Friday, March 27, 2015

what's making me happy this week, 1.

Every so often, in addition to those 52 essays I'm supposed to be cranking out, I'm going to publish a small list of what's making me happy, a la one of my favorite podcasts, NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour. Nothing major, just a new series to remind me to count my blessings. 

Here's what's making me happy this week: 

- Keeping up with long-distance friends. Is it important to build community right where you are? Absolutely. I think it's imperative. But I also know how difficult and daunting that task can be, and instead of wallowing in my occasional loneliness, it helps me to focus on the friends I do have in my life. Last weekend, Jordan and I spent two days with a couple of our favorite people, and the visit served as a powerful reminder of the community we've already established. New friends are crucial, but old friends are life-giving in an entirely different -- maybe deeper? -- kind of way. 

- Book clubs. Author Gretchen Rubin references her penchant for book clubs in her new book, Better Than Before. She mentions she's an active member in four separate clubs, and at first, I was aghast. Who has the time? But this week, I met with my in-town Thomasville book club. I started a long-distance Skye book club with a couple of the aforementioned long distance friends. And I'm keeping up with two different "Sisterhood of the Traveling Book" clubs via snail mail -- one with long distance friends and one with online friends via Instagram. All of them make me happy, and, perhaps because of my job, they don't cost me much extra time and effort. (And even when they do, the time I spend is enjoyable.) 

- Better Than Before + Happier podcast. Before our trip last weekend, the store got in copies of Gretchen Rubin's new book, Better Than Before, and I am devouring it. Gretchen Rubin is kind of my spirit animal; if I'm hosting an imaginary dinner party, I want Gretchen and Shauna Niequist there. Gretchen's other books, The Happiness Project and Happier at Home, have been favorites for a long time, and her new title about habits is sparking all kinds of excitement in my brain. I've annoyed Jordan and my friends with all kinds of facts about habit-making and what habits work for our personality types; it's fascinating information (to me), and Gretchen's new podcast is sparking fun conversations, too.

- The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. 30 Rock was on television during my college years, which means I've really only seen a couple of seasons (shocking, I know). But when Netflix released The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt last week, I knew I'd be game. Ellie Kemper + Tina Fey = magic, in my book. The show is hilarious and quick, which means it's completely re-watchable. (A relief, since I've already finished the first season.) Plus the theme song is stuck in my head all day, every day.

- TheSkimm. My schedule is incredibly varied, which means I have to fight for any routine in my day. After hearing about theSkimm for months,  I finally signed up, and I love it. I thought a daily email would completely overwhelm my inbox, but instead, every morning, I read through the news stories and feel informed and ready to start my day. Highly recommend.  

And that's what's making me happy this week.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

9/52 :: life right now.

Yesterday, I woke up at 8:00. I ran to The Bookshelf to place a book order before we opened, then went to the bank and to Publix for trash bags and coffee for the shop. I came home and cleaned our rather disgusting kitchen, did three loads of laundry, made our bed, and swept every bit of our 1,000-square foot home. I vacuumed, but quickly realized our vacuum doesn't work, and instead, everything I swept was spit back out onto the floor. I unpacked from our quick weekend trip, cleaned our bathroom, then put makeup on and headed to the library, where we were selling books for an author event. The library over ordered by more than 100 books, which means today, I'll spend part of my morning mailing books back to the publisher and paying for shipping. (Much of small business is learning from my ever constant mistakes. Mistake number one: Never listen to a librarian. Their books, remember, are rentable.)

I ran back to the store and processed our sales through inventory, put out a couple of minor figurative fires, then came back home to clean out my closet of winter clothes. I missed four phone calls and left a dozen emails sitting in my inbox. I read Gretchen Rubin's new book and went to a book club meeting for a book I had read back in December, which means I had to Google to remind myself of the plot. I found out a friend is having a baby boy, and I helped my dad judge limericks for a contest he was hosting at work. I checked almost everything off my list, and after it was all done, I sat in our guest room, surrounded by folded laundry and wondered: Why did I tell the Internet I'd post a thoughtful essay every week? 

My life isn't normal anymore. And I don't know what normal is, really, but I'm going to guess as a small business owner, my normal is at least pretty different from yours. And that's okay. It's the choice I made. Some of you had to work from 8 to 5 behind a desk on Monday; others of you had to wrangle babies and go to preschool and clean up messes. We can whine to each other about how little time we all have, or we could just acknowledge: Yeah, in the middle of all that, I watched three episodes of Friends out of sheer exhaustion. 

I'm determined to post regularly in this space. But I think I've limited myself by promising thoughtful essays when sometimes, my thoughts can't really be put into words. Not neat or pretty ones ready for publishing. 

This, then, is an essay about life right now. About beating my husband at March Madness and recording weekly podcasts and visiting long-distance friends and trying to fit in in a small town. Life right now looks like pollen all over my front porch and an incessant buzzer on a dryer full of clean clothes I don't want to fold. Life right now means starting over at a new church and answering countless questions and knowing not everyone thinks we're doing the right thing. Life right now is a postponed trip to Washington, D.C., and a massage I got for my birthday that I still haven't done.

2015 was supposed to be different, wasn't it? Isn't that the truth we all told ourselves on January 1?

And yet, here I am in March -- almost April -- wondering where the time has gone and what I have done with it.

Yesterday was a good day. I'm proud of what I accomplished, and I'm grateful I have a job that allows me some flexibility in my schedule. Tonight, I'll take a knitting class, and Jordan and I will sign up for a Wednesday night study at the Anglican church. I'll keep reading Gretchen Rubin's new book, and I'll take some notes on starting new and better habits. 

It was a long winter, I think. And I'm hopeful -- so hopeful -- for spring. And for every over-ordered book or misunderstood conversation or sock I can't find the match for, there are good things, too. There are Sunday drives and basketball games and snail mail and good books and kinds words and new habits and cokes with crushed ice.

Everything, as it turns out, is going to be okay. Done is better than perfect. And that is life right now.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

8/52 :: ash wednesday.


"Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return." I could almost taste the ash as the priest crossed it over my forehead. It trickled down onto my nose, but I didn't feel the urge to laugh.

Church, if done right, is an innately humbling experience; weekly, I'm reminded this life does not revolve around me. I'm reminded the world is big and vast, and the role I play in it is small, albeit noticed by a God who breathed life into me by His mercy. Church regularly reminds me of my smallness, but I have never felt as small as I did on Ash Wednesday. 

We have confounded our families and friends with our decision to attend an Anglican church. This week, I read remarks by Southern Baptist leader Albert Mohler, who in a podcast commented on the recent "conversion" of two Southern Baptist young men to the more liturgical Catholic and Anglican traditions. His words stung.

“As I read this news article, it comes as judgment -- judgment upon all those who missed the opportunity and failed in the responsibility to ground these young boys as they were then in the Christian faith… the differences between the understanding of a Scripture-centered Christianity and one that is centered in the sacraments, as is the Roman Catholic system, and at least much of Anglicanism.” 

Dr. Mohler's words stung because Jordan and I both come from families firmly grounded in faith, families who love Jesus and believe in His redemptive saving grace. Our families' legacies are embedded in us, and those legacies don't go away just because the church we attend on Sunday mornings has a different name on the sign and a giant crucifix hanging in the sanctuary.

I love God because He is big. I have struggled with church because church tends to make Him small. 

Albert Mohler's words struck a chord because I took them personally -- I don't like thinking of my parents or my church as having failed me -- but they also bothered me because they make my giant God seem miniscule. 

One of the things I love about Anglicanism so far is its immense respect and admiration for other Christian denominations. I have not once heard an unkind word uttered from the pulpit or the parishioner about a fellow Christ follower. Instead, I have heard priests laud their Catholic brothers, and the pastors of a nearby Baptist church break bread with the Anglican staff once a month. Weekly, fellow Christian congregations are prayed for, not that they would find truth and "be saved," but that their work would bring honor and glory to Christ's name. 

In a world where Christians are beheaded for their beliefs and innocent children wind up in the bondage of sex slavery, I want to be a part of a faith seeking unity, a faith caught up not in the "he said, she said" arguments of denominational differences, but in the ways we can transform our world and turn it upside down with grace and love. 

Anglicanism is as grounded in Scripture as the church of my childhood. Each week, we read passages from the Old and New Testaments, plus a Psalm and a gospel reading. Dr. Mohler's criticisms -- at least in that particular podcast -- don't hold up. Perhaps even more important than the countless verses I hear read to me every week is the fact I spend almost the entirety of the service on my knees. Inconvenient? Yes. Uncomfortable? Absolutely. Meaningful? You bet. Turns out I can't feel arrogant or strong-willed or stubborn or independent when I am on my knees. My position serves as yet another reminder of my weakness.

This was my first year to engage in an Ash Wednesday service. Jordan had been through the rituals many times previous, but I had not. And I worried a little bit about walking around town with ash on my forehead. I wondered if my Father, who is in secret and sees what is done in secret, would be honored by a public act. 

My doubts mostly washed away in that moment at the altar. There is nothing prideful about remembering you are dust. There is nothing arrogant about walking around with dirt on your forehead.

And so, this Lenten season, I am relishing in my smallness. And every week, at an Anglican church seeped in both Scripture and sacrament, I am reminded of the greatness of my God. For now, for this season, I will continue to spend my Sundays on my knees, praying for, not against, my fellow believers, that the vast world we inhabit might be one day filled with the light of Christ. It's a goal I don't believe we'll reach if we're spending our time belittling one another on podcasts and indulging in our differences. Our sameness makes us His, and it's what has the power to turn our world upside down for the better. 

Monday, March 2, 2015

reading recap: february 2015.

February is my favorite of all the months, and it’s not because of Valentine’s Day or President’s Day or the cold, gloomy weather or the hope of spring. It’s because of my birthday, which I happily and obnoxiously celebrate all month long. And since I take my birthday so seriously, I spent the entirety of February reading books I wanted to read, not books I felt obligated to read because of the store. Last month, all of the books I read were easy for me, smack-dab in the middle of my comfort zone. I’m okay with this, though the rest of the year I’ll be attempting to stick to my reading resolutions: diverse authors and more non-fiction titles. 

The Smartest Kids in the World by Amanda Ripley. This non-fiction book is a must-read for educators and parents; I’m neither, and I found The Smartest Kids in the World utterly fascinating. Journalist Amanda Ripley tackles the tough subject of American education by sending American kids to the three countries where students are supposedly smartest: Poland, Finland, and South Korea. What the students find there – and how it changes them and influences Ripley’s book – is eye-opening, and it has the power to change our own educational models if we so choose. The Smartest Kids in the World could easily be inaccessible, but instead, Ripley keeps the style informative and conversational; the book reads like a well-done documentary. 

Bon AppĂ©tempt by Amelia Morris. Amelia Morris’s memoir was my pick for the February meeting of my new book club. (Hooray for bravely starting new things!) I’m a huge fan of food memoirs and food writing – The Sweet Life in Paris, Bread and Wine, Delancey – but Morris’s book fell a little flat for me. I’ll blame my less-than-stellar review on the fact that I had never read her blog of the same name. Fans of her blog will surely love her book, but the rest of us may feel a little lost. Bon AppĂ©tempt covers Morris’s growing-up years with a rather wicked stepmother, then delves into her time as a blogger devoted to attempting magazine-style recipes with not-always-magazine-worthy results. Parts of the books are funny and sweet; Morris is best when she’s writing about her husband and their relationship, and a book devoted entirely to that subject might have been better received (by me, anyway). 

In Every Way by Nic Brown. I loved Nic Brown’s novel In Every Way, both because of his rich characters and his colorful depictions of North and South Carolina. The book follows 19-year-old Maria, unexpectedly pregnant with a mother dying of cancer. It’s not exactly a happy beginning, and although the book takes a turn for the better when Maria and her mother move to the sleepy, coastal town of Beaufort, conflict quickly ensues; I wondered if Maria would ever get a happy ending. In Every Way is a well-written page-turner, a quiet book with a heart for redemption. 

Unbecoming by Rebecca Scherm. This book might have been my favorite of the month. Unbecoming combines Bonnie and Clyde with The Art Forger; it’s an ambitious debut novel filled with suspense, mystery, and a little bit of romance. Author Rebecca Scherm navigates a variety of worlds: small town Garland, Tennessee; the bustling New York City art scene; and the tiny confines of a Parisian apartment. Every day, Grace quietly repairs antiques and re-sets gems, but in Paris, she calls herself Julie, and she spends her free time anxiously trolling the Internet, checking her hometown newspaper for details of a heist gone bad. You’re going to want to read this one. 

Funny Girl by Nick Hornby. I am a Nick Hornby fan; not everyone is, and that’s okay. But if you like Nick Hornby and his quirky British comedies of characters, you’ll enjoy his latest novel, Funny Girl. I actually think it’s one of his smartest books; the novel is less concerned with romance and features a more interesting criticism of television and television writing. If you’re a fan of TV or pop culture, you’ll find Funny Girl to be especially eye-opening. Set in 1960s London – but crossing a period of several years and, ultimately, decades – the book “stars” aspiring comedic actress Sophie Straw (the “funny girl” of the book’s title) and her journey to the top, but it’s the ensemble cast who really make the story something special. This was another favorite for February. 

How to Be a Heroine by Samantha Ellis. Classics readers – particularly female classics readers – will enjoy Samantha Ellis’s thoughtful look back at the heroines who shaped her childhood. She revisits all the ladies I’ve loved (and some I haven’t): Anne Shirley, Jo March, Elizabeth Bennet, Scarlett O’Hara. And although her book is a little bit of a love letter to those characters, it’s always a fine piece of literary criticism. Her feminist worldview offers a much-needed perspective on the women of classic literature; some hold up to the scrutiny; others, not so much. I didn’t always agree with Ellis, but her book made me think, and it was funny and clever, a perfect testament to the heroines she loves.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

7/52 :: shopping locally.

Last Saturday, a young 20-something came into the shop looking for a particular title. The book was one I wasn't familiar with, one we wouldn't typically carry on our shelves, and sure enough, a quick search informed me we didn't have it in stock. As usual, I offered the customer the option to special order, which with us takes about two to three days (depending on the snow our northern distributors are experiencing). It's a turnaround that's fairly quick -- Barnes and Noble normally takes about a week -- and our prices are comparable to the bigger chain stores, though not, of course, to... well, you know. 

"No, thanks," the customer said. "I'll just find it online for cheaper, probably from Amazon or something."

"Oh, okay," I found myself replying. "Thanks for shopping locally!" (Southern passive-aggression is a real thing, y'all.) 

The story Nora Ephron told in You've Got Mail is true, only now, the Fox Books of the world no longer exist. The independent bookstores are thriving, but our competition isn't Barnes and Noble or Books A Million, not really, not anymore. Our competition is this online business we don't know too much about, a business we can't research or challenge.

I try not to judge Amazon shoppers. The Internet is full of people who talk about supporting the local businesses in their towns, but they consistently link back to products on Amazon, and I understand why. Bloggers get a small kick-back from Amazon, and I know what it's like to want to get even the tiniest bit of compensation for the work and writing we do. So again: I try not to pass judgment on Amazon shoppers and supporters. 

The truth is, though, that Amazon hurts the business I chose to buy and run. And there is perhaps nothing quite as hurtful as a customer telling you -- to your face -- that they'd rather shop quickly and easily and cheaply than enjoy the overall experience of the store you have curated and loved. 

It's not personal, it's business. So says Joe Fox, and honestly? I agree. I don't take those customers' comments personally. But I do wonder if they know what they're saying. If you need a book more quickly and less expensively than I can get it to you, I understand. But you do have choice. We don't have to have our packages delivered by drones on a Sunday morning. We could wait and shop with the people who live and work in our communities. We could support the people we call our neighbors. We could choose to exercise our patience and order from businesses we know and trust because ultimately, it's better for our neighborhoods and better for us. 

The Bookshelf has been a part of my life for nearly three years now. I've spent the last one and a half years in Thomasville, working alongside people I now call my friends and neighbors. And maybe it's a small town thing, but most of them understand the "shop local" movement. They understand why it's better to support a locally-owned business than it is to support a franchise or an online shop. They frequently choose my store over a cheaper option, and I'm grateful for it. 

But there are still folks who don't understand why my books are more expensive or why the collection I offer doesn't compare to the one they can find at Barnes and Noble. 

So let me explain. Let me offer just a few ways you can make your local shopping experience even better. 

- Let us help you. My selection is never going to compare to a larger chain store. The books we stock are chosen entirely by me and my two staff members. We order books based on our personal tastes, national bestseller lists, fellow independent bookstore owners and leaders, and customer recommendations. Our shelves are highly curated; what you find here, you won't necessarily find anywhere else. It's why I love shopping independently when I travel; I always find something new I wouldn't find in my own town. When you shop at a local, independently-run bookstore, do the staff favor: Don't limit yourself to that one book you're just dying to read. The fact is, we might not have it. The title you're looking for may be obscure or out-of-date or just not on that particular shop's shelves. Ask us for it, by all means! But if we don't have it, consider ordering it from us. Better yet, ask us for a comparable title. We can probably help you find something similar we think you might love. We are great at personal recommendations. It's what sets us apart, and it's why we're still in business. 

- Feign interest. Locally-owned shops are frequented by all kinds of folks. We love the wanderers, the ones who poke their heads in the door just to see what we're about. We find it hard to believe, but we know: Not everyone's a book lover. That's fine. But do us a favor, and if you're poking around, or if you're entering the premises with the sole purpose of finding a clean restroom, please do the proprietor a favor, and look around. Explore the shop. Make an effort to at least feign interest. You never know what treasures you might find, and more and more bookstores are offering a wider selection of gift product. Those products help us stay in business, so we love for you to buy those, too. If you're not a book lover, the book buying experience can still be for you.

- Shop smart. The books you find in any indie store are going to be more expensive than the very same titles at Target or Sam's or Amazon. Those big box stores have worked out deals -- some fair, some not-so-fair -- with publishing companies, and by buying and stocking in bulk, they receive better discounts than we do. It's a part of the business I'm still coming to terms with, but please know: The prices on the back of the book are the prices we have to charge, both to run our business and to maintain relationships with our publishers. For reference, adult paperback books typically run anywhere between $15 and $18; hardbacks are more expensive and run from $22 to $28, depending on their size. Those prices have been set by publishing companies, and they ensure authors and sales reps and printers and marketing personnel get paid fairly. There's not much I can do about the prices of the books I sell. Please shop knowing those prices are entirely comparable to the books you'll find at Barnes and Noble or Books a Million, but they're never going to be comparable to what you can find on Amazon. Please don't be surprised when I tell you the price of a book, and above all, refrain from telling me where you can find it for less. I already know. (The same rule, by the way, applies to shopping at local boutiques and clothing stores. Don't roll your eyes at the prices, or say you can find the same thing for less at TJ Maxx. An independently-run shop can't even begin to compare to a discount clothing store.)

- Take pictures. I love when customers pull out their phones to snap pictures of the store. Our staff works diligently to ensure we've created a colorful, lively atmosphere in our shop, and customers photographing those details makes me one happy girl. The customers who go above and beyond, though, ask our permission. It's such a small gesture, but it's kind, and it shows they understand what we're up against. I can't tell you how many times I've noticed a customer not-so-discreetly snapping a picture of a book title they can buy online -- for less money -- later. Please: Don't be that person. Instead, take pictures of our displays. Share them on social media. Be a voice for us! Advertising is expensive, and it's far more effective for you to tell your friends where we are and how they can support us. Word of mouth is our best friend, and a lot of it now happens online. 

- Talk to us. The only way we can beat Amazon is by offering what they can't: Customer service and a place to hang out. We are desperate to become your community gathering place. It's why our store has an event at least once a week. It's why we read stories to your kids and invite local authors and give you stamps when you need to mail a letter. We want you to spend your time with us; local businesses are dying to be your Cheers. I love customers who come in and want to chat about the book they just read. I want to know what they thought and if they told their book club about it and how many copies I should order for their friends. I want to tell you what I just finished reading, and I want us to be respectful of each other's tastes. I want my bookstore to be a safe place for you to gather to think and debate and visit and read. I am trying to learn your name, and I'd love for you to learn mine. Grab a book off of a staff recommendation shelf and tell me if you loved it too. These are the things Amazon can't take from us -- they're trying, with Good Reads, and I understand why people love it. But nothing beats interacting with an actual human being. It's messy and it's funny and it's where good stories come from.

Attend events. Follow small businesses on social media. Spread the word. Put your money where your mouth is. We're all on a budget, and the Internet has spoiled us: We want it cheap, and we want it now. Shopping locally reminds us there's a better way, a way you can spend money right in the heart of your community and see it reap the rewards. Small businesses employ your neighbors and offer gathering places; their store selections are probably hand chosen with your community in mind. (I can't tell you how many books I stock not because I love them, but because I know Thomasville will love them. I choose books and gifts I believe my community will love. I shop with them in mind, and in turn, I hope they do the same for me.) 

Owning your own business is a labor of love. I imagine it's a lot like caring for a baby, and like a new mom, I've had to grow accustomed to ill-fitting advice or well-intentioned opinions. But like a new mom, I can stand up for myself and let a customer know when they've crossed the line. Telling me you'd rather shop for a cheap book on Amazon than wait two days for me to get it to you at an average price is where the line falls. Those words aren't just hurtful, they're bad for my business. I want you to know where you're money goes. I want you to know how much it means when you choose to do your business locally.

Most of my readers here aren't in my neck of the woods. That's okay. Shop locally right where you are. I guarantee there are shops in your neighborhood who could use and would love your support. I know it's faster and easier to shop online. But faster and easier isn't always better. Slow and steady, remember, wins the race.