If the University of Idaho were not located in Moscow—right where the state’s handle attaches to its pan—the town itself would likely be no more than a crossroads, with, like many small towns in the West, a more or less equal number of churches and taverns, maybe a grain elevator or two. Moscow is a small town. The latest census puts its population at just over 25,000, but half of those are students hailing from every other county in the state, most of the states of the union, and a good many other countries, far and wide.
But Moscow has, in addition to a research, flagship university, a few other things that make it the most congenial town I have ever lived in (or near). It’s got a public space in the middle of downtown called “Friendship Square.” It’s got a retired high school building now converted to a civic gathering spot called the 1912 Center. It’s got a world-class Co-op food store, a wonderful summer-and-fall farmer’s market, and a population of very interesting, sometimes quirky, sometimes colorful, but frequently fascinating citizens. And as far as I’m concerned, it’s got the one thing that gives it a very special kind of civic soul: it’s got an independent bookstore.
BookPeople of Moscow has been around forty years now, since 1973. The founder, Ivar Nelson, still lives in town. In 1979, I’d been in Idaho for two years, when my first book, The Sinking of Clay City, was published by Copper Canyon Press, now one of the most important poetry publishers in the world but then, well, it was pretty obscure and very, very small, with distribution that might be described as something like woefully challenged. When I received my first box of books, I hauled them to BookPeople—there were 25 copies in the box—hoping the owner, Bob Greene, would take a few on consignment. He took them all, and he hand-sold them, and I fear, when he retired just a few years ago, he might still have had a dozen in the back room.
What was most alarming was when Bob Greene retired, in 2011, was the chance that the store would meet the fate of so many independents in our time: it would go away. And if it had, there we’d have been, in Moscow, Idaho, without our faithful and beloved heart. It was a terribly anxious time, really. The possibility that we would find ourselves un-BookPeopled seemed to mean that we would find ourselves—to use a word I use as the first word in one of the poems in Anatomy of Melancholy—“disensouled.”
But we were saved. A partnership of locals—Steffan and Nicole Werner and Carol Spurling—bought the store, and it lives on, clean and orderly and well-stocked with books and, just as importantly—as it has always been—staffed by people who read and read and read, and who deeply love books and readers. This surely makes BookPeople a typical member of the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association, and it makes Moscow, Idaho, and all the other towns in which a PNBA store exists, blessed.
I haven’t said anything really, about my book. Part of me believes that talking about a book of poems is like talking about a piano: far better to sit down and play it, to hear it played. So I’ll just say this: the title’s . . . borrowed from a 17th century treatise on the subject of melancholy by Robert Burton. His Anatomy is 1400 pages long; mine’s 104. He was vastly more melancholy than I, Mr. Burton, for one thing. Burton believed the very condition of mortality was melancholy; if you’re never melancholy, there can be only two reasons: you’re dead or you’re dumb as a shovel. At one point, Burton writes, “I write of melancholy, by being busy to avoid melancholy.” I like that; it may be why I read and write. There is joy and jokes and wit all through his book; I like to think that—number of pages notwithstanding—there’s a good deal of the same in mine.
Finally, I want to say that an independent bookstore in a city is a welcoming refuge; an independent in a small town is among the most important measures of that town’s good fortune, and its prospects. When we travel around the Northwest, my wife and I seek out independent bookstores. Sometimes they’re packed; sometimes almost deserted. But always—always—they open up to us in the same way a good book does. We might be 500, 700, 900 miles from our own bookshelves, but a quick look around, a brief conversation with an owner or a clerk, and we know exactly where we are.
We’re with our tribe. We’re home.