Small and wonderful

Small and wonderful

Having moved to a new area a couple of months ago, I relied on the Yellow Pages to give me some good leads on local points of interest. I looked up restaurants, coffeehouses, bookstores—anywhere we were likely to hang out when we had a few bucks to spend. Included in the penciled list was the Long Lake Food and Book Shop.

We drove past this place once before stopping there on a later day. What we saw as we careened around the curve in the road was enough to warrant a special trip. A ramshackle collage of a building, the Long Lake Food and Book Shop is huddled on the edge of the lake, which is indeed long, festooned with homemade signs. Strips of cardboard hang across the front of the building sporting clothes-pinned pieces of paper that serve as a substitute for a fancy marquis. On these cardboard signs are lists of breads, videos, magazines, and other assorted items one might find inside the store. Other cardboard announcements include a hand-made “Happy New Year” sign colored in with markers and a large placard across the street boasting the number of books inside.

Inside, it’s as if I am entering another world, a strange world that begs for exploration. The cluttered store is comfortably claustrophobic with a warm wood smell and millions of things to see. I pass through the first room, which is filled with average and not-so-average convenience store fare, in order to reach a sign that promises used books beyond. In the fiction section, I notice many of my favorite contemporary authors alongside classics and unknowns. I pick up two musty little Edna Ferber paperbacks that are priced at $.30 each. As the resident collie nudges my leg for attention, I notice the huge section dedicated to Carl Jung, a mysterious obsession, I realize, as I explore more. I covet the stacks of books on environmental and outdoor topics. And suddenly I am in a kitchen.

For a moment, I feel disconcerted. I am obviously in a space that someone uses for cooking, but a little pegboard with priced ladles, salt and pepper shakers and spatulas is my clue that I haven’t crossed any boundaries. Still, I have a strange feeling among the personal objects like colored glass mosaics and damp dishcloths that mingle with such sale items as beaded necklaces and used dishes — at least I think those dishes are for sale.

I move on to another area where I find a unit of shelves with oil paints, blank notebooks and pens. Beyond is a string of Tibetan prayer flags, an old electric piano, and an autoharp. And beyond these objects are videos for rent and bottles of hard liquor for sale.

I could go on for many more paragraphs describing the oddities in the Long Lake Food and Book Shop, like the Belgian beer that comes in a crock, but I think you get the idea by now. I know by this point, and I think you know, too, that this is a place I’ll return to again and again. It becomes clear to me as we leave.

After paying for the books and chatting briefly with the owner, we head to our car. On the way, we notice another sign from 1998 that says, “Over fifty years in business” and my sense of wonder overwhelms me. For over 50 years, this little store has been selling ice cream to the summer kids, beer to the fisherman and special breads to the local Latvian population. Over the course of 50 years, their inventory has developed to include what people have requested, what people have needed, and what the owner has thought was important. For 50 years, the owner has been content to make a living doing what she seems to do well.

My sense of wonder impresses me as something unique to small businesses like the quirky Food and Book Shop. I typically leave the local superstore, where I can buy both ground turkey and underwear while I get a prescription filled and recycle my cans, with a feeling of emptiness. There is little mystery under the fluorescent lights and little personal fulfillment in the place that claims to meet all of my needs. Unless…

Sometimes in those big consumer warehouses, birds find a way to get in. They chirp and play as they flit among the whitewashed steel beams. When I see them, I feel a secret sense of triumph, a sense that no matter how hard we try to polish and streamline our consumer experiences, the little guys will always find a way to survive, and even flourish. Convenience cannot extinguish the sense of wonder that we experience when we are in the presence of people who are skilled in a particular area, who offer the community a unique service, and who indulge their passion in a way that makes them necessary.

I think of the people I know who pressure wash buildings, who dry clean clothing and drapes, who cobble shoes, and who cook up twenty breakfasts at a time without burning the bacon. They all do their jobs well and on a scale they can manage. And suddenly I am filled with a sense of warmth and wonder, as if this is the way things should be.