range of goods and services.

Indexing

It’s no surprise that the annual Hay Festival is a big success. Accommodation is booked up for (many) miles around; the B&B I stay in is booked for the festival week for the next two years. I went to an early festival and remember it being little more than a marquee in the town square. Now it’s a big thing, with speakers such as Bill Clinton proclaiming the festival as “The Woodstock of the mind”.

I wonder what other book towns are like? I visited one a decade ago in Mundal in Norway without realising it, but remember noticing lots of places selling second-hand books. I’m overdue for another visit to Norway and a stay in my favourite hotel there to date. And perhaps an exploration of other booktowns; there are 22 in Europe, ranging from Votikvere in Estonia to Valladolid in Spain. This could become a new hobby (glint in eye) if I can work out how to fund it.

But if you are serious about books and knowledge, you have to visit Hay-on-Wye at least once in your life. Go there. Buy a book for yourself. Buy one for someone else, and post it to them.