Friday, May 9, 2014

Is Singing Wind Arizona's Best Bookstore?

(from usatoday.com
by Ron Dungan)


(Photo11: Stacie Scott/The Arizona Republic)


Singing Wind Bookshop turns 40 this year.

Chances are, you haven't heard of it. The shop is in a ranch home near Benson. It does not take credit cards or have a website, Twitter account or marketing department. It gets many customers through word of mouth.

But there it is, just north of Interstate 10 and up the county blacktop as you head into a dry and thorny expanse of the San Pedro Valley. You roll over a cattle guard and down a gravel road, past a field of mesquite trees to a white house on the left.

Singing Wind, which specializes in books about the Southwest, has endured in the age of Amazon, chain stores, e-books and best-seller lists. It lasted 40 years because owner Winifred Bundy loves books. Bundy, who goes by Winn, crams new titles, important older works and regional favorites into an intimate space. Rows and rows of books line shelves throughout the house.

Books inside the Singing Wind Bookshop are pictured on Sunday, April 6, 2014 in Benson, Arizona. The shop celebrates its 40th year.


"It's an honor to be a customer at her shop," Tucson author Bill Broyles said. "It's like being invited to a cave of hidden treasure, or the inner sanctum.

"I never visited Singing Wind without finding a book that I needed, even if I didn't know it existed," he said. "Most people think that people look for books. But Winn thinks that books look for people. And she's the best matchmaker I've ever met."

Bundy wanted to celebrate the shop's anniversary. But she broke her elbow while sweeping the porch, which made planning the celebration difficult.

"I didn't fall, I torpedoed," she said.

The accident kept her from working for a while, so she limited the event to invited guests instead of opening it to all. She sent invitations, figuring that not everyone would accept. A few weeks before the event, nearly 200 people had said they would attend.

From a young age

When Bundy was a child, she followed grown-ups around with a book, asking them to read to her.

"I demanded it," she said. "I was a little obnoxious snob. I said, 'Read me, read me, read me.' "

When she grew up, she dreamed of owning a bookstore. Her husband, Bob, wanted a ranch. They moved to Singing Wind Ranch in 1956, where they raised cattle. Winn earned a master's degree in library science at the University of Arizona in her spare time.

After she graduated, they started making shelves out of mesquite, a process that took years. Bob cut the mesquite into boards and Winn sanded, waxed and oiled them.

"It was right here on our ranch," she said. "You can't believe how strong that wood is."

As the work progressed, they boarded a couple of unruly German shepherds. She was against taking them in, but "my husband was such a sucker for sob stories. The next thing I know, there they are."

When the owners picked the dogs up, Bundy billed them $500 for dog food. She used the money to buy books.

When the shop opened, there was still a ranch to operate, so she put a bell by the entrance.

"I would be irrigating and you had to call me by the bell," Bundy said.

In the early days, Bundy delivered books to people. Word spread among readers and writers, mostly by word of mouth. Then, newspaper and magazine articles shared the story. Singing Wind has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Arizona Highways and Sunset magazines and other publications.

For a while, Bundy supplied books to the architecture, music and law schools at the University of Arizona. She doesn't have Internet access, but if you call to order a book, she will mail it. Or you can drop in. Employees now help her run the shop, so ringing the bell may not be necessary.

The shop connects with customers through children's programs and four adult events a year. The biggest is the Thanksgiving Fiesta, where local and regional authors present their work and meet readers.

"They've hosted dozens and dozens of writers, many of which have become famous later on. They are really an amazing institution," said University of Arizona researcher and author Gary Nabhan, who has written more than two dozen books on the environment, ecology and food. "She is, to many of us, as famous as the writers she hosts. She's a state and national treasure."

"Basically, people that love books, they hear about this great bookstore in Benson, and they go," Broyles said. "And I don't know anybody who's ever been disappointed."

From near and far

Bundy and her assistants never know exactly what to expect. Some days, it's a busy morning and a slow afternoon; some days it's the other way around. The shop has had customers from all over the world.

Bundy doesn't label her shelves. She guides people through the store, section by section, then leaves them to browse. When Bundy broke her elbow, her assistants led most tours.

One afternoon Bundy's manager, Kathy Suagee, led two couples from Colorado, gesturing at shelves high and low as she walked among the stacks: "Religion goes from here to there, mythology and storytelling above that. And then these are books in Spanish, both fiction and non-fiction, and they're here because it's the only place they fit. Over the door is business, and money. Books about money — not actual money."

Jan Rogers and her sister, Rennie Leslie, of Colorado Springs, heard about Singing Wind while camping with their husbands at Kartchner Caverns State Park. They come to Arizona every year. This was their first visit to the shop.

"Oh my Lord, this is a place to spend a day," Rogers said.

"I'm just along for the ride," said John Leslie, Rennie's husband. "But it's paid off because I found a book about the history of Mexico."

Not long after, a couple from Canada came in to browse.

"I'm overwhelmed. I had no idea," said Evelyn Ponka, of Thunder Bay, Ontario. "It's just amazing, a selection of books that you would not find in Barnes and Noble or somewhere. It seems like a hidden gem."

Customers came and went. Scattered clouds dropped a little rain before spinning away. Suagee went outside to feed the burros "before it gets any wetter."

Southwest's story

Shops like Bundy's are special because they tap into the story of the Southwest through fiction, history, non-fiction, journalism and other formats. Changing Hands in Tempe; Back of Beyond Books in Moab, Utah; and Maria's Bookshop in Durango, Colo., fill a similar niche.

Land and sky are portrayed as characters in these works, but people, too, have stories — Indians, Spaniards, Mexicans, Americans, all surveying the landscape and calling it home.

"You have the mix of cultures," Broyles said. "You have people discovering things about themselves and the land they live in."

Hot, dry and rocky, the Southwest has molded generations of people in a variety of ways. Books have been written on rocks and rivers, the role of fire in the forest. There are histories of American Indian tribes, the frontier, the Old West, the New West, water, essays on deserts high and low.

"Singing Wind has done more than any bookstore I know in Arizona to promote the unique writing about nature and culture in our state," Nabhan said.

Bundy stocks works by well-known authors — Edward Abbey, one of Arizona's most famous writers and once a customer in her store, is represented, as is Charles Bowden. So are Nabhan, Marc Reisner, Edwin Sweeney and Patricia Nelson Limerick. There are books by many up-and-coming writers she has discovered along the way.

Singing Wind's anniversary party took place April 6. Some 350 people showed up to celebrate.

"It was wonderful," Bundy said. "I don't know anyone who didn't have fun."

Bundy said she would like to offer more programs for children. Health problems have prevented her from ranching for a while, but she would like to get back into that, too. In the meantime, she will work at what she loves best. Reading and finding a home for books.

"My goal is to get the right book to the right person," Bundy said.

Singing Wind Bookshop

When: 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily. Cash or check only.

Where: Take Interstate 10 east past Tucson to Benson. At Exit 304, take Ocotillo Road north 2.1 miles. Turn east on Singing Wind Road, a graded dirt road, and follow it a half-mile to the ranch house.

Details: 520-586-2425.