My week in Saskatoon was nothing short of wonderful. My cousin (my Dad’s cousin to exact) is an amazing lady. One of the friendliest, most energetic, and kindest people I’ve ever met, she is also one of the most petit. Standing at only 4’7″, she is a tiny fireball of amazing energy and personality. She and her lovely 20-year-old daughter hosted me in typical Prairie fashion, with plenty of warmth and welcome, even arranging a family dinner one night so that my other relatives (I have a few) in Saskatoon could come by for a visit. I was able to reconnect with an old roommate and dear friend from my University days, which was equally wonderful. I’m so pleased I got the chance to reconnect with all of these great people who I rarely get to see. And staying at my cousin’s place there is never a dull moment, due to the presence of three very cute, very small, very friendly dogs that would race up to greet me whenever I entered the house. The littlest one, a Yorkshire Terrier named Bean, even slept on my bed at night on her little yellow towel, so I was never lonely.
I spent my days in Saskatoon working at Earth Bound Bakery, and I really don’t know where I would have been without that place. The day I left town, I loaded up on sandwiches with thick, freshly-made hemp-seed bread, homemade soups and chocolate croissants made from organic, unbleached wheat flour and organic butter (you can really rationalize that something is good for you if it has enough good ingredients!).
I set out for Lethbridge at what I thought was a reasonable hour, but I had somehow shortened the driving time in my mind. Google tells us it’s 6 hours 41 minutes, which of course means in perfect conditions with zero traffic and no stops. I clocked in at about 8.5 hours with gas and food breaks (my sandwiches eventually ran out), and at times I felt like the drive would never end. The weather was cold and there were a few flurries at times, but the highways were mercifully clear. I made my way through Swift Current and Medicine Hat (which were both much larger than I expected), and finally, at about 9:30pm, I arrived in Lethbridge. I called my Air B&B hosts to let them know I was nearby, and followed the GPS through a labryinth of similarly-named streets to find the house where I was staying. Vastly different from my Regina accommodations, this was a family home, where I was to stay in the spare room in the basement and share a bathroom with the owners and their two teenage daughters. As daunting as this may sound, it was actually great. The family blew me away with their kindness, hospitality, and down-to-earth attitude. They invited me for home-cooked meals each night, (which always featured beef and were uniquely delicious), and printed out numerous maps to help me find my way downtown, to the show, and in and out of their maze-like suburban neighbourhood. They had a big white cat named Paul who took a liking to me, and the last night I was there I thanked them with a bottle of red wine, which we sat around enjoying over great conversation until the wee hours.
Aside from the oddly complex neighbourhood street system that I was positioned in, Lethbridge was quite easy to navigate. As always I sought out a good organic cafe, and one of their daughters directed me to the next best thing. ‘The Penny,’ a coffee and lunch shop with delicious homemade sandwiches and soups, that nearly gave Earth Bound Bakery a run for it’s money, except for the organic designation. I made it my daily morning stop, which was possible only because Lethbridge was so small and easily navigable. That weekend a snowstorm hit, and I found myself driving (sliding) in about a foot of snow on most streets. At one point, on the way to the exhibition grounds, I tried to round a corner on a quiet, snow-covered street, and my steering and breaks failed me completely. I slid right into the curb and heard a loud ‘CRUNCH.’ Oooohhh, that can’t be good. When I checked the tire, I saw that the rim was pretty badly damaged. I didn’t think I could make it to Edmonton in that state, but I had to get out of Lethbridge. It was a Sunday, and I had to work at the show all day, and Monday was a bank holiday. Yikes! There was nothing I could do for the time being, so I decided to worry about it later.
The Christmas Market itself was smallish, as to be expected, but we still did a respectable amount of sales, and what was really wonderful was that Spirit Bear began to sell well. Part of this, I believe, was due to my improved sales pitch, but it also seemed as though an inordinate number of people knew what a spirit bear was in this town. In Regina, I could count on two hands the people that had actually heard of the spirit bear, yet here every second person seemed to know about it. Many referenced a documentary, and a few mentioned Simon Jackson of the Spirit Bear Youth Coalition having visited Lethbridge to speak about the bear, so word was getting around. On Friday I was shocked to find that Spirit Bear outsold all of the other titles at my booth, which was something I really didn’t expect. But it seemed that people here really connected with the idea behind the book, and appreciated the free learning resources and low eco-footprint. It gave a me a great feeling to see so many people getting excited about the book in its printed form, and not just as a concept anymore.
Monday morning was spent searching for a mechanic’s in Lethbridge that was actually open. I called the car rental company but I soon became trapped in a maze of circular dial pad pressing, and I realised it was all a ruse–I wasn’t going to get ahold of a person that day. Finally I found a Canadian Tire that was open and had a garage. Thanks goodness!!! The mechanics were a team of teenagers, the oldest one being 18, but he looked no more than 15. The head mechanic happened to be there on his day off, and he had a few more years under his belt. He took one look at my tires and told me the front ones were essentially bald, and unsafe for winter driving. He said he wasn’t at all surprised that my brakes had locked up and my steering had failed. He said I should never have been sent out with tires in this condition. This surprised me greatly, as I had specifically requested winter tires from the rental company, as I was driving on dangerous highways, not the least of which was the one to Fort MacMurray.
I explained to them that I needed to get to Edmonton that day, and the boys kindly bumped me to the front of the queqe and hoisted my little car up onto the lift. Before I knew it, they had replaced my rim and rotated my bald tires to the back, so that I’d at least have some traction for my drive North. They advised me to trade the car in as soon as possible, though, and agreed to back me up if the rental company tried to hold me liable me for the accident. Prairie kindness strikes again!!!
I wound up waving goodbye to Lethbridge much later than planned, loaded up with goodies from The Penny, and made my way up North in my newly souped-up vehicle. Luckily the roads were clear, so I didn’t have to test the baldness of those tires yet again, and I arrived safely in the late evening at the home of family friends. This family had been very dear to me as a child, we had often visited each other when my brother and I were young, and we loved playing with their two boys, who were just a few years younger than us. The boys had long since moved away, but their youngest daughter was still at home, and I had only met her once before as an adult. Busy lives, years and distance had caused us to drift apart, though I had seen their parents from time to time when they came through Vancouver.
I was greeted warmly when I arrived, and welcomed in as though I were family. Their daughter even moved into the basement while I was there so that I could sleep in her room. I was touched. My first evening was spent sipping wine, catching up and reminiscing.
My first order of business the next day was to switch out the car. I was nervous that the rental company might try to hold me responsible for the damage, but I had the mechanic’s phone number in case things got dicey. I needn’t have worried. The staff fell over themselves apologizing to me for this terrible inconvenience, and swiftly packed my things into a shiny new upgrade for no extra charge. Now I had a sweet Sonata with brand-new all-seasons (they don’t offer winter tires), and a trunk big enough to actually fit all of my books plus my suitcase. I was ready to roll!
That evening I caught up with a friend who lived in town, who I had actually met on a Whistler trip through a mutual friend years before. We went for a drink with his co-workers in the Strathcona area, which I found quite delightful, as it was peppered with brick buildings and charming little shops, bars and restaurants. A welcome break from the series of strip malls that seemed to populate the roadsides of Edmonton, Strathcona is an historic district located in the south-central part of the city, and was once the downtown area of the separate city of Strathcona. It’s now Edmonton’s main entertainment district, filled with theatres and live-performance venues. There are also a number of character buildings in the area including the Canadian Pacific Railway Station and the Strathcona Hotel. Always a sucker for the old part of town, I made a point of walking up and down the strip, popping my head into all of the little shops along the way. It’s so nice to see a city like Edmonton taking pride in their heritage and preserving their historical areas for the people to enjoy, as it truly enriches the experience of the city on the whole.
My last night in town, my host and her daughter took me to dinner at one of their sons’ restaurants; the younger of the two boys I had played with as a child had begun a highly successful chain of pizza restaurants using classic Italian cooking techniques and ingredients. The food was delicious–thin-crust pizza made from fresh dough, with tomato sauce made with tomatoes imported from Italy. And we finished off our meal with a tiny glass of real lemoncello, just like I’d experienced in the old world. Deliziosa!
I was presenting at a school in Calgary early the next day, so I had to wake early for my drive. I was sad to say goodbye even though I’d be returning in ten days time, as reconnecting with these old friends had been amazing, and they felt more like family to me now. No matter what I sell on this trip, the relationships I’ve had the opportunity to re-establish have been more than worth the journey.
One of those boys that I had played with as a child (but had not seen since before my teen years) now lived in Calgary, so his mother insisted that we meet up when I arrived in town. It’s been nearly twenty years since I saw him last, so this ought to be interesting!
Next Blog: Connections in Cow-Town
My next blog post was meant to be about how I came up with the idea for Spirit Bear, but I am going to bump that storyline in favour of relating my experiences on my first ‘book tour’ of the Prairies.
As mentioned previously, the Moose in a Maple Tree Christmas collection was my first experience with children’s books–I illustrated the three-book series for my friend Troy who has his own publishing company, Polyglot.
He wrote and I drew, and for the past two Christmases I have worked various tradeshows and Christmas markets selling the series along with a compilation CD featuring musical versions of each book.
This year it was decided that I would do a Prairies tour. I have visited Edmonton and Saskatoon before, as I have family there, but Regina, Calgary, Lethbridge and Fort McMurray are all new to me. I’m excited!!! Fort McMurray in particular interests me, as I plan to drive North to the Tar Sands to observe the situation up there for myself. I understand it’s a treacherous drive, and tourists aren’t exactly welcomed, but I intend to have my own Tar Sands experience and report on my findings here, so stay tuned.
Troy has kindly agreed to let me to sell Spirit Bear alongside our MIAMT books, so this tour will be a great opportunity to test out our newly printed book on the Prairies markets.
My tour began in Regina at the Signatures show. I arrived at 2pm on Halloween day and got settled in at my B&B, a delightful character house called the Dragon’s Nest. My room was lovely and cosy, and cost a modest $70 per night. It was perfect with a little desk for my computer and a full bathroom down the hall shared with one other guest. I soon discovered that this place was famous among the locals for the colourful dragon statue that sat above the front entryway, as I had only to mention the name when I was out exploring the neighbourhood, and people knew exactly the place I spoke of.
I must say that my first day in Regina was all I could have expected it to be–everyone I encountered was incredibly kind, friendly and helpful, living up to the reputation that Prairie people have earned over the years. Even the neighbourhood animals shared the same warm, welcoming demeanour–cats and dogs alike rushed up to me as I walked down the street, greeting me with wagging tails and friendly purrs, begging for a bit of affection, which I was happy to proffer.
I was fortunate to find that two ladies from Red Deer who were staying in the downstairs suite at the Dragon’s Nest were also working the same show selling Christmas fruitcake, and they kindly offered me a ride to and from the show each day. They even helped me to unload my gear at the B&B on their way to the airport (I had planned to walk and take cabs, as the show was only about a kilometer away).
The first day I arrived at the show to set up, Spirit Bear was there waiting for me. It was my first time seeing it in print, and I held my breath as I turned the pages. I had been terrified that the recycled paper would make the colours look too washed out and dull, and that this would hamper sales. I was prepared for the worst, so I breathed a sigh of relief as I flipped through the pages–it looked alright! Yes the colours were duller than those in other children’s books, and it lacked the lustre of MIAMT’s coated pages, but it didn’t look bad, and the illustrations were strong enough to shine through despite the natural, muted tone of the pages.
My first day at the show, however, I began to worry once again. People didn’t seem to see the tiny, thin paperback stacked neatly beside the colourful MIAMT hardcovers, and passed right over it to pick up the bigger, shinier books. I found myself ignoring Spirit Bear myself and focusing on the Moose books, or selling it with a half-hearted pitch that impressed no one. Had I made a huge mistake? I began to wonder if I should have gone against my beliefs and printed hard covers on new paper–the books would look so much more impressive that way, and would certainly capture people’s attention. But that was not the intention of this project, the whole purpose was to create a book with a low ecological footprint, something that we could be proud of as a ‘green’ company, something that could stand out as a good example in an industry that relied upon new trees and chemically-coated paper to attract buyers. Was it possible that no one would ‘get’ what we were trying to do and actually buy our book?
As the day wore on, my sales pitch got a little better, a bit more confident and concise. I began to realise that I had to ‘sell’ Spirit Bear in the same way I ‘sold’ the MIAMT series, by showing it in it’s best light, and keeping the pitch short and to the point. This had been a struggle for me to learn with the MIAMT series in my first year of selling, as I am no sales person by any stretch of the imagination. But over time you learn what to say and how to say it.
By the end of the show I had a short, confident pitch for my new book that engaged people and made an impact on them, whether they bought the book or not. I discovered that there were a lot of people who really loved the concept, and felt that it was a truly wonderful idea and a beautiful book. They understood the importance of using recycled paper, and once I filled them in on the reasoning behind the choice we had made, they decided they really loved the natural look of the pages. Once again, I breathed a sigh of relief.
The show was a moderate success. I sold 30 copies of Spirit Bear as well as 190 books and CDs from the Moose in a Maple Tree series. I will approach upcoming shows with new confidence, and the knowledge that there are people who can appreciate Spirit Bear, as well as the shiny, colourful books I’ve been known for in the past. I even connected with several Regina-based teachers interested in booking me for school visits in the New Year. So many possibilities ahead, it’s truly exciting.
Today I sit in a lovely organic cafe in Saskatoon. I drove up last night from Regina via Moose Jaw, where I stopped in at the Temple Gardens Mineral Spa for a much-needed massage and dip in the mineral pool. After a weekend of sales at the Regina show my neck and back where in rough shape. The deep-tissue massage was wonderfully rejuvenating, and the pool was just incredible, the highlight being the outdoor section where steam rose off of the heated waters into the chilly night air. Floating on my back in the warm mineral water, I had a view of the lamp post and a leafless tree dotted with white Christmas lights, set against a dusky cobalt sky, as tiny flecks of icy snow swirled down and stung my cheeks. It was truly heavenly. A short stint in the steam room completed the visit, and I was ready for my trek to Saskatoon by 7:30pm. It begs mentioning that Moose Jaw certainly earns its reputation as the ‘Friendly City’–everyone I encountered seemed in the best of spirits despite the icy weather, and treated me like an old friend being welcomed back to my hometown. I certainly recommend stopping in at the spa, and Veroba’s on Fairford Street is a great spot for some solid home-cooked food made from scratch.
That night I set out in my little mid-sized rental car on roads that had been receiving a healthy dusting of snow throughout the day and over the course of the previous evening. My first hour on the road was clear and ice-free, but as I neared the halfway point of my journey, the roads became caked with snow that was rapidly approaching the consistency of ice. There had been a bit of salt applied in places, it seemed, but overall the highway was incredibly scary. At times I drove straddled between both lanes, as that was the only way to avoid driving on top of what was fast becoming a skating rink. Not a few times I found myself beginning to lose control of the car, and at one point I was certain that I was bound for the ditch, as my little Mitsubishi began fishtailing wildly across both lanes. I kept my cool, pumped the brakes rapidly and steered into the swerve as I’d been taught, and managed to regain control. Thankfully I was alone on that strip of highway–had traffic been heavier at that moment, things could have taken a disastrous turn. For most of the drive I was far from any other cars, with the exception of a number of semis that I passed along the way. It was a good experience in Canadian winter driving for me, and it gave me new confidence in my ability to handle treacherous, icy roads in the dark.
I arrived an hour later than expected at my family’s house, where I was warmly greeted by my cousin’s husband with typical Saskatchewan-style hospitality. He was off to Hawaii first thing in the morning, my cousin was working the late shift and their daughter was already in bed, so he and I stayed up for several hours visiting and pouring over their travel photos from Australia and Cancun. When I finally hit the sack at 1:30 in the morning, I slept like the dead.
I’m beginning to enjoy this Prairie life.