Letter from the Vineyard March 17, 2021 Reflections…

There is, I think, for all of us, a moment when sometime around now a year ago, the pandemic became real.  Absolutely real.  For me, that moment was noon on St. Patrick’s Day, 2019 when Governor Charlie Baker ordered all non-essential businesses to close until further notice.  

            The bookstore was open until noon, the deadline, a few customers rushing in to get books; the previous Saturday had been a bit of a bustle, people sensing a lockdown coming, wanting some reading to get them through the few weeks we expected it to last.

            Closing the door of the store, being alone in that space, I remember touching the front door, leaning against it, as if it could impart to me some sense of what the future would bring. Alas, it had no wisdom for me, only a truth: customers would not be coming through it for an indeterminate amount of time.

            I went home and, as best I could, did what I could to keep Edgartown Books functioning.

My vagabond life helped me deal with the strangeness of it.  

Being thrown into a pandemic felt no stranger than arriving in Delhi at 3 AM, for the first time, descending in a 747 to a city glowing orange beneath, infused with the smell of burning rubber from tires smoldering, people huddled for warmth.  There are dozens of places I have arrived in life, a stranger, a thing to do, business of some kind, not knowing people, having to make a way.  Hello, Mumbai, Chennai, Bangalore, Taipei, Singapore, Tokyo, Buenos Aires, Mexico City, Sydney, the list goes on…

            It became common to tell customers they could pick up their books behind the urn to the left of the front door, feeling I was directing them to a Cold War drop spot.  

Bringing books to people, some to the far reaches of the island, I began to learn my new island home. 

Some phone conversations went on longer than the bounds of commerce demanded; people needed connection, someone to chat books with them, to deal with something beyond the pandemic, married as it was to political disorder, every day feeling an assault on common sense. I treasure the memories of those conversations, raw, fragile, real, an unexpected connection with someone I might not have had if it weren’t for the need to bridge ourselves to moments of sense, solidity – a thing books gave us in 2020.

The book industry as a whole had a great year though not as great for independent bookstores.  The great beneficiaries of the uptick in reading were the giants, Amazon and Barnes & Noble.  Independent bookstores were down though we were not down by much compared to some.  Nancy Gardella and the team at the Vineyard Chamber of Commerce led a charge to get folks to buy local.  It worked.  A tough year was mitigated by local support in the last quarter plus.  Thank you, Nancy, Aela and group!  

It was a strange, strange summer, one of masks, hand sanitizer, rubber gloves, plexiglass, limits on numbers of people in the store, of learning how to buy books, a thing I’d never done before, learning to love the art of it, always imperfect as is so much of life.

I was a stranger on this island, with a thing to do, run a bookshop, as I entered Covid quarantine, not sure I would survive, only knowing I had to put one foot in front of the other, with only the dimmest of promises of another side, as I have done so many times before.

Now double vaccinated, I wait with almost everyone for spring, the summer’s hope of some normality, if the variants don’t swirl out of control, resulting in another surge, such as cripples Europe as I type.  

We have learned lessons; not all pretty. We have seen the ripped seams of our society in stark detail, from police brutality, to income inequality, to our health care system nearly breaking down.  We’ve seen kindness – and cruelty.  

Gradually, we will emerge from this, find some kind of normal, perhaps in a small measure by the Fourth of July, a symbolically fitting moment.

Today’s killings in Atlanta underscore our need to heal so much. 

If we fail to address the issues, slip back into somnambulance, all this death and pain will have been for naught. We’re better than that.

Photo courtesy of Paul Doherty

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