I hate corpo-jargon, the trying-to-be hip phrases that aren’t. But the first words in my mind as I pull off Quartzite, Arizona’s main drag into the gritty parking lot of Reader's Oasis are: "I am definitely working outside the box." The big-box bookstores, that is.
is a metal shed, a half-dozen tables, a tiny desert garden in whose
shade a Mojave-broiled customer can recover, and a Porta-potty in
which a teddy bear poster tells us Bear Behinds are welcome –
as are fronts.
The gray-haired man who greets me wears a
broad-brimmed leather hat, velour T-shirt, a barely-there paisley
bikini and the kind of tan people still die for. I've seen enough
of the desert rats ambling through way-back Arizona to almost not
The man waves as I climb out of my truck.
It is clear he is not about to give me that cheery clueless sales
associate, "Can I help you?" His smile is real, and weathered as
"I'm Paul Winer, the owner of all this," he
says. "You must be Mary." "I must be," I say and look down at my
salsa-splotched jeans. I am wearing my one dress-up top. I'd
planned to change into tights for the signing. "It's a good thing,"
I say, "that I dressed formal."
"You’re fine," he
says and I believe I am. I can’t think of anywhere I would
rather be on a soft February day, than sitting at an
oilcloth-covered table in the hardscrabble heart of Quartzite,
Ariz., the snowbird town that goes from a few thousand to 125,000
people in winter.
Paul sets two pans of cake down in
front of me, says, "We always provide refreshments for book
signings," and wanders off to check-in used books. I set up my
display, turn my face to the perfect sun and wait. I know that even
if no one shows, I am smack in the heart of a brand-new story.
Four hours later, I have sold three books, given away one
and bartered another for six grapefruits and four tangelos from
Norman Wood’s 10-acre orchard. He is a regular customer at
Reader’s Oasis, a tiny 90-year-old man, dressed in overalls
with red suspender straps. A tattered Tasmanian Devil checkbook
peaks out of his pocket. I tell him I love Taz. His eyes twinkle.
"I bet I know why! I bet you’re a regular whirlwind."
By the time the Mojave light goes soft blue, I have
talked for an hour with an old Montana rancher down for the winter.
His little Pomeranian stands in the open truck window and yips
every time the rancher moves into its view. The dog has one eye,
and when I ask the rancher why, he says, "Why, she was talking when
she should have been listening. A big old mutt took her head clear
into its mouth."
His tired eyes light up as he tells me
he’s a flint-knapper. "Yep, I wanted to learn something new
while I could. You know what I mean? We don’t have forever."
I tell him that’s why I’m signing books at
Reader’s Oasis. That’s why I stopped the night before
at Burro Jim’s motel in Aguila and ate at a local Mexican
restaurant, where I gobbled the best homemade corn tortilla and
machaca you’d never taste in a chain. "Beef," he grins. "Now,
you give me the name of that restaurant for when me and the Missus
head back up."
By the time I leave, Paul Winer and I have
bartered stories for stories, his fine ‘70s collection of
back-to-the-land poetry for my whirlwind old babe book. We’ve
traded grace for grace, his face gentle as he listens to my rant
against rich, fifth-wheel tourons.
he says. "Most of the folks who come here are blue-collar retirees.
They’ve sold everything to buy that rig, and it’s their
future. They hope they can sell it when life on the road gets too
rough and they have to go to a landlocked life."
away. We both see a future we don’t want to see. He shakes
his head. "You learn a lot loving a place like this."
begin to pack up books, grapefruit and tangelos---and the new
stories I will carry all the way home, on the desert two-lane that
will take me north, past a town named Brenda, a crossroads named
I thank Paul. "Bookstores like Reader’s Oasis
are the reason," I tell him, "that I do what I do – the way I