I’m writing this from an old pub just round the corner from Mr B’s Emporium in Bath. I don’t mean to be so British but I can't help but mention the weather as it’s so starkly contrasted to our experience in America. The rain here is pelting on the small windows and the wind somehow manages to shudder their old beams. We’re back in the UK now, not home to Wigtown but to my childhood home, and where Beth and I first met, and with Poppy started The Bookshop Band. The last few days of the tour saw us driving up from Taos in New Mexico up to Denver and its surrounds in Colorado. We didn’t have even a morsel of spare time, what with driving, concerts, Molly, flying and very occasional little bouts of sleep, hence me finishing off our US tour blog now.
The drive up into Colorado is stunning. For anyone who hasn’t been here before it’s the huge views, expanses of mountain range following the horizon on an endless plateau which skims out out from all sides of you. The road ploughs endlessly straight for the most part, but occasionally the contours of the land win and your thrown, twisted up through the high passes. While a significant blanket of snow covers many pf the peaks and valleys, the weather is fine and sunny and the roads are ice free. I’m told over and over again that we have been VERY lucky with the weather on our tour. As we near the interstate I’m reminded of this by the miles upon miles of huge wooden snow drift and avalanche defences, at this moment in time pointlessly towering over the road under a balmy heat haze. We’re on our way to meet Megan and Ben, a couple from Denver. Skip back a few months to late 2018 when this US tour was but a flicker on the horizon and we were planning our routes, Megan and Ben had been staying at The Open Book - an AirBnB bookshop where we live which you can rent by the week. We popped in to say hello as we usually do once a week to see who has ventured to Scotland’s Book Town and what part of the world they have come from, and it was a lucky coincidence that these two were not only from Denver, where we knew we’d be passing through on the tour, but also worked for the library service, and therefore were able to initiate a concert at Denver Public Library as part of the tour. That was where we’d be playing tomorrow lunchtime. While in Wigtown Megan and Ben had helped film two new songs in The Bookshop - both up there in the ranks of the most deeply dark and sombre of our entire repertoire, one song inspired by Sebastian Faulks’ Paris Echo, and the other by Graham Norton’s new novel, A Keeper, so we were looking forward to playing them a sunnier side at the concert. They live in a beautiful cool little house on the edge of Denver, half their dining space taken up by a (delicious) home brew coffee stout which they cracked open on our arrival.
The next morning we headed into town to Denver Public Library, a large building opposite we guessed what was the state house in a wide open architecturally adventurous open square. It is no joke that there was a distinct smell of marijuana that lingered over the whole city - it had been legalised a few months previously. The only stressful part of this entire tour has been the load in, and this was no different trying to negotiate broken lifts, miss-directed corridors, creaking monoliths of doors, multitudes of heavy cases, and all with a recently sleeping baby. Once in place however, it was a joy. The room we were playing in was a wide circle, bookshelves fanning out from its centre. Libraries are wonderful free spaces, catering so much more to their local communities, providing services behind the scenes, off site, as well as a support network and a rare non-commercial safe space within the heart fo the city. Our crowd represented people from all backgrounds and privileges and we were very grateful that everyone could feel comfortable to come and enjoy a concert there. The sound swirled round the circular rafters, Molly woke mid concert and we could just hear her dancing and singing at the back with Megan. We’d be back in Denver one final time in a couple of days to play a double bill of concerts, at children’s bookshop Second Star To The Right and at the main Tattered Cover bookshop, we told people about these and then packed up to drive out to Evergreen, about an hour back up into the mountains, past Bison Viewpoint.
That evenings concert was in Hearth Fire Books and Treats - a shop known as much for its books as its position as the region’s premiere frozen yogurt outlet. About a third of the shop was a semi-circular array of dispensers emitting unworldly flavours such as pomegranate and raspberry, cake dough and Oreo flavour, followed by health-food style buckets of marshmallows, Reeses Pieces, broken ginger nuts and lychees. It was, without question, the nicest smelling bookshop we have ever played in. Kappy Kling, the owner, and Lauren plied us with these treats as we set up for the evening, the chairs lineing the chilled and rumbling machines on the wall as well as going back into the more booky part of the shop. All afternoon children dragged their parents in for the yogurt, and then without exception would go off browsing the books while they ate, looking for their next discovery of a read while their parents rummaged in their wallets again. It was a very unique place, it felt very American, and it worked a treat. Lauren brought in her old guitar and so we added a few songs into the set that we didn’t get to play that often, including Curious and Curiouser, our Alice in Wonderland inspired tune, and Bobo and the Cattle, inspired by Alexandra Fuller’s Don’t Let’s Go To The Dog’s Tonight.
After packing down, Kappy ordered some food and gave us directions to her house, ‘… about 5 miles down the road, past the post office, next right, follow the private road round to the left, right to the end. Be sure to go right to the end.” We drove off into the night. We drove and drove, turned round, tried this turning and that but we could not see the post office at all. Eventually, on spotting a FedEx depot in roughly the right place I decided that that is what Americans call a post office and we turned up the little track just past it. The track wound it’s way up through the trees, onto a ledge overlooking the FedEx depot. As it climbed higher and wound through the trees the road became icier and slipperier. About a mile in the car would simply not go any further. I don’t know how automatics work, but the wheels stopped spinning no matter how hard I pushed the accelerator down and very slowly at the first the car began to slide backwards. In a straight line at first, but then eeking it’s way off to the side, the wrong side. I let it roll. Luckily for us a snow mound on the side halted its roll before too much momentum was achieved. I decided that without doubt the best thing to do was definitely to give it another go as this was, I was absolutely certain, the right way to go. Our takeaway was waiting for us. I let the car slide backwards down the road in a fairly controlled manner until we hit a patch of non-icey track and then I gave it another shot, picking up more speed, until grinding to a halt again at roughly the same place and starting to slide backwards again towards the abyss. I’m sorry there are not photos of videos of this, and I should point out that Molly was not in the car as she had been staying at Kappy’s all afternoon with Kappy’s daughter. I should also say to AVIS, who hired us the car, that we in no way put the car or ourselves in danger and not a single scratch made it’s way onto the car. Eventually I decided it was best to reverse / slide down the entire path back to the main road where we picked up reception again and Kappy informed us that it was indeed the completely wrong road. She had never been up there and wasn’t entirely sure anyone had in a long time. It was a great take way. It would have been worth it.
The next day we were headed north west of Denver to Boulder - a town once know as a hippie enclave but now more associated with the university there. We swung by Denver to a friend of a friend of a friend’s house, who had offered not only to put us up after the show in Boulder Book Store but to look after Molly that evening while we played. We could not have done the tour without kind offers like these, from people we didn’t know ourselves but who were so open and giving in their hospitality and help. There were so many offers on the tour we couldn’t take them all up, but are so grateful to all of them. Boulder Books is a huge shop boasting not only a finely curated book selection and a cool array of literary inspired T-shirts and pin badge paraphernalia, but also a huge ballroom of books, where we’d be playing. The space reminded us of a cross between Daunt Books in Marylebone, and Shaun Bythell’s living room in his Wigtown Bookshop (you can see it here in the background of this video), lined with pots of grasses, lamps and mirrors. After a brief spell of inevitable shopping where Beth found her Goldfinch outfit for her Spell Songs / Lost Words tour (which she starts tonight in the UK!) we played to a very fine looking audience in possibly the most glamorous room on tour. It was appropriate then that in the audience were some good friends of Jackie Morris, who magnificently illustrated The Lost Words, a book bringing back to life nature words that have been recently removed from the Oxford Children’s Dictionary, co-created with Robert Macfarlane.
Our final day in Denver was the big double bill. First up was Second Star To The Right - a bookshop lauded by Nic Bottomley of Mr B’s for it’s amazing customer service - he recounted going in there a few years previously during an earlier American Booksellers’ conference with no intention of buying anything and leaving with almost $100 of children’s books. They had recently moved to a new location in town, and Dea and Marc (who were putting us up that night) told us about their grand expansion plans. The shop looked great - very colourful inside and out. Multitudes of friendly staff were there to help us set up. Parents and children swarmed in once the doors were opened and we sung our way through as children-a-friendly set as we could muster. The books are not always kid friendly, for example Glow by Ned Beauman, which isn’t really suitable for anyone under the age of 30 - but the song always goes down well. It’s a treat to play for children and parents, and we really hope that we’ll get the opportunity to write some more songs inspired by children’s books this year - especially as we read so many of them with Molly - or rather she reads to us.
Last up was Tattered Cover - the main Colfax Avenue branch, which used to be a theatre. You can see the huge tall prop cavern above what once was the stage, the music section in the orchestra’s pit. We were in the basement, following on (we like to think) from Michelle Obama who had been there a couple of weeks previously. A lovely lady Joanne helped us through all the set up downstairs in their author’s area, and Lauren from Second Star came to look after Molly while we set up, which was a godsend as we were all getting a little tired by that point. Joanne had put out about 50 seats, which felt like a good audience size in the space, but then about 30 mins before we were due to start she rushed down with a few helpers and stacks more chairs to say that they had just heard that there was likely to be double that number. Len - the new(ish) owner of Tattered Cover turned up just before we went on with his two boys. What a lovely guy! Turned out he had dropped out of college to be in a punk band, and he really wanted his children to come and hear us, as the word buzzing around the booksellers’ was that “we were not to be missed”. He apologised that they’d have to leave halfway through, but gave us a huge intro-puff to the audience, encouraging their donations mid way through. It was a lovely way to start a gig. There were faces from pretty much all our other concerts in Colorado in the audience, a few from the library, Megan and Ben and a host of others. Old and young. We relished the experience and ended up playing for almost two hours, the book covers piling up in front of us as we dropped them down after each song. The space we were playing in held a sense of all the other authors that had appeared their over the years. It was an honour and pleasure to be a part of that.
The pack-down that evening at Marc and Dea’s was epic - rearranging all our stuff into cases ready distributed for both weight and fragility. Our hand luggage items each weighed about 20kg (the airlines never weigh them!), our pram and car-seat bags were stuffed with jumpers and nappies, our instrument cases with pants and bras. I finally printed off our boarding passes and went to bed at 3am. The alarm was set for 3.30am. Oh the joy.
This was the final challenge of the tour - only an hour or so leeway to drop off the hire car and for United get us to Brooklyn in time for our final concert - at WORD. The storms had abated in New York and United sailed in a few minutes ahead of schedule.
WORD bookstore reminded us of Pages of Hackney in London - one of the first bookshops we’d played in outside Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights all those years ago. A super cool store owned by Christine who had been the ABA board member to first mention The Bookshop Band at their planning meeting for the Winter Institute - so we owe her many thanks for her part in making this whole tour happen. There were many faces from the recent past - Ollie who had lent us cases and jack leads in Queens a couple of weeks earlier, Rudy - the television executive from ABC who wanted to pitch a show idea to us (which he did after the concert!), Maya, the daughter of our friend Margi in Wigtown, and her son, and Oren - the head of the ABA, with his grandson. Just as our voices finally gave out, we finished the US tour with the ghostly Thirteen Chairs in inspired by Dave Shelton’s book, which drops to a whisper at the end. After all the gigs, all the travelling, all the (lack of) sleep, it was an appropriate way to go out. We finished about 15 minutes before the Super Bowl started. Exhausted but so so happy - with how things had gone, for all the new friends we had made and for all the opportunities that felt like they were on the horizon waiting to be grabbed once we had caught our breath - none of which existed before we’d set foot in America.
Our final hours were spent at Kate and Tom’s house in Hoboken - the owner of Little City Books, where we had first stayed upon our arrival. We watched the last few minutes of the Super Bowl, ate and drank (a little), and relaxed. I don’t think we slept so well as we did that night. Back in a familiar place with only a little sightseeing the next day before catching our flight back home. We’d promised Molly at the start that we would do something for her - as all the tour had been focused around us and the band. It had been decided on those first days that we would go and see some animals at Central Park Zoo. Molly remembered and awoke chanting “animals, animals”. We caught the ferry over to Manhattan and spent the last hours in America walking up the huge streets, past epic crossroads where you can almost see the curvature of the Earth, to the zoo where Molly feasted her senses meeting penguins, red panda’s, grizzly bears and puffins for the first time in her life.
The rain has stopped here in Bath now. I think the warmth of the pub may have even dried out my coat, so I’m going to pay up, go outside and see what the next chapter is going to be.
Thank you for joining us on our adventures and we wish you all the best with your own, what ever they may be.
Ben, Beth and of course, Molly
The Bookshop Band
NOTE: there are so many people we would like to thank, we’re scared to do so individually because we’re worried we’d forget someone, but you all know who you are. All of you have sculpted this tour and our experience for the better and we are indebted to you all. A final thank you to our tour sponsors Gardners and All Media Supply - who played not only a huge financial role in getting us to the US, but also offered constant encouragement and support and were invested the whole way.
ALSO - we have just over ONE DAY left on our Kickstarter Campaign to produce a best-of LIVE IN AMERICAN BOOKSHOPS ALBUM, to be available via download and limited-edition vinyl. If you would like to pre-order your copy there’s a few hours left to do so here.