Why I do what I do, the way that I do it

  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.

Reader's Oasis 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 be surprised.

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 his skin.

"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.

"You’re wrong," 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."

He looks 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."

I 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 Hope.

I thank Paul. "Bookstores like Reader’s Oasis are the reason," I tell him, "that I do what I do – the way I do it."

Mary Sojourner is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). She writes in Flagstaff, Arizona.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].