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I Am Amazed By What These Two Women Created for Our Local Literary Community

This past weekend, two women amazed me with what they created for our local literary community. They launched things that were wholly unreasonable in their scope, are full of risk, but which are resulting in profound resources for readers, writers, and inspiring this community to embrace their own potential.

“I Created a Bookstore”

Barb Short and Dan Blank

Barb Short and me


You know how people are talking about how important indie bookstores are? Well, Barb Short went and created one, opening Short Stories Community Book Hub this past Saturday. Barb can say, “I created a bookstore.” That is astounding.

As a local resident, I can’t even tell you how exciting it was to discover that a new storefront was not going to be yet another bank – but rather – a center for literature, art, and a meeting space. Barb and I have had lots of conversations in the past few weeks, yet I can still hardly comprehend how she was able to pull it off.

Her vision was not to just open a store that sold a product (in this case: books), but to become a local center for activities, learning, clubs, and performance. We were talking last night, and she described the bookstore as a series of experiences it creates for people. That is awesome.

The weeks leading up to the opening felt like what I imagine a barn raising to be like: with lots of helping hands along the way. She created a Kickstarter campaign which raised more than $18,000, and held several building events for shelves and books. Overall, she estimated that 200 people lent their hand in getting the store open.

When I showed up at the store in the weeks before opening, it always seemed to be filled with kids that were there helping out – middle school and high school students – building shelves, unboxing books, and making decisions.

Barb’s two daughters are in the 6th and 9th grade, and she is completely aware of the experience she wants to give them before they head off to college: to be a part of building something. At every stage of the process I observed, these kids were taking responsibility, involved in decision-making, and learning what it means to “take a risk worth taking.” That is how Barb described her decision to open the store when I asked.

The best part: these kids and young adults are referring to the store as “we.”

Barb with one of her daughters and friends.

Barb with one of her daughters and friends.

Barb is not just “a role model” because she is a successful professional; these kids are experiencing what it is like to truly create something from nothing – to have a hand in it – and they see that embodied wholly within Barb.

They will forever know the experience of what it means to not just have a dream, but to realize it – and that experience will likely fuel so much of what they each individually create in their lives. Even before she opened the doors of Short Stories, Barb has created exponential potential in the lives of kids in our community.

While so much of this has felt like a community venture, I am always aware that Barb is at the center of it all – that the pressure and risk of this venture lies on her shoulders. And how difficult that can be – and how inspiring it is.

“I Created A Literary Festival.”

Linda Hellstrom & Dan Blank

Linda Hellstrom and me

In my adult life, I have always lived in small towns: places that had a downtown, a sense of culture to them, and community institutions you could point to. In these places, it’s easy to daydream about potential for events, activities, stores, and other things that bring together the community. But most of those dreams get lost between our daily responsibilities.

Well, Linda Hellstrom didn’t just daydream, she created Morristown Festival of Books, which had its inaugural event last weekend. Linda can say, “I created a literary festival,” and that too is astounding.

The event featured more than 20 authors, from a wide range of topics and genres. It was so impressive to see dozens of volunteers in red shirts helping out, and to hear from author friends how they couldn’t believe it was the first year for the event – it was so well organized.

Events were packed, lines at the book sale table were long, and author signings connected readers to writers in a very personal way. Local businesses got involved, and Bill Moyers even showed up!

Miranda and Miranda

Miranda and Miranda

My friend Miranda Beverly-Whittemore was one of the authors featured at the festival, and when I was chatting with her at the signing table, one of the event organizers, Deanna Quinones, came over with her 9 year old daughter.

It turns out, her daughter is also named Miranda. Well, Miranda and Miranda hit it off and chatted for about 10 minutes.

This is how young Miranda described the experience:

“I really liked meeting her because I don’t meet a lot of Mirandas around! She liked my necklace and we talked about art. She told me about Shrinky Dinks, which I did not know about. It was cool to meet and really talk to a real author. Miranda is super cool. I loved being at the festival. It was fun to meet people who write books.”

And this is how Miranda Beverly-Whitemore described the meeting:

She’d never met another Miranda before. I told her how the name Miranda comes from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and how it means “full of wonder” and the character of Miranda in that play is stranded on a desert island with only her wizard father, Prospero, so that when she finally meets other humans, she really is struck by wonder at them. She said that sounded cool. And she told me about how in her school there’s a special tea party where kids get to present stories they’ve written, and she’d done it now two years in a row, so she is a writer too. Then at the end of the day, Julia [Fierro] and I went to get ice cream, and got a chocolate ice cream for Celeste Ng, but the line took forever and by the time we got back, Celeste had already left for her train- so I found Miranda and told her my dilemma and asked if she could help me out by eating the chocolate ice cream for me. She seemed okay with that ;)”

To me – observing this conversation as it happened is so much of what a book festival is all about, and really what so much of publishing is about. Not the numbers (attendance, bestseller lists, sales), but the one-to-one connection that someone has with a book or an author. How we can’t possibly measure the effect that this festival will have, because the results will happen within subtle choices that young Miranda makes throughout her life.

This is not just about selling books; rather, it is about inspiring a 9-year old girl to realize her own potential.

My Responsibility in Supporting These Bold Women

There is a flip side to all of this. What if Barb’s store fails? Maybe not right away, but within a year, or two, or three. And these same kids have to see the store they created taken apart. They have to feel the arduous decisions leading up to a closing.

What if the literary festival hits some major roadblocks in its second year, and despite Linda’s best efforts, it becomes unsustainable?

This is the area of risk that we gloss over when celebrating milestones and successes. Things we gloss over when we easily embrace a hashtag about indie bookstores, like putting a bumper sticker on our cars, but don’t comprehend or take on the incredible risk and commitment that these women have made.

For each of the ventures I mention here, I tried to get involved in a more real way. For Short Stories, I built a book shelf one night, and unpacked and shelved books another night. I tried to stop in as often as I could on other days, help spread the word, and made sure to buy a book on opening day. But, clearly, I can do more.

For The Morristown Festival of Books, I volunteered to become the Community Manager, which basically translated to managing their social media accounts. Again: clearly, I can do more.

As I celebrate these women and what they have created, I have to also challenge myself: how can I support them and the communities they are creating in a more consistent way? How can I feel responsible for their challenges?

As I consider and practice this, I would love to know: can you tell me about a bold woman creating something amazing in your community?

Thanks.
-Dan

PS: If you would like to see how these two communities evolve and thrive, inspiring young minds, you can connect with them via social media:
Short Stories Community Book Hub:

Morristown Festival of Books:

  • Such inspiring stories, Dan! People who risk and work really hard to bring their dreams to life are contributing more than their products to the rest of us. They contribute to the vast fund of hope that holds the world together — needed now more than ever. And you are so right about the impact they have on their families, especially their children. Bless them and bless you for helping and telling their stories.

  • Edda R Pitassi

    Susan Weidener is her name and the Women’s Writing Circle is her creation. About 3 years ago, I met her at a local library event. She was promoting her memoir, “Again In A Heartbeat,” and spoke about starting/forming a women’s writing group in the community. (We live in Chester County, Pa.) I had recently retired, and was smitten with her idea. She had been a bona fide journalist with The Philadelphia Inquirer; I had been a stringer for several years covering the local suburbs (with a full-time day job since no writer should ever leave their day job!). Call it serendipity, chance….

    Susan Weidener went on to write a sequel to her memoir, “Morning At Wellington Square”. The Women’s Writing Circle grew. And – again – serendipity – a diverse group of us gathered monthly – and an idea was born: “What about collaborating on a women’s anthology of short stories and poems!” The seed for our anthology, “Slants of Light…Stories and Poems From the Women’s Writing Circle” was planted. In April 2013, we published our collective “writing journey”.

    We’ve all learned much about ourselves as human beings, women, the reader, and the writing process. None of thist could have happened without a vision, persistence, risk-taking. Susan Weidener inspired us to work hard, dig deep, come together and give back to the community and a reading public a ‘slant’ on women’s voices.

    Here is her website: http://www.susanweidener.com/

    Thank you for your time and attention.