My hometown of Lynden, Washington, is on the road less traveled — literally. Unless they catch the few oblique mentions on freeway signs as they trace I-5 to Vancouver, motorists aren’t even likely to know the place exists. In order to get here, they must exit the freeway at Bellingham and take one of two roads that head more-or-less due north, or cut over from a freeway exit several miles west of town.
This geographic quirk may help to explain the politics of the place, though I’m sure the farming and the few dozen well-attended churches contribute. This is Bush country: a red state harbor in a sea of blue. Bush-Cheney signs are almost as ubiquitous as the American flags that sprouted up here following September 11. Also present are placards for Republican Senate and gubernatorial candidates George Nethercutt and Dino Rossi, some professionally done up, others homemade.
Bellingham is a different story. Divided by I-5, the city has nearly 70,000 residents to Lynden’s 10,000. It has five movie theater complexes to Lynden’s couple of video stores; five decent used bookstores; a mall; Western Washington University; Bellingham Bay; one boring, reliably liberal daily newspaper; a couple of alt weeklies; and a downtown that caters to bohemian tastes. Protesters regularly picked city hall over outrages and injustices.
Normally, the political rift between the two locales isn’t so glaringly obvious, but this is election season, and politics often brings out the worst in us. The other day I gathered review copies of a number of mostly pro-Republican and anti-Democrat books, piled them onto the passenger seat of the ’91 Sunbird, and coaxed my wonderful old car down the back road to Bellingham.
The political signs by the side of the road kept up the pro-Bush bias for a few miles outside of Lynden but the Democrats showed up with greater frequency and gradually overtook them. The ratio tilted more and more to Kerry-Edwards as I traveled from Bellingham city limits to the downtown core. Deep into Democrat territory, I did see one oversized Bush-Cheney sign but it been vandalized. Some progressive punk had spray-painted bold black swastikas on both sides and the owner of the house must have left it up as a commentary on the opposition.
None of this bothered me overmuch but, when I parked in front of the used bookstore/ book buyer of choice, I was made to wonder if this was a serious mistake. The storefront featured not one but three Kerry-Edwards posters. I knew that the owners were lefties but that had not been a problem in the past. The more outspoken of the two — a middle-aged man with glasses and a full head of gray hair — once asked about the Reason tee shirt I was sporting and I described the magazine as “The Nation without the socialism.” He seemed to get a kick out of that.
And yet, there I sat with a stack of books that included Unfit for Command and The Many Faces of John Kerry (accumulated as research for a story on the politics of book publishing, if you must know), wearing a white-with-red-lettering American Spectator T-shirt, wondering if I should go in. I’d sold this particular store thousands of dollars worth of books over the past several years and discretion is often the better part of making a buck.
After a few moments, I damned my cowardice, fed the parking meter, marched through the doors, and plopped my books down on the sellers’ table. As I hightailed it to the rear of the store to browse while the owners picked through the books, the lady owner quipped, “He crossed enemy lines.”
Indeed. Fifteen or 20 minutes later I made my way to the front of the store to see if they wanted to offer filthy lucre for my filthy right-wing bestsellers and was pleasantly surprised to find that the store would take most of the books in the stack — including everything that was even remotely controversial. As usual, the amount offered was more than adequate.
The conversation after went, roughly, like this:
(Assistant hands me the notebook to fill out my particulars: name, address, price paid, etc.)
Lady owner: I guess we’re real liberals. We’ll buy books from the other side.
Me: Market liberals.
Gray with glasses (heavy with sarcasm): Yeah, liberal. We don’t worry about truth or ethics as long as we can make a buck on it.
Me: Uh, OK.
I filled out the information and got out of there before they could change their minds.
The truth is, the owners have been more than decent to me over the years. I prefer to deal with them because they pay better than the rest of the book peddlers in town, and because they seem to share my infatuation with the printed word. The massive selection of books that they have accumulated is something to behold. To browse the overflowing shelves of literature, history books, and religious literature is to show modern politics for the small, petty, fleeting thing that it’s become.