Bookstores around here probably fall into one of several types; used, academic or shopping mall.
Used bookstores have character, a soul, a beating heart, usually that of the owner, a confirmed bibliophile dedicated to ink and paper, determined to at least break even on a low margin business. As a result, the owners beating heart is usually the only one in the place. R.G. of Way Station Books is a fair example of the denizens of such stores. They can be found in neighborhood retail spaces that have seen scores of other businesses before their current bookish incarnations. They are identified by quietude (e.g., few customers at any given time), unfinished pine board bookshelves and the fragrance of old paper. I love ‘em. Long may they wave.
The leading academic bookstore here keeps the text books in a utilitarian, fluorescent-lit basement. Charming it’s not. The two bright, airy and well furnished above-ground floors hold consumer titles which cater to the thinking minds of the city, books likely to be of interest to former students of the university a block away. I’ve visited on a number of occasions and made a few purchases, but I never quite feel smart enough to be allowed in.
Bookstores in shopping malls are just unnatural, with neither the character of used bookstores nor the intellectual attraction of the academic sort. I find them to be sterile. Uniform. Interchangeable.
One unremarkable day in the late 70s I found myself at a mall, in front of Waldenbooks (a now defunct chain) with a few minutes to kill. Through the nonexistent front wall the New York Times bestsellers blared their mass market popularity. Near them were tables of de rigueur art books, photography and coffee table contenders for the contents of the mall-goers wallets. I passed them all and wandered further in, where I found this:
Something took possession of my then prudent, middle class, upwardly-mobile professional senses, some remnant of the previous decade, along with some as-yet unfulfilled spirit of adventure and refused to let go until I took the book to the checkstand and thence home.
I must have thumbed through it a hundred times in the first year, allowing imagination to run amok, all the while thinking how much I would like to create my own house on wheels.
* * *
“I’m just going to look.”
These were my words as I said goodbye to Jeni, holding a map and the newspaper containing the ad for a used 67 passenger school bus, somewhere out on Route 202 in rural east-county.
In defiance of anything in the way of common sense, I bought it. The die was cast.
As the new owner of an old bus, the first thing I did was not have a good plan. What I had was a few pencil sketches, a fairly flush bank account and very little ability with tools or building. Undaunted, I rented a building and backed in the old bus.
There is nothing practical about converting a 1959 Dodge school bus into a housetruck. It was just something I wanted to do. But I justified it by telling myself, and Jeni, that it would be a clean, comfortable, low cost way to live, during a time in which my income from working at small market radio stations might be something less than remarkable.
My justification unexpectedly had some basis in fact. The old bus started every time and ran well The house we built on it was very livable. The tiny wood stove warmed it thoroughly, more than propane or electricity ever could. The loft above the cab was roomy and comfortable. The five skylights brought in light during all but the most dismal weather. The demand water heater would produce hot water for as long as a tap was open. We took our meals at the kitchen counter return, which also divided the living space from the kitchen. The shower enclosure was huge. We had an on-board washer and dryer.
This is not a how-to. I will not inflict upon the reader how I coerced the services of a friend, who happened to be a journeyman carpenter, one with tools and the knowledge to translate my entirely questionable fantasy into wood. Nor how an architect and others were dragged into the project at no cost. Nor the many times progress was halted while we figured out how to deal with some aspect of construction, barriers which seemingly had no solution. Nor will I describe the personal anguish as my financial resources were reduced to shreds. And I categorically refuse to admit to the fear and trembling I was unable to quell when I got behind the wheel to drive the 36 foot finished coach out of the building for the first time, into traffic among untold numbers of unsuspecting drivers.
After four years in the housetruck, a couple things happened. The first was when the station manager at KBRC was replaced. Anecdotal accounts of upheavals in broadcasting are legion. The on-air talent are typically the first casualties. So it was. We drove the housetruck back to the city. Unemployed, with the housetruck at its fourth location, a park near the south end of Lake Washington, jobs were found, income was produced. Corporate life was resumed.
The next occurred over cups of morning coffee at Pike Place Market. I have no memory of what we were talking about, but while sipping, munching and looking out over the bay, I suddenly heard Jeni speak of her wish for a real house, one built on a concrete foundation instead of six rubber tires. I am usually a quick study, but this one had somehow managed to elude my attention.
In those pre-internet days, I advertised the housetruck for sale in several newspapers around the state and took the first offer which met my price. With bank draft in hand, we packed up and moved out, leaving the housetruck with the new owner, right where it was. In a few weeks, we moved into our first real house.
My uncle once characterized my relationship with the housetruck as “…wouldn’t take a million for it, wouldn’t take a dime for another one like it.” I understood his meaning. But when the broadcast job ended, rather than try to move up-market to a bigger station in a bigger town, as so many do, I made a different choice, a choice for sensible income, stability and health insurance. And to get a real house for Jeni. The housetruck was part of a fantasy that came from the book, wrapped in my dream of doing small market radio. It was time for both to be over.
There wasn’t a minute I didn’t enjoy living in it. There hasn’t been a minute that I’ve missed it.
“Having one’s own little portable house is a delectable dream…”
Gary Kamiya, Cool Gray City of Love, Copyright 2013 by Gary Kamiya