Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Three Vectors Concerning the Soul of a City

It is easy to be hard on a place when you first arrive. There is a subtle effect, not quite a "culture shock," but a bit more than "new kid in the class." It gives everything an odd and uncomfortable tone. You feel like you don't belong. You are the stranger.

Reminds me of when I was staying in Cambridge, Massachusetts, just off Harvard Square, on a wall facing the cafe that I frequented, there was this beautiful graffiti slogan: "Xenophobes Go Home!"

Personally, I thrive on this. I am always suspicious of anything that makes me feel more "comfortable." I figure it is when you start to relax, stop questioning, "go with the flow," that you start to die. Odysseus on Aiaa, Circe's Island, forgetting about Ithaca as his men degenerate into pigs. Or Dorothy and crew in the Poppy Fields. One minute you are all happy and dreamy, the next minute the sky is full of Flying Monkees.

I have been living in Bellingham now just over three months. I like the place a lot. Of course, it's has the problems of any 21st century city. But somehow these problems seem - and I hate to use this word in the context of Bellingham - but, yes, more subdued, low-key. There have been a few issues where I have expected glaring oversight or obvious neglect only to discover that there were people in Bellingham that "were on it." (Recent issues with the water quality in Lake Whatcom are a case in point.) I get the sense that there is a core group of concerned individuals and practical organizations that are looking out for the "Soul of the City." Coming from Austin where the prevailing attitude is that "someone is probably taking care of it," this is more than a little reassuring.

The three items below are old news to anyone who lives here, but I just recently stumbled upon them. Two of them I was aware of - they made national news - but did not register that they happened here in Bellingham. I'm hesitant to say it like this but they make me proud to live here.

  • June 2004 - From Library Journal (emphasis mine): a patron of the Whatcom County Library System, Bellingham, WA, borrowed a copy of Bin Laden: The Man Who Declared War on America (Prima, 2001) by Yossef Bodansky, a former senior consultant for the U.S. Departments of Defense and State. In the margins of the book, the patron saw a handwritten note stating, "If the things I'm doing is considered a crime, then let history be a witness that I am a criminal. Hostility toward America is a religious duty and we hope to be rewarded by God."

    The patron called the FBI. An FBI agent asked the library for further information on the borrowers of the book; library attorney Deborra Garrett said a subpoena was needed. The library then received a subpoena to appear before a grand jury.

    The quote, Garrett determined after an online search, came from Bin Laden himself. The subpoena asked the library to disclose the names and addresses of anyone who had borrowed the book since 2001, said library director Joan Airoldi. Resisting, the library filed a motion to quash the subpoena.

    The library argued that previous borrower information is retained for only 90 days (longer only if there's an unresolved fine); also, the library contracts with the Bellingham Public Library to maintain its database, and the Bellingham library was not served with a subpoena. Moreover, the library argued that there was no "substantial connection"—as required for such an investigation—between writing a quote from Bin Laden in a book and any act of terrorism.

    On July 15, the U.S. Attorney withdrew the subpoena, noting that the library did not have custody of the data sought. Is the case continuing? Emily Langlie, public affairs officer for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Seattle, said that Department of Justice policy "is not to comment on an ongoing investigation or completion of investigations." While the library was initially asked not to discuss the matter—there was no official gag order, since the case was not brought under the USA PATRIOT Act—Airoldi said both she and the library board believe the issue should be made public.

    "The person who read this thought possibly someone was plotting something," Airoldi said. And what might the writer have been doing? "Who's to say?" she mused. "They could've been writing a research paper. It seems that every copy [of that book] we get has writing in it." Borrower records are now kept only for a week.

    • January 1995 - From the New York Times (emphasis mine): Two decades after Justice Potter Stewart of the United States Supreme Court defined obscenity by saying, simply, "I know it when I see it," a pair of Washington shopkeepers will stand trial for seeing satire where prosecutors saw smut.

      Ira Stohl, the owner of The Newsstand, a magazine shop and coffee bar here, and the shop's manager, Kristena Hjelsand, are scheduled for trial Jan. 22 in Whatcom County Superior Court, charged with selling an issue of the alternative magazine Answer Me, that graphically discussed rape. The shopkeepers say they were given an odd choice: either submit to arrest or promise to never sell Answer Me or anything like it in the future.

      After deciding they could not make that pledge, Mr. Stohl, 45, and Ms. Hjelsand, 25, were charged with one felony count each of promoting pornography, a violation of state obscenity laws. Both have pleaded not guilty, saying that their First Amendment rights have been violated and that The Newsstand carries too many publications to screen in advance. If convicted they face a maximum of five years in jail and a $10,000 fine.

      "How can I read all 5,000 magazines to make sure somebody, somewhere doesn't think something's obscene?" Mr. Stohl said one morning at the store, a gathering spot for this college town's intellectuals. "And how do I know what obscenity is anyway?"

      But the Whatcom County prosecutor, David S. McEachran, who brought the charges, said the rape issue of Answer Me, was unacceptable to the majority of Bellingham's 20,000 citizens. He cited the issue of Answer Me that features stories of a rape from the rapist's perspective, a fictional account of a man torturing a girl with Down syndrome, photographs of decapitated crime victims and a pull-out section called "The Rape Game."

      "I told them they couldn't sell it or anything like it," Mr. McEachran said in an interview. "Look at the publication. It's disgusting." As to the constitutionality of his action, he said only, "No comment."

      The arrests have been a hot topic for nearly a year in this town, nestled between Mount Baker and Puget Sound, while raising volatile issues of free speech and prior restraint. The case has also put feminist groups on the defensive and free speech activists in the spotlight.

      Katy Casey, the executive director of the Whatcom County Women's Crisis Center, said: "It's not just offensive, it's destructive. It relates a glorified violence to sex. This magazine normalizes something we don't think is normal."

      "I believe in the First Amendment," she added, "but this is dangerous."

      But First Amendment lawyers nationwide rendered a different verdict. Elizabeth Schneider, a professor of women's law at Brooklyn Law School, said, "There's a ton of case law saying what this prosecutor has done is simply wrong."

      Charles F. Hinkle, a constitutional lawyer in Portland, added: "As disgusting as the publication is, it's probably protected. You cannot suppress speech that might incite violence unless the danger is imminent. You can't ban the Bible just because it might be used to crucify a man."

      Jim and Debbie Goad of Portland, Ore., who publish Answer Me, say it is designed to shock. But rather than glorify violence, Mr. Goad said, the disputed issue of the magazine tried to offer as grisly a portrait of depravity as possible to underscore the horror of rape. "We present rape in all its ugliness," Mr. Goad said.

      The magazine is described by its owners as having "a National Lampoon-style sensibility fused with a snuff-film esthetic" that takes a satirical approach to a different topic in each issue. An upcoming issue will address race, Mr. Goad said.

      Arguing that the magazine is far from titillating but rather scathing political and social satire, Ms. Hjelsand said Answer Me "lays down in brutal detail how sick and violent the world is; I certainly don't feel it's a how-to magazine."

      Neither do the more than 3,000 Bellinghamites who signed a petition asking the prosecutor to drop the charges against The Newsstand.

      Those charges were born of an incident last January in which, Mr. Stohl said, an English major at Western Washington University here threatened a student boycott of The Newsstand unless its owners yanked the publication. The merchants did not budge. But when a criminal complaint was filed by the Women's Crisis Center -- to which the student had also complained -- and the case was referred to local prosecutors, the shop's owners stopped selling Answer Me. In its place, they erected a shrine, of sorts, to free speech: a copy of the magazine bound in chains and a padlock, with a sign that reads "not for sale." The shrine is still in place and includes newspaper articles reporting on the case.

      On Feb. 7, The Newsstand owners were ordered by Mr. McEachran to dismantle the shrine and to promise not to sell Answer Me or anything as salacious ever again. They refused, citing the First Amendment.

      "We have no political agenda," said Mr. Stohl, a Brooklyn native who opened the shop five years ago. "We just want to run our business," which comprises mostly specialized publications like Al-Ahram, an Egyptian weekly; On Our Backs, a lesbian magazine; Hothead Paisan, an alternative comic book; Bird Watcher's Digest; Svenska Dagblabet, a Swedish daily, and Women and Guns.

      On Feb. 14, The Newsstand's lawyer, Breean Beggs, filed a complaint in Federal court charging that Mr. McEachran had violated the civil rights of Mr. Stohl and Ms. Hjelsand. Two days later, Mr. Stohl and Ms. Hjelsand gave themselves up at the county jail.

      These days, as the case meanders through the court system, habitues of The Newsstand wonder if any of their favorite periodicals will come under attack next.

      "The Newsstand is the focal point of my daily life," said Ted Rosen, a television repairman who publishes his own magazine called Smelly Hamster, a left-leaning grab bag of political writings.

      "It gives me access to a world I can't get to otherwise from Bellingham," Mr. Rosen said.

      Bellingham residents can go elsewhere, however, for indisputable pornography. Great Northern Books, just two blocks away with its unabashedly hard-core trade, does not sell Answer Me. "It's sad," said Ross Rowell, the store's proprietor, musing about The Newsstand's woes. "But I guess I should just be thankful that the county's not after me."

      From The National Coalition Against Censorship: In a stunning rebuke to overzealous prosecutors, the owner and manager of Bellingham, Washington's Newstand store were awarded $1.3 million for prior restraint and for retaliatory prosecution by a U.S. District Court in Seattle. The judgment was awarded to Ira Stohl and Kristina Hjelsand, who had been charged with obscenity for selling a 'zine called Answer Me! and found not guilty by a jury. In awarding the judgment in the Newstand's counter-suit, the district court jury found that Whatcom County had violated Stohl and Hjelsand's First Amendment rights, caused emotional suffering, and damaged their business.

      • May 1989 - From The Daily Gazette (emphasis mine): A recent case in point was Village Books in Bellingham, Wash., where feminist activist Nikki Craft has been campaigning to remove the current issue of Esquire, with its cover package on "The Secret Life of the American Wife," which includes such material as "Your Wife: An Owner's Manual."

        In late May, Village Books owner Chuck Robinson said, Craft entered the store and tore up four copies of the magazine. Village had her arrested, and Craft, now in jail, won't post bond until the bookstore capitulates and sends the offending issue back to Esquire.

        Robinson, who says he has since been visited be zealous Craft partisans, allowed as how Esquire might have "a few things that don't seem to be quite in tune with the '90s," but even though the ideas are offensive to many people, "they are nonetheless ideas." If suppressing objectionable material amounts to "civil disobedience," as Craft has claimed, Robinson said, "Mr. Thoreau, Mr. Gandhi and Dr. King ... are rolling over in their graves."

        Saturday, March 13, 2010

        Village Books: A Safe, Clean and Well-Lit Place


        It has taken me a little while to come around to Village Books. An archetypal bookstore, for me, is something along the lines of Henderson's: shelves packed, floor to ceiling, with spined-in books, orderly piles on the floor. With certain primary subjects, say biographies of Lincoln, well represented and, surrounding, packed constellations of secondary, tertiary, quaternary related texts. Depth and breadth. It looks like this:

        Henderson's Books

        Village Books looks nothing like Henderson's. It is a safe, clean and well-lit place. There are plenty of places to sit. (Last time I was there, a sign in the windows encouraged people to come in sit, read and even sleep for a while.) It is staffed with knowledgeable, friendly and helpful people. They will happily look up anything you ask for on the computer. If they do not have it, they will order it for you. There is a cafe upstairs, access to a restaurant downstairs, just beyond: a congenial area reserved for author signings and readings. Down there also is the "revolutionary" Espresso Print-On-Demand Book Machine.

        Every section in the store has a representative selection of texts. But it is clear that what is there, is there to be sold. There is not much "dead weight" on their shelves. I should add that it is nice to see that they also sell a lot of used or marked down books mixed in with the new at reduced prices.

        Many local authors are well represented. Local artists are displayed on the walls. They have book signings several times during the week. They are at the forefront of new technology. E-Book cards are scattered appropriately around the store, next to copies of the physical book. (One imagines that soon the books might disappear altogether.)

        The Village Books website is state of the art. They are plugged into Facebook, Twitter, Vimeo and YouTube. There is a Village Books Blog, a Village Books Radio Show, and several active Village Books Reading Groups.

        The admirable motto of Village Books is: "Building Community One Book at a Time." And they back that up with fundraisers and sponsoring charitable events. Village Books is not a "chain" or "corporate" bookstore. They are proudly independent, belonging to IndieBound, a national organization of independent booksellers started by the American Booksellers Association.

        Village Books is not just a bookstore, it is an integrated aspect of the community around it, Fairhaven, and the larger city of Bellingham. Village Books is, without any doubt, one of the most upstanding and responsible bookstores in Washington.


        With all of that in mind, I should add that Village Books is not one of my favorite bookstores in the area. It seems too safe of a place to me, reflecting in many aspects these same admirable qualities of the surrounding community of Fairhaven.

        On a recent afternoon in Seattle, I went to two bookstores, Left Bank Books and Elliott Bay Books. Each from different ends of the Aesthetics of Bookstores Spectrum, they vividly indicate what Village Books is missing: Edge. Like the edges of an original object that won't fit into any round or square hole. Again, these are my sensibilities, but I want a bookstore to challenge me, to get in my face sometimes, to provoke and irritate me, to surprise me, most of all... astonish me.

        Obviously, the anarchist collective bookstore, Left Bank Books, has a lot of edge. You do not walk in there for the latest New York Times bestseller or a book to read on the beach. Left Bank Books is the sort of bookstore that is going to confront you with radical ideas and practices that will, hopefully, disturb you enough to make you want to learn more about them. Small Press publishers, zines, pamphlets, broadsides, graffiti, notes on the wall, all offer radical perspectives that challenge everything from the existence of the U.S. government to the reasons you should not eat meat or you should not eat vegetables or maybe you should not even eat at all. It is certainly not for everyone. But it is a vital part of the social fabric of a progressive city that prides itself on the intelligence and tolerance of its citizens. It is one of the most well known and respected radical bookstores in the country.

        "If you must steal books, steal from a richly stocked Corporate Bookstore."
        A note in the Anarchist Section.

        When I walked into Elliott Bay Books, there was also an edge but not in the same sense as Left Bank. At Elliott Bay, looking at the books on display, the staff recommendations, the selection and layout, and that always ineffable "whole greater than the parts" quality of a great bookstore, I felt challenged to explore beyond the authors that I was familiar with, to read something new - in the sense that Ezra Pound once implored writers to "make it new." I was aware that Elliott Bay, being in the service of a large city, was required to have the usual suspects, New York Times Bestsellers, National Book Award and other prize winners, to have displays that reflected what the publishers were trying to "push." However, although these elements were there, they were not out in front, not obvious.

        What was obvious was the character of the store, of the owners, of the buyers and employees that worked there. What was obvious was a passion for good, not just good, but for great books. The edge here was about honoring the essentials of world book culture, the canon, AND about promoting those books and authors that are redefining what the canon might be in the future.

        I always know when I am in a great bookstore because I feel like the Burgess Meredith character in that Twilight Episode, Time Enough at Last. That feeling that there is just isn't enough time to read all of these great books. Books that I hadn't even known about until I walked into Elliott Bay. It was beautiful: it astonished me.

        The writing of books, especially those books that change the world, requires its authors to get down into the boiler room of the human soul. Even on the most mundane level, the creation of a book is a difficult act. If you have doubts about this, give it a go. Authors are often outsiders, standing apart, self-consciously observing the life that everybody is happily living. They spend much of their life alone, not in this world, but in the one that they are creating on the page. If "successful," they provide a mirror in which we can better see ourselves.

        It is a profession that has notoriously taken its toll on its practitioners. Many of the greatest writers have been alcoholics, drug addicts, sociopaths, psychopaths, sexual deviants, gamblers, thieves, all of the above, other and most just certifiably insane. These are the people that have changed and will change our lives.

        As I walked away from Left Bank and Elliott Bay, I wondered what Doestoevsky, Neitzsche, Melville, Poe, Salinger or Cormac McCarthy would think about these bookstores.

        When I walk into a bookstore and feel that I am in a safe, sanitized and commodified space; where the books are treated like widget-tchotchkes, their presence on the shelves predicated by how quickly they will "turn," i.e. sell; where I notice that all the end-caps are pushing one publishing house; where the displays can be predicted by the New York Times Book Review; when I sense all of these aspects of the market, I feel like I am being treated as a tool. It doesn't matter that clerks remember my name and are courteous, kind and well-intentioned. What does matter is that I feel surrounded by the generic sameness that is endemic to every corporate bookstore in the country. I don't want to go to an independent bookstore to be insulted every way I turn by the insinuation that I do now know how to buy a book off the front page of Amazon.com.

        In the end, I imagine that everything dirty or dangerous or challenging, if it can be sold, if money can be made from it, will be sanitized, bowdlerized and neutered into comfortable commodity, made safe and palatable for the greatest number of the buying public. This is the way of the world.

        But also here at the end, I wonder about what makes the Spirit of a Place, of a Town. I wonder: if Daniel Jefferson "Dirty Dan" Harris, harpooner, smuggler, bootlegger, raucous drinker, teller of tall tales, infrequent bather and the founder of Fairhaven were alive today, where might he feel welcome to have a drink, grab a bite to eat or tell his stories? From the little I know, I imagine he might be amused at how his image has been co-opted to promote the town. But perhaps also a bit dismayed at how safe, clean and well-lit the place has become.

        Google: hours, directions, reviews
        Village Books
        Left Bank Books
        Elliott Bay Books

        Thursday, February 18, 2010

        Election Ballot for the Socialist Party of Bellingham and Some "Materialist" History

        I found this ballot between the back pages of Volume XVIII ORN - PHT of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, New Werner Edition. From the frontpiece, I learn that this was published in thirty volumes with a New American Supplement edited under the personal supervision of Day Otis Kellogg, D. D. by the Werner Company in 1903. Of the thirty volumes, I have two. I found both in the wonderful free books boxes in front of Michael's Books on Grand Avenue.

        I found little reference to the nominated men on the ballot. John Cloak's name is mentioned in Charles LeWarne's fascinating Utopias on Puget Sound, 1885-1915:

        Several Washington towns elected Socialist officials. Socialist locals continued in the Freeland and Equality areas and even at Home, but few former colonists were prominent in large political organizations. John Cloak was a Socialist councilmen and mayoralty candidate in Bellingham.  [p. 238]

        And the enigmatically named E. Lux had this mention in the Stone and Webster Public Service Journal, Januray 1912:

        During the past month a very warm political campaign has been conducted in Bellingham, which was closed by the election on December 5th. The fight for the mayorality had been three-cornered, between a Republican, E. J. Cleary, a Socialist, E. Lux, and the present Chief of Police, J. L. Likens. The result was a clear won victory for the Republican, Mr. Cleary, a business man. The two surprises of the election were the heavy vote for the Socialist candidate and the ridiculously low vote (total of 150) for a mayorality candidate whose sole platform was a reduction in rates charged by this company for gas and electricity.

        This area of Washington has a long history with regard to Utopia Movements and radical politics. Most infamously, The Equality Colony that was founded near Edison in 1897. Here is the Wikipedia article:

        The Equality Colony was a US socialist colony founded in Skagit County,Washington, in the year 1897. It was meant to serve as a model which would convert the rest of Washington and later the entire United States to socialism. The colony itself was highly modeled after the famous utopian piece Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy, and was in fact named after one of Bellamy's other books, titled Equality.

        The colony was formed by the Brotherhood of the Cooperative Commonwealth, a group of Socialist Party members that notably included Eugene V. Debs and Henry Demarest Lloyd, among others. Most of the Socialist Party had by the 1890s drifted away from colonization and towards political action, and the party itself had started to fall apart. Due to this, the Brotherhood decided it was time to form its own organization and colony.

        Led by G.E. "Ed" Pelton, they bought 280 acres of land in Western Washington, near Edison, for $2,854.16. More land was bought later, bringing the total acreage up to about 500. Washington was chosen as a location not only due to the climate and fertility of the land, but also due to social factors. It was home to a relatively small population and left-leaning politics, having elected a Populist governor who was heard to be sympathetic to the cause of the BCC.

        From Utopias on Puget Sound 1885-1915 by Charles Pierce LeWarne
        At its peak, the Equality Colony had two large apartments, a barn, a dining room and kitchen, a school house, a public hall, a store room, a printing office, a saw mill, a root house, a blacksmith and copper shop, an apiary, a bakery, a cereal and coffee house, and a milk house. It most likely had a peak population of around 200 or 300 people, although one newspaper account reported up to 600 people. Colonists lived in apartments, but were over time allowed to build their own houses. Residents chose their own profession. All wages were equal, with men working for eight hours and women working for six. Town meetings were held every week, with all adult colonists having a vote in deciding policy.

        Grounds and buildings of the Equality Colony | 1900
        University of Washington Libraries Special Collection

        The colony prospered for about four years, due to rich land, productive workers, and strong leadership. However, it could not run smoothly forever. Disagreement began to run through the colony, and the official leadership was often questioned. A split arose among the hardcore socialists; some were statist socialists, who believed in following the colony government, and others were of the anarchosocialist variety. In addition to this, the colony was becoming overrun by freeloaders who, claiming to be socialist, arrived without any money and, instead of paying the membership free, claimed that they would work it off. They would work for a few weeks, take up to the limit of items from the grocery store and eat more than their share of home-cooked meals, and then sneak off, having done their part to lead the colony towards bankruptcy. These two factors were more than enough to run the colony down, and by 1905 the Equality Colony was all but completely ruined.

        The final factor in the demise of the colony occurred February 6, 1906, when an unknown person or group of people set fire to several buildings at night. The worst loss was the barn, which burned completely to the ground, killing most of the colony's cattle. The perpetrator was never identified. The land was sold for 12,500 dollars to John J. Peth, and all that remains today of the colony are some fruit trees and a minuscule graveyard.

        From The Single Tax Review of 1911 (more interesting that it sounds), I found this mention:

        Bellingham is a city of 25,000 people, and there were cast at the last election some 1,200 Socialist votes; yet the librarian of the Socialist local tells me that to his certain knowledge he is the only Socialist who has ever taken out the three volumes of Capital!

        The 1913 book, The Common Cause, whose motto is, "There is no need, no excuse for Socialism. But there is sore need of Social Reform," I found  indications of opposition to the "materialistic interpretations" of the Socialists in Bellingham.

         It is not in Schenectady alone that Socialism is trying to make its influence felt in the education of the school children. In Everett and Bellingham, Wash., they have attempted to gain possession of the school board, a purpose which aroused successful opposition on the part of the patriotic citizens. The Bellingham Herald, states unhesitatingly that:
        "Breeding of the utmost contempt for the United States of America, for all the country stands for, for its constitution and for its flag is the sole purpose sought to be accomplished by the aspiring Socialist candidates to the local school board by the introduction of the 'materialistic interpretation' of history into the public schools. It is planned to change the readers even of the primary classes in order that children scarcely able to speak may be inoculated with the socialistic serum. A materialistic interpretation of arithmetic is also to be introduced and a materialistic interpretation of economics for children of the more advanced classes."
        The Herald substantiates its assertions with facts and quotations from socialistic newspapers which leave no room for doubt as to the attitude of the party in regard to the suggested change.

        I enjoyed the hyperbolic vitriol of the Herald writer. The phrase, "in order that children scarcely able to speak may be inoculated with the socialistic serum" was well worth all the efforts of my research. And I am curious as to how anyone can teach a "materialistic interpretation" of arithmetic.

         Finally, a little more research led me up to the 1930s and the lively autobiography of Eugene Dennet, Agitprop: The Life of an American Working-Class Radical. In the fascinating chapter, Bellingham Party Organizer, he discusses the trials and tribulations of the Bellingham Communist party, the seven same members, and makes a nice connection with Equality Club, Edward Bellamy and the Equality Colony.

        I went to Bellingham, Washington, in the spring of 1932. There I found a very disciplined Communist party of seven members; an Unemployed Council of the same seven members; a Friends of the Soviet Union branch of the same seven members; and an International Labor Defense branch of the same seven members. They were certain that they were following the Party line in every particular, and complained that the masses were just too backwards to act in their own behalf by joining our Party organizations. Our Communist party members faithfully carried out every Party campaign by peddling leaflets, pamphlets, and newspapers. But they had no public influence on anything. They were what I later learned to identify as a classic example of "sectarianism," with total loyalty to the working class and the ideals of the Communist party, but completely isolated from all other existing political activities.

        I soon found out that in the city of Bellingham there were mass meetings of the general public with thousands of people gathering to hear discussions about socialism, unemployment, democracy, and many issues coming up in the 1932 elections. They were conducted by some active liberal people stimulated by an organization named the Equality Club, led by a Dr. Beebe. Beebe had sympathies with socialist ideas of Edward Bellamy's old "looking backward" variety. He was intellectually interested and active in current events.

        One cannot help but smile and wonder about whatever happened to those ineffectual and hapless "same seven members."

        Wednesday, February 3, 2010

        Ornithanatophobia at the Black Drop

        Ornithanatophobia is an installation of collaborative art pieces by Kathleen Houseman and Corey Urlacher on display now at the Black Drop. Ornithanatophobia indicates the fear of birds and death. Each piece, appropriately enough, is composed of a painted bird by Houseman and a sculpted/found skull or bone by Urlacher. The works are displayed in beautiful dark frames. Several feature clock faces or dials under thick layerings of laquer. The overall effect is of Vanitas Allegories from the 16th and 17th centuries. Time is fleeting. Birds of Appetite. Memento Mori. You too will die.

        Sitting at the Black Drop on another gray day in Bellingham, a wide spectrum of associations comes to mind. From Poe's Raven to Coleridge's Albatross of the Ancient Mariner. There is a disconcerting tension between Housemann's two-dimensional painted birds, cut and mounted into the sculpted three-dimensional constructs by Urlacher. I have to admit that at first this put me off. I thought each exceptional as stand alone pieces, juxtapositions of style and technique threw me off.

        However, after sitting with them for a while, allowing my predispositions to fade, it started to work as a kind of Gestalt. Like those drawings that can either be young girl or an old woman, a mirror or a skull, it is difficult to see the work as a whole. You want to either fall into the world of the birds or the world of the bones. As you move from one to the other, there is a visual echo, persistence of vision, that carries over. The birds sitting upon skulls, surrounded by bones, frozen gazes, stomachs full of human flesh, symbols of the transience of human life. Then the skulls and bones, glazed over with time, almost animate in style, on the verge of jumping out of the frame and dancing macabre, chasing the birds away, souls chattering into the skies.

        It is rare to find art at this level, with this depth, on display at a local coffeehouse. It is well worth the effort of stopping by the Black Drop, sitting with an excellent cup of coffee, and contemplating the fear of birds and the fear of death surrounding you.

        Ornithanatophobia: Gallery on Kathleen Houseman's Facebook
        Goatus Art: Corey Urlacher
        The Black Drop

        Thursday, January 21, 2010

        Street Epiphany: Vladmir and Estragon in Bellingham

         [ source ]

        Waiting for the light to change at the corner of Magnolia and Railroad, I overheard this conversation between two obviously down-and-out older gentleman:
        First Guy: "You are not going to believe this, man, the other day I went to one of those psychics and she told me some shit that I just couldn't believe. I mean, how she knew this shit. So, check this out, I wanna make sure, you know, so I go to another psychic and she told me the exact same things. Blew me away, man.

        Second Guy: "So what sort of shit did they tell you?"

        First Guy: "Check this out: they both said that I was going through some really hard times. And they both said that things were going to get better real soon -"
        The light changed. I walked on. Smiling. Seemed like dialogue from a Beckett play. Vladmir and Estragon, waiting for Godot in Bellingham. As I said, both appeared to be homeless: ragtag backpacks, grey dirty clothing. How either of these guys would have enough money to go to not just one psychic, but two, was beyond me. And I am sure there was more to it, but that was enough for me. Made my day.

        Wednesday, January 20, 2010

        Griggs Office Supplies: It was gorgeous downtown

        [ source ]

        I had been looking around recently for a good place to buy quality paper and various supplies that I need to make books and cards. I stopped into the Rite-Aid on the corner of Magnolia and Cornwall and, after looking over their dismal and overpriced selection, asked several of the employees if they knew of a place nearby where I might buy some good paper, an office supply or stationery store. No one knew of anyplace in the area, but one lady suggested that I try Paper Dreams over in Fairhaven. I stopped into several other businesses with pretty much the same results. (First few looks I got almost made me wonder if most people wanted to inform me of one of two things: 1.) that they didn't sell drug paraphernalia or 2.) that all stores are stationary stores.)

        The next day I had occasion to be over in  Fairhaven with my stepfather, Jerry, and found Paper Dreams conveniently located next to Village Books. After looking around a bit, I asked a very nice woman where they kept their paper. She told me that although they had started as a stationery store, they really didn't specialize in paper. She then pointed me to a small section of stationery. Not what I was looking for.

        Of course, when I asked most people about buying paper, they would say, just go to Office Depot or Office Max. But the woman at Paper Dreams suggested that I go to Griggs Office Supplies in downtown Bellingham. I told her that was funny because I had just walked around downtown Bellingham yesterday asking in several shops where I could find a stationery store or place to buy paper. No one suggested Griggs. Finally, I told her, I was told to come over here to Paper Dreams. She said that was odd because Griggs has been around for over 100 years.

        So yesterday, I biked down to Griggs. It was just around the corner from the little area of heart and soul that defines downtown Bellingham to me. I was amazed that I had asked people who worked two blocks away about stationery stores, etc. and not a soul told me about Griggs.

        I walked in to the small but comfortable space and asked where I might find reams of paper and was directed to the back of the store. They had an admirable selection: standard printer paper, color copy paper, photo paper, parchment and cardstock. There was even a decent selection of stationery paper and envelopes in a case near the front. Their price on plain printer paper was the cheapest I had seen in town so far. I asked the lady behind the counter about ordering more paper and she said it would be no problem. While she had the catalog out, I also asked about paper cutters and saddle staplers. She was very helpful and engaging. Within a few minutes, I knew that I really liked Griggs Office Supplies. I bought about as much as I could fit in my backpack. As I was leaving, knowing that I would be back often to buy more, I introduced myself to the woman and was happy to realize that I had been helped by Donel Griggs.

        When I got home I looked up Griggs Office Supplies online. I found a couple of articles about the history and various relocations of the store. I discovered that Griggs Stationery and Printing opened in Bellingham in 1906. It has been in the family ever since, persevering through the Depression, numerous relocations and downsizings.

        [ source ]

        An article in The Bellingham Herald, In tree-rich area, Griggs’ Stationery took root by Bonnie Hart Southcott contained this charming passage:

        According to his granddaughter, Donel Griggs, who now runs the store, he really cared about his customers.

        "He would put a coin in his left pocket when he would go to work," she said. "If he helped a customer exceptionally well, or did something nice for them, he would take the coin out of his left pocket and put it in his right pocket. At night, if that coin were still in his left pocket, he'd have to do it twice the next day."

        Donel says "Poppy," as Horace was known in the family, established a high level of customer service in the store, and customers came to expect it.

        "We still have people come in and say they remember when he got old, he would sit on a stool in front of the store — because he couldn't work the cash register anymore — and he'd give candy to the kids that came in," she said.

        Its current location on West Champion may be significantly smaller than previous incarnations, but the spirit of Horace Griggs, exemplified above, is still very present. As I come to know the city better, it is businesses like Griggs that define it in the best way for me. Historic businesses like Griggs, family based businesses, are vital aspects of the character and history of a city.

        I was dismayed to read in The Bellingham Business Journal that when Bellis Fair Mall, which averages a staggering 35,000 customers a day, when this mall opened, many downtown businesses closed down.

        From the BBJ article, Downtown has rebounded from mall’s initial opening by J. J. Jenson:

        The Bon Marche. Nordstrom. J.C. Penney. Woolworth. Sears.

        Once upon a time, these stores were all located in downtown Bellingham.

        While some newcomers to the area and local youngsters may not be aware of this, many longtime downtown business owners say they won’t soon forget the glory days when these department stores were located in the heart of the city and, combined with numerous independent retailers of various sizes, made for a thriving downtown business district.

        “The streets were busy and the sidewalks were bustling with people moving from store to store,” recalls Donel Griggs, whose family business, Griggs Office Supplies, has been located downtown since 1906. “It was gorgeous downtown. When I start thinking about it, I get emotional.”

        And then, in 1988, came the arrival of Bellis Fair Mall.
        [ ... ] “When the big stores left, the hustle and bustle was gone,” Griggs said. “Everybody else (downtown) either had to go to the mall or scale down, and as you scale down you have to let go of employees. A lot of stores went out of business, or their owners quit or retired.”

        Gives me kind of grim smile to read the fairy tale opening, "Once upon a time, these stores..." and then come to that, "And then, in 1988, came the arrival of Bellis Fair Mall." A smile because it reminds me of that point in Bambi where he asking his mother why they have to run and she says it is becuase "man was in the forest."

        Coming from Austin where I saw dozens of local businesses close over the last 30 years, effectively draining all the character out of neighborhood after neighborhood, hollowing out the city, infecting it with the virus of corporate sameness, I know all too well that the reality is no fairy tale.

        Reading in the Bellingham Business Journal that certain initiatives such as Downtown Bellingham Partnership and Sustainable Connections are attempting to reverse the effects of the migration to the malls through clean-up projects and buy local campaigns gives me a dark foreboding about the future of downtown Bellingham. I think the city needs to do more: to identify and define those local historic businesses that make up the unique character of the city - of which Griggs Office Supplies is a prime example - and help to keep them financially healthy through property tax relief and basic utilities assistance. If Bellis Fair Mall is getting 35,000 customers a day, have the mall pay a percentage to support the local business that were affected by their presence.

        Anyway, enough.

        As the new guy, my voice doesn't count for much. However, if you are reading this "review" I encourage to support Griggs Office Supplies. Support not in defiance of the malls and "big box" corporate store, although that is always good. Support Griggs because they have an elegant selection, superior customer service and good prices.

        Google: Directions, Hours, Links, Etc.

        Tuesday, January 19, 2010

        Uisce: Tuesday Trivia and the Water of Life

        It is a Tuesday and, as I have learned from Roger and Shannon, that means only one thing: Trivia Night. It is like going to church around here. The sermon is on knowledge. The eucharist is beer and pretzels. To not go is to commit the sins of slothfullness and ignorance. And the place of trivial worship is called Uisce. Pronounced ish-kaa.

        Being trivially minded, I looked up the word, uisce. It is Irish for whiskey. The word whiskey is actually derived from a mispronunciation of uisce. According to Wikipedia, uisce beathe is "simply an Irish translation of the Latin aqua vitae ('water of life')." As far as difficult to pronounce names for bars go, Uisce has to be the best.

        We used to have a Trivia Night on at the bar I managed in Austin, Drungo Ice House. It was usually our busiest night. The same applies to Uisce. I've been going on and off since I arrived in town and the place is always packed.

        It's in a long rectangular space with high ceilings. Elegant lighting. Plenty of nice seating. Comfortable chairs, even some church pews with slots on the back for bibles and hymnals. Hardwood floors. Beautiful long bar. An atmospheric faux-fireplace in the middle. Accommodates the crowd nicely.  (Side note: you might want to double check the sign on the door before you go to the bathroom... or learn Gaelic.)

        It costs $5 for an Imperial Pint (20 oz) of Harp - my usual - which isn't a bad deal. Haven't tried the whiskey yet, but it seems a given now. We get a complimentary basket of pretzels with hot mustard for the table - one of the seven great foods to eat while drinking beer (pizza, peanuts, popcorn, chips, cheeseburgers and chili being the others).

        [ source ]

        The evening is hosted and officiated by James Gillies, the sine qua non of trivia in Bellingham. Starts at 8 p.m. - but get there by 7:30 at the latest to get a table. No more than six to a group. Dollar entry for each person. 50 questions delivered in two sessions. The questions are recondite, entertaining, erudite, witty, challenging and topical. James does of great job in his pacing of questions and officiating of disputes, (i.e. gnocchi or gnocci).

        Regardless of whether you win or lose, it's always a good time. But... to Men of Extraordinary Wealth and Beauty: you are going down this week.

        Daniel O'Connell - Irish Liberator, Creator of Guinness and Inventor of Electricity

        On your way out, be sure stop at the portrait to the left of the door and say a prayer for the soul Daniel O'Connell, the great Irish Liberator, who once wrote: "The altar of liberty totters when it is cemented only with blood." He was an influence on Gandhi and Martin Luther King.

        When I went by to take the photographs above (after the review was written), I told the bartender and another patron what I had found out about Daniel O'Connell. The bartender laughed and said that a guy had been in the other day who told him that it was "the creator of Guinness." The guy next to me at the bar added that he was sitting with a group and when a girl asked who it was, the guy next to him replied, with complete authority, that it was "the inventor of electricity" and proceeded into a 5 minute discourse. Only in an Irish bar, right?

        An appropriately final note: on the wall opposite the door as you go out are two letters in a glass frame. They appear to be farewell letters composed during the Irish Civil War of 1922-1923.

        The one on the left is from J. Burk to his cousin, Kathleen. From what I can tell, he was executed on Jan. 20, 1923 - or the letter "was executed"... don't know. The last sentences read: "Remember me as the wild boy of the family / Good by all / From your dying cousin."

        The letter on the right is from a brother, Stephen, to his sister, Julia - also written on Jan. 20, 1923. He begins: "Just a few lines bidding you the last farewell." Then, that he and his friends "will meet our death at the hands of Irishmen." Also adding towards the end, "I would not like to hear ye crying when I am among the dead."

        Take a look when you go. They are fascinating and poignant fragments of historical authenticity.


        Google: Directions, Hours, Reviews
        Yelp: Reviews, etc.
        Facebook: Uisce Trivia Night

        Sunday, January 17, 2010

        The Bellingham Library: Searching for all the drowned stories

        I go to the Bellingham Library almost every day. Catch up on all the newspapers and magazines. Read and write for a while. Wander around the stacks celebrating the joys of serendipity. I love walking down the aisles puzzling over the seemingly arcane shifts of the Dewey System. The Bellingham Library is a great little library. Most importantly, it is alive. Always a good number of people there using it. It is, without a doubt, an active center of the community.

        In front of the libary are a series of 11 poems on plaques for the Sue C. Boynton Poetry Contest. Every year they are replaced by new winners. I stop and read over them often. I want more: huge metal books chained to the walls with heavy pages carved over with words. Anyway, here are a few of my favorites from the current series. ( Click on the image for a larger version. )

        A Reefnetter's Paean to the Sea by Tyree Callahan

        This is good poetry. Best one of the bunch. Rings true. Each word containing worlds resonating off of each other - look at how the awkward word "keen" stumbles on "affection," then is saved by "keeling." And that one word: "Reefnetter" just stands there front and center, singing by itself. I remember when I first read this poem, being a little tired, not really listening to the words, then coming upon the lines:
        What great solemn fields of broken water
        have I plowed for you;
        I am a petal upon a raging sea.
        Beautiful juxtaposition of imagery from solemn to raging. Haiku intensity of theme. Sort of thing that makes you forget that you are standing outside in the cold and rain reading a poem on a plaque.

        Awe by Oksana Hanson

        The images layer on top of each other: departing sun, soft grass, the moon. The usual poetic litany, nothing outstanding, until the phrase: "I wouldn't have noticed." It suddenly puts the poet/ reader in a strange place, somewhere outside of the poem itself. What follows is very nice.

        I was simply being.
        No rushing thoughts occupying my mind.
        I was a bystander in the ticking of time.
        There I sat,
        consumed by only
        the beauty,
        on an island of beautiful nonsense,
        unruffled by the imperfections of the outside world.

        Lovely phrase, "bystander in the ticking of time" and then the rhythm slows down, lines shorten. Elliptical moments of evocation slip into the sense of it all.

        the beauty,

        That's beautiful, sublimely so. Those lines lingered in my memory for a long time.

        It is worth adding that Oksana Hanson was in the eighth grade when she wrote this poem.

        Diminishing Returns by Kate Berne Miller

        I didn't want to like this poem. The structural and thematic conceits put me off, ebb and flow. I could sense the shift coming after the first sentence. A kitten swimming in a shark tank. But the broken images won me over: "beach glass in the mud," "erasing delicate tracing of snails," "steel blue waves/  snatch away names." The last sentence redeemed everything:

        On these days my
        mother peers into the distance, longing
        for landmarks, searching for all
        the drowned stories.

         I think about that often as I walk by the plaque. "Searching for all the drowned stories."

        2008 Sue C. Boynton Poetry Contest Winners
        Winners of the 2009 Sue C. Boynton Poetry Contest 

        Saturday, January 16, 2010

        Grand Avenue Alehouse: Four Words: Ice Cold Olympia Beer

        Located directly across the street from Henderson's Books and just down the street from the Black Drop and Michael's Books, it pretty much a given that I would wander into the Grand Avenue Alehouse. A handprinted sign in the window said they had $2 pitchers of PBR. I had heard that the place could get kind of rowdy and loud. I guess that depending on your mood, that could be good or bad.

        The first time I went there, there were just a handful of people sitting at the bar. Nice high ceilings. Good selection of beer. Full bar. Some pool tables in back. I asked if there were any specials and the bartender told me they had cans of Olympia for $3. I said sure. She gave me an ice cold 16 oz. can.

        Back in Austin, everyone that knows better drinks Lone Star. I love Lone Star. It's a great lager beer. Kind of beer you can drink all day. I'd never had Olympia. And I'll be damned - and there are people in Austin that will damn me for this - if it wasn't as good, maybe even better, than my beloved Lone Star. Beautiful. It was so good that I drank it down in about five minutes and was up at the bar for another that I could take some time with and savor.

        The next time I stopped in, it was more crowded. Early Friday evening.  Took me a little longer to get my can of Olympia. Tougher to find a seat. A group of guys at the table next to me were drinking pitchers and getting loud about "banging tail". I tried to tune them out. A lot of people were ordering food and that took up  a lot of the bartender's time - or so it seemed to me. There was another girl who was serving food, but she was moving slow. I didn't mind the wait so much. But the crowd was getting more obnoxious. What can you do? Friday night.

        I've been back a few times, making it a point to go in the afternoon when there are not a lot of people. Walking back down Grand Avenue after a good day at the library,  it's a nice dark place to have a couple of cheap cans of Olympia before heading home.

         Google: Hours, Direction, Reviews, Etc.

        Thursday, January 14, 2010

        The Horseshoe Cafe: Soul of the City

        I often wonder what the soul of a city is? What makes a place unique, defines its character, gives it its essence? For the moment, exclude the all of the natural aspects.

        I walk a lot around downtown Bellingham and see buildings, businesses and people. I am trying to "get to know" this place, understand it's character. Being a new arrival, I find it necessary to get my bearings. As far as buildings go, the beautiful Mt. Baker theater helps me orient beyond my Grand Avenue haunts, the Old City Hall guides me down to the Bay, and the Herald Building - with its red sign of impending announcement - steers me across town. At the center, for me, is the Horseshoe Cafe.

        Amongst the many places that I have been told to go to, the Horseshoe was one of the more consistently mentioned. Always added to this was that it has been here for over 100 years. In fact, since 1886 - over 120 years - which is, indeed, impressive. Must be doing something right. Before I even stepped inside, I could tell that I was going to like the place. The beautiful old-school neon sign out front. The cowboys in the sunset mural behind that. Through the window, classic diner look: formica tables, booths, high ceilings, an collection of signs and such on the walls, straight out of Edward Hopper's Nighthawks at the Diner. Open 24 hours. Beautiful.

        First time I was there, I had a cheeseburger with hashbrowns, cup of coffee. Classic diner fare. Straight up solid food. Cheap, hot and good. The way it should be. Coffee was fresh ground, fresh brewed and strong. It passed the cream test: when poured in, the cream swirled around, separating into in a myriad of white milky strands, a galaxy in a coffee mug. I liked it that they emphasized that they were serious about coffee on the menu. Heart and soul of any real diner. Cheeseburger was solid. Hashbrowns were the stand-out, "from real potatoes, cut fresh every day." I could've eaten just a plate of those.

        In a separate area to the right of the door is the Ranch Room, my favorite bar in town. Behind the bar is a great cowboy mural by Fred Oldfield. Various other western related ephemera hang on the dark walls. I like the elbow pad railing along the bar and the barstools that curve around your back. I'm usually in there for a few cheap cans of Ranier after working out at the Y. Place feels like home to me because it reminds me of the Hole in the Wall in Austin: unpretentious, authentic, not trying at all to be anything other than a warm place for people to get together, drink, talk, watch the game and have a good time.

        Horseshoe Website: http://www.horseshoecafe.com/
        Google: Reviews, Directions and Links
        Yelp: http://www.yelp.com/biz/horseshoe-cafe-bellingham 

        Alcohol is like love. The first kiss is magic, the second is intimate, the third is routine. After that you take the girl's clothes off.
        - Raymond Chandler
        Here's to a long life and a merry one
        A quick death and an easy one
        A pretty girl and an honest one
        A cold beer and another one!
                   - Irish Saying

        Michael's Books: One of a Kind Rare Books Room

        In what I would like to believe is some sort of happy non-competitive agreement, Henderson Books is usually closed on Mondays and Tuesdays and Michael's Books is open. So these are generally the days where I head across the street to Michael's.

        When I first arrived to town, I saw Michael's as the gangly younger sister to Henderson's - trying hard, but always a little awkward, caught in the shadow of the other's brilliance. But I have come to see that this is not true.

        Michael's may not immediately impress you with spined-out, stacks of books on the floor, maximum density book-lover beauty. But don't let that prejudice you: things are spread out a bit more here. You have to look around. It's a beautiful maze: rooms in back of rooms. In this way the place reminds me of Larry McMurtry's Blue Pig (now known as Booked Up) in Archer City, Texas.

        Their selection seems to be geared more to the common reader - more best sellers, past and present.  Not as erudite as Henderson's. If you think Henderson is snobby or a little stuffy at times, then head on over to Michael's. They probably will have you covered. Still, in that way that all good bookstores do, they will surprise you. Example: I was perusing the Greek History section the other day and found a beautiful Zone Book, The Invention of Athens: The Funeral Oration in the Classical City by Nicole Loraux. In the case right next to it: several volumes of Braudel's Civilization and Capitalism, 15th-18th Century, Vol. I: The Structure of Everyday Life (Civilization and Capitalism : 15th-18th Century). Very nice. All reasonably priced.

        I was just recently made aware of their excellent Rare Books Room - just behind the counter to the right - with a fine selection of firsts and a truly outstanding collection of local history books. Also, be sure to look in the glass counter in front for a nice collection of the Beats and a selection of weird and transgressive literature. If are low on cash, Michael's always places several boxes of free books out on the sidewalks. And, to top it off, they always have free cider.

        Michael's Website: http://www.michaelsbooks.com/