Terry Tempest Williams' Wi4 Tribute to Indie Booksellers & Local First Initiatives

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A highlight of ABA's January 29 pre-Winter Institute Conference on Local First/Shop Local Initiatives was the stirring lunchtime speech of author Terry Tempest Williams, who moved booksellers to tears and elicited rousing ovations. With Williams' permission, BTW is happy to present the full text of her address here. It begins with an acknowledgement of Local First advocate Betsy Burton of The King's English, who helped ABA organize the event.

Thank you, Betsy.

Every writer has a homeground -- and my homeground is The King's English. It is my neighborhood bookstore, my family loci, and the place I call home. Betsy has been the godmother of Finding Beauty in a Broken World, and I want to publicly thank you, Betsy for not only being my North Star, but an extraordinary community leader -- locally, regionally, and nationally.

May we all honor you for your vibrant intelligence that is rooted in action.

To Be of Use

The people I love best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
They seem to become natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seals
bouncing like half-submerged balls.

I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.

I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.

The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
Has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
But you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
And a person for work that is real. --Marge Piercy

The work of American booksellers is real. The leadership of Betsy Burton, Gayle Shanks, and Oren Teicher is real. Ruth Liebmann of Random House, bless you.

The last time I saw Gayle we sat in her car and talked, cried, laughed, swore and cried and laughed again past midnight. Deep bonds forged through time and place and a love of ideas fought for, cared for -- and cherished.

The real work of independent bookstores is tangible, it is transformative, and it is based on personal passion not just profit.

The independent booksellers that I know, those of you in this room, could all be called mayors, doctors, therapists, philosophers, political activists, and community organizers. Change makers, extraordinaire.

But most of all, you are storytellers and story lovers. And I thank you from the bottom of my own independent heart.

Without you, writers like me would have no voice.

And that is a fact.

Without you, our communities would lack an intellectual center based on the populas. Walk into any independent bookstore and you have a direct infusion of what is going on in Salt Lake City; Tempe Arizona; Bellingham, Washington; Blue Hill, Maine.

Without you, we would have no place to sit around the fire and remember where the true source of our power lies.

Our power lies in the local. Local First. This is where the seedbed of our community stories are planted.

Local First is becoming more than a movement in this country, it is a way of being in the world.

Local First means people first -- community first -- fostered by creativity and commitment over expedience and exclusion.

Local First creates alliances, coalitions, partnerships, friendships, and cooperatives that are not only changing our communities' consciousness but educating individuals on the power of choices with consequence.

Right here in Salt Lake City -- Local First is not only a movement, but an ethic. A sense of place that is giving rise to an ethic of place. Support your local businesses and they will support you. We are learning that the Farmer's Market, The King's English, Sam Weller's Bookstore, and businesses like Cactus & Tropicals and Wasatch Touring are also businesses that care about Utah's wilderness and are not afraid to speak out. We are seeing through their leadership that chains, franchises, box stores, and strip malls are strip-mining our local integrity and individuality.

We are learning that if you don't hold on to your local voice your voice will be silenced. Choices are made for you. And options vanish. Endangered species are not just plants and animals, but local businesses.

And Betsy is not alone. She has neighbors, colleagues, and friends, and those of you in this room.

Gayle Shanks and Bob Sommer in Tempe, Arizona. Changing Hands. Helped found the Local First Arizona movement. And with Gayle at the helm of ABA, this ethos is strengthened nationally.

David Bolduc in Boulder Colorado. Boulder Bookstore. Founded the Boulder Independent Business Alliance and fostered the founding of AMIBA [the American Independent Business Alliance].

Chuck and Dee Robinson in Bellingham, Washington. Village Books. Chuck and Dee were just honored as Outstanding Philanthropic Small Business in the State of Washington. Local First has been their first priority helping to create Sustainable Connections in Whatcom County, where the health of the business community is the health and wealth of the natural community, healthy forests, rivers, and shorelines.

Steve Bercu in Austin, Texas. BookPeople. His name has been evoked all morning as his leadership is local and national, active on behalf of this visionary stance.

Chris Morrow in Manchester, Vermont. Northshire Bookstore. Is leading his state towards a sustainable vision that is reaching every nook and cranny from local foods to local warming, making the connection that climate change is more than just changing weather but a changing consciousness.

Stuart Gerson in Portland, Maine. Longfellow Books. Is inspiring the State of Maine, a state that has a history of understanding that what is good for the land is good for the people. Scott and Helen Nehring would be proud. Gerson's leadership is infecting the entire New England Independent Bookseller's Association.

Frank Kramer in Cambridge, Massachusetts, former owner of the Harvard Bookstore, is continuing his commitment to the local and his commitment is infiltrating the student population, as well. The next generation is here.

Neil Strandberg in Denver, Colorado. Tattered Cover. Is leading the Mile High Business Alliance, infusing the mayor with this enthusiasm, alongside the community's.

Andy Nettle in Moab, Utah. Arches Book Company. Has partnered with over 80 businesses in Grand County as part of their Local First endeavor. And just last October, initiated a celebration of Edward Abbey's 40th anniversary of by sponsoring a literary festival called "Confluence." A 24-hour read-a-thon of Desert Solitaire within the community also took place.

These individuals are just some of the community leaders who are fueling this movement from their love of books, which is a love of ideas, which are based in community.

Work that is real.

The landscape of independent booksellers and bookstores is, what I recognize as a naturalist, as an ecotone -- the dynamic edge where the greatest diversity of species is found -- between the forest and the meadow; the ocean and the beach; the desert and the canyon; the river and the willows.

The ecotone is where one can expect the unexpected. It is a place of sight. Insight. Ecotone. Where diversity manifests in creative ways.

What I see in the Local First Movement is what I recognize in the Conservation Movement. Both movements began on the margins and are moving toward the center -- Mainstream -- Main Street -- Call it the radical center -- where what we are protecting is the integrity of our communities both human and wild.

It is the inter-relatedness of all things -- the interconnectedness of all things. We are realizing economic issues are social issues are environmental issues are issues of social justice. No separation. We begin to see the world whole, transcending politics. We find ourselves supporting and standing inside "the open space of democracy."

It is where we find beauty in a broken world. And sustain it.

I think it's important to remember that the acronym NIMBY -- "Not in my backyard" -- often a pejorative, something negative, was actually coined, created by the Board of Los Angeles Realtors in their effort to discredit and marginalize the grassroots efforts of citizens in LA trying to protect their Los Angeles watershed from overdevelopement. "Not in my backyard" was the citizen's clout. In doublespeak, the realtors tried to turn their strength into their weakness.

If the world we love is going to be saved -- urban, rural, and wild -- it will be by people standing their ground in the places they love, speaking out and digging in.

Local First quite simply is about taking care of one another.

How does this translate? It translates one person at a time ... through one bookseller at a time.

It makes perfect sense to me that much of the leadership of Local First has emerged and continues to emerge from independent booksellers.

Here is the impact some have had on my life.

Sam Weller. My first boss. One of the great figures in bookselling history, as far as I am concerned. And now, his son, Tony and his wife, Catherine, are carrying on the tradition that Sam and Lila set.

I learned from Sam early on, as a high school student and in college, that a bookstore is more than commerce, it is about community. And I cannot count the times I watched him hand a book to a homeless man or woman, or entertain and engage community leaders about civic issues, civilly.

It was here under Sam's tutelage, that I watched how the writer Wallace Stegner conducted himself with dignity, each book he signed, each person he met mattered to him as a reader and a westerner.

It was here I learned to both love and fear Ed Abbey, and I still cherish my signed copy of Desert Solitaire.

And it was here that I ran with my first published book under arm to show Sam Weller. He held The Secret Language of Snow before anyone else.

It was Ken Sanders of Cosmic Aeroplane Books, a former employee of Sam's who helped organize a wake for Ed Abbey when he died in March 1989.

We picked up a sound system for the redrock desert where the wake was to be held and a writer named Wendell Berry who halfway to Arches National Park asked us to stop on the road from Price to Green River. There at the base of the Book Cliffs was a cow in the desert, not a sprig of grass to be seen. "What's that?" Wendell asked. "A cow," Ken replied. So this is what Ed was talking about. I'm a long, long way from Kentucky. It was also here on this road with a very independent bookseller that we picked up a hitchhiker named Rick Bass. We've been best friends ever since.

Local First for me became Earth First -- again, recognizing the health of our land is our own.

Fast forward to 2000. Leap was just published, I was invited to a small town in Maine called Blue Hill by the booksellers Nick Sichterman and Mariah Hughs of Blue Hill Books. I accepted. They put my husband and me up in their cottage on the coast of Maine. We almost missed the reading -- I asked if we could rent the cottage the following year, which I did -- and while out walking I found a tiny farmhouse, fell in love, called Brooke and said, "What do you think?" In a nutshell, we were invited to Maine and we stayed.

We just had Thanksgiving with Nick and Mariah. They have become family.

September 11, 2001. I am in Washington, D.C. The twin towers have been hit, the Pentagon has been struck. I am stranded for five days. I make one call to Barbara Meade at Politics & Prose. I have a home at a time when we all feel homeless. They hold a community vigil. The store is packed. Candles are lit. A bookstore is transformed into a church.

May 8, 2003. My father is diagnosed with prostate cancer. He chooses to be operated on at the Hutch in Seattle. He needs a living will. I say I will be happy to sign it. He says he doesn't trust me and on our way to surgery he stops by Elliot Bay Bookstore and asks Rick Simonson to sign it. "I trust you," he said.

And I look at my latest book, the care extended, the support:

I think of Graham Greene, who said, "Every time a writer picks up his pen he or she betrays someone."

My family was disturbed. Again I had violated their privacy. My brother's death. It was Jan Sloan, owner of Books and Beyond and now working with Betsy at King's English, who created a bridge of conversation with her grace. She was the one who said to my father that these words went beyond our immediate family, that she not only understood, but supported me. He followed her lead and led my family forward in conversation.

January 30, 2008. Betsy: I'm at a neighbor's, I have the raw pages. She asks for them. I hand them to her reluctantly. Scared. My father has just read them and said, "The prairie dog section is so boring, no one will finish it and if they do, the rest of the book is such a downer, they'll be sorry they did."

Betsy called the next week. She not only understood what I was attempting to do, she saw beyond what I saw. I forwarded her e-mail to my editor, Dan Frank. We all breathed a sigh of relief. We had our first reader.

I also had my private editor. In April, or was it May, I called Betsy in a panic. She helped me figure out the ending. I changed the ending -- even as it was in galleys.

September 18, 2008. The Valley Bookstore in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Steve Ashley's place. We share a birthday. This is where the first copies were mailed, received, opened, celebrated.

September 20, 2008. Barbara Theroux, Fact and Fiction. Five hundred copies sent to Missoula, Montana. The publication date was changed because of the force of her belief.

On the first reading of the book, Barbara brought in 800 readers at the University of Montana. The book was standing.

October 7, 2008. Back into Rick Simonson's hands in Seattle... My father came to shake his.

Boulder Bookstore, in cooperation with Center for Native Ecosystems and Barefoot Artists, sponsors a reading at the Boulder Theatre.

$12,000 is generated and split between these two local organizations, one protecting prairie dogs, the other young women in the Survivor's Genocide Village of Rugerero.

Andy Nettle of Arches Book Company in Moab, Utah. Home ground again. Sponsors another fundraiser for Rwanda -- and auctions a bicycle. Another $1,000. Ten children can go to school in Rwanda.

Local First becomes a global support.

November 17, 2008. Washington, D.C., Politics & Prose. Into Barbara Meade's arms once again.

This time with a son, our Rwandan son, Louis Gakumba reads a poem -- "France, stop painting us as a red camel." Members of the Rwandan embassy are there. A woman from France is there. A conversation ensues. Three languages are spoken, translated, considered.

"This is what this bookstore is about," Barbara says as we all sit in silence.

And January 20, 2009. Louis and I are at the Inauguration of President Barack Hussein Obama. After Mr. Obama received the nomination from the Democratic Party, his family texted Louis from Rwanda. They had bought Obama a cow and wanted to know how they could get it to America. The world is watching, responding. We are walking the streets of Washington, D.C. A river of humanity moving through the district. We are holding blue tickets. We are shut out. We are not allowed to our seats. We cannot see or hear. I call Nick and Mariah at Blue Hill Books. Their television is on. They place their phone down. The irony is felt as we listen to our new president via telephone in Maine as we work our way on to the Mall together. A sea of humanity has pooled.

Local First -- how we take care of one another -- in the name of family, in the name of community -- creating our world together. My story is one story, part of an anthology of thousands, of how you are changing lives.

Finding Beauty in a Broken World is creating beauty in the world we find.

Please know of your impact and your power.

Without you, not only would I not have a voice, but I would not be the person I am today ... a member of this extraordinary community.

Mosaic. Taking that which is broken and creating something whole. Give me one wild word and I promise I will follow... MOSAIC.

Terry Tempest Williams' latest book is Find Beauty in a Broken World, published by Pantheon.