World Book Night in Small-Town America

Claire Kirch -- April 24th, 2013
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Last year, a woman at the Anchor Bar in Superior, Wisc. wanted our picture taken after I gave her a book.

World Book Night was a lot of fun last year. I hit two iconic bars in Superior, Wisconsin, the hard-scrabble, blue-collar town across the St. Louis River from Duluth, Minnesota, where I gave away 20 copies of A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick. This year, I decided to go outside of my comfort zone again, drive over the bridge to Superior, and give away copies of Population: 485 by Michael Perry, who writes books about his life and times in a small town in the Wisconsin north woods. There’s also, for me, one degree of separation between Perry and me: his cousin, Penny Perry, a native of Wisconsin who now lives in Duluth, is a friend of mine. I felt like this gave me instant street cred.

Things didn’t start so auspiciously: I dropped a book in a puddle even before I left Duluth. But once I got to Superior, it picked up – I ended giving away all 19 copies in less than 30 minutes, minus driving time.

I started off at about 5 pm at the Red Mug Café, a hole-in-the-wall not far from the bridge between Minnesota and Wisconsin. I approached a table of four middle-aged women, enjoying each other over cups of coffee. “Happy World Book Night!” I exclaimed, explaining that on April 23 each year, volunteers “all over the country like myself” give away books to strangers. Holding up Population: 485, I said, “Michael Perry writes about small-town life in northern Wisconsin. Can you relate to that, or what?” The women were very kind, and all four of them took a book and graciously thanked me. Emboldened, I walked around the café and handed out books to a woman slurping a bowl of soup; a middle-aged man on his iPhone, who was initially reluctant, but said, “Well, I am flying to Chicago; I do need something to read on the plane;” and to a young man at the counter, who high-fived me after I handed him a book and told him, “Books rock! Reading rocks!”

I then drove two blocks south, to the Thirsty Pagan Brew Pub, which is one of the bars I visited last year. It’s a friendly and popular place, where college professors meeting for happy hour rub shoulders with families, retirees, and blue-collar workers coming off their shifts. The first table at which I stopped to give my pitch, the man sitting there didn’t even let me get a word out. “We’re not interested.”

I then walked to another table, whose occupants let me give my spiel, but I could tell they were just being polite. That changed, however, when Steve Knauss, the Thirsty Pagan’s beloved owner, who’s known me for years, came over, put his arm around my shoulders and said, “It’s OK, people, this woman is legit. She’s in publishing and she loves books!”

Smiles all around, as I agreed. “I love books! I want you all to read Population: 485 and I want you all to love it!” I said. “Then I want you to read the rest of Michael Perry’s books and love them!” I walked around the bar, handing out books.

The woman who was seated with the man who’d told me to go away when I first entered the bar approached me. “I’d like a book,” she said, “I heard [Perry, who is also a musician] perform once at Central High School, and I want to read his book.” I handed her a copy.

Running out of the books I’d brought into the bar with me, I returned to my car, and took out the rest of the box of books. As I walked back to The Pagan, a young man I’d never seen before smiled and said, as we passed each other, “I hope you’re having a wonderful day!” (Midwesterners are like that). I stopped him and asked, “Would you like a free book?”

I could see hesitation — or maybe fear — flit across his face. I’m sure he was wondering if he’d have been better off, not greeting me. “Are you trying to give me a Bible?” he asked. “No,” I responded, “I want to give you a book by the David Sedaris of northern Wisconsin!” He eagerly took the book, telling me that he loved Sedaris.

When I returned to the bar, I quickly handed off more books, telling all the recipients, “This book is by the David Sedaris of northern Wisconsin!” People were practically snatching books out of my hands when I told them that.

I returned to Duluth, with one book left. As I walked down the street, on my way to an arts event at the Zeitgeist Cafe, I passed a man waiting for the bus.

“Would you like a book by the David Sedaris of northern Wisconsin?” I asked.

“Does he know who Aldo Leopold is?” the man responded.

“Um, I don’t know,” I said, “Who is Aldo Leopold?”

Sand County Almanac,” he answered, taking the last book from me, and shaking my hand. “This guy had better know who Aldo Leopold is.”

Late last night, I looked up Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold. It’s a 1949 collection of essays by a late leader of the American conservation movement, describing the people of central Wisconsin and their relationship to the land. Leopold seems to have been the Michael Perry of the mid-20th century.

Not only did I introduce a great book to 19 Midwesterners, but one of the recipients in turn introduced a great book to me. As far as I am concerned, World Book Night 2013 was an overwhelming success in this little corner of America’s Heartland.

8 thoughts on “World Book Night in Small-Town America

  1. LJ Clark

    We had a great time distributing books for World Book Night in Evans Georgia. Got a few members from the local high school interact club to come out and share The Alchemist with locals that passed by the Columbia County Library. We were able to give away all our our books in about an hour. It was rewarding to see young people actively involved in promoting literacy.

  2. Alex Genis

    Claire, This is the first time I’d read this. Very cool!
    Sounds like it was a literary pub crawl–what’s not to like?
    Cheers!

  3. Michael Dwyer

    Thanks for sharing! I gave away copies of The Tender Bar.
    Thanks to you, I have reserved a copy of Population: 485 at my local Barnes & Noble.
    Mike Dwyer
    San Diego

  4. Shirley Mullin

    Claire,
    What a nice evening you had in the bars! We have had a bit of a rocky week with “givers” who still haven’t arrived to pick up their boxes in spite of emails and direct phone calls….glad most of the givers have been enthusiastic. I went to a shelter for abused women and children and found two other women there handing out books! I was glad they ended up with three boxes instead of just my one. Shirley, Kids Ink

  5. Jim Hedrick

    I did not volunteer this year. Your little WBN short story stirs up my Midwestern aspiration for next year. But first I need to read a little Sedaris to help my spiel to the non readers who were the focus of my freebie distribution effort. Thanks for writing!

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