Sometimes, when we step into a Holy Place, but no one has said, "Take off your shoes. Where you are standing is Holy," we can't stay there for very long. Unless we are as open-hearted as Mary Magdalene.
I'd wanted for quite some time to visit Louise Erdrich's Birchbark Books in Minneapolis, but when I still lived in New Mexico, it wasn't too likely. Now I live in Iowa, right down under Minnesota, and a few weeks back, I read The Sentence, much of which takes place in the bookstore. To visit became a desire.
I asked Cheyenne if she'd like to take a roadtrip to Minneapolis. I told her about the bookstore."Can't you just order the book online?" she asked. "It's not about a book," I said. "It's the bookstore."
Then something synchronous happened, which could have clued me in about the holiness. In a conversation with a friend at the Museum of Danish America, I learned that she and another employee were going to Minneapolis a few weeks thence for an event. "Oh, can I come? I would help with Danish Days!"
Three hundred twenty-nine miles from Elk Horn and seven miles across town from where we were staying, I entered the wide open (in my recollection) door to the bookstore. If you have read The Sentence, you know that the word "open" is significant; thus I mention the open door, display the image of the sign, and perhaps, though not consciously when I wrote it, mention the Magdalene's open-heartedness.
Behind the counter stood a tall, slim Native man with a long black ponytail fastened at the nape and a woman with blond hair, who could be Native or not. The store is a place meant for wandering. Shelves are placed in different directions, zig-zagging at right and also acute angles. Perhaps from above, the shelves make lines like a lightning-pattern Navajo rug. I don't know. The spaces between the shelves were narrow, so I couldn't help encountering other people.
I first entered a nook in front of one of the windows, itself filled with books. Tall sets of shelves formed the nook's other three walls. Two women were already in the small enclosure, along with two overstuffed armchairs, so I felt I couldn't stay there, but before I moved on, my eyes lit on Joy Harjo's memoir, Crazy Brave, and because I'd known Joy so well at one time and wanted to see how our national poet laureate was talking about her life, I took it off the shelf as what might become my first purchase.
Coming out of the nook, I took a natural path to the books Louise Erdrich had signed, and there I picked up my second book––a signed copy of The Painted Drum, which I'd been wanting to read for some time.
Passing between a table and the shelves that backed up to the nook, I had my first encounter that was not with a book––a comfortably big man with dark hair, dark eyes, and a dark 3-day beard. We had to squeeze, and he said, "Ill swap places with you," and I said, "We might do that again." The man said, "Yep," and we did, too, a little later. I said, "Here we are again," and we smiled. Later still, a little girl who was with him lunged at me with a dragon hand puppet, and of course I pretended to be very scared.
Right after that first meeting, I took a photo of the ornate, dark-wood confessional, lit by royal blue lights. I was compelled to take the picture because the confessional was especially haunted in The Sentence (without giving too much away). But it wasn't the confessional that made the store a Holy Place. If anything, its presence would've negated the sacred, if it could have. It didn't have that power, though, and a sign on it forbade entry "because our insurance doesn't cover damnation."
The holiness dwelt in the golden wood shelves, the embracing-ness of the space, the people in it––respectful, maybe even worshipful––the comfort places with chairs, playthings, and denim beanbags, the soft lighting, a table of salves and sage bundles. And the books. For books, we know, are Holy. And especially these, lavishly featuring Indigenous and other overlooked or unrecognized voices. So many Indigenous books that I was overcome with love and joy. Because of growing up in Navajo Country and because of the work I did there and still do. Because of that and so much more. And as I walked through the labyrinth of shelf upon shelf, it came to me that I had been on a pilgimage.
It could have been the richness of those chosen books or the holiness, but I couldn't bear it for long. I wanted to tell the cashier that I had come on a pilgrimage, but I knew it was probably only relevant to me. The man said my Native-made, spiny oyster shell earrings were beautiful, and that was enough between us.
I carried out a stack of books in my soft black bag. Books for me and ones for my granddaughters. And a card that I will turn into a taliswoman to remind me to trust and have the courage I need to forge ahead with the work I'm doing. I knew I would have to come back again. And again. Six hundred fifty-eight miles in all. I could live in this city of Minneapolis for just this, I thought. When I left, and I was trying to describe what this place meant to me, that was when I knew I had walked into, been touched by, a Holy Place.