Revisiting Stories Grandma Never Told

Stories Grandma Never Told_justified text.pmdOnce upon a time there was a journalist with long curly hair, big glasses, and a penchant for blazers with padded shoulders who traveled around California interviewing Portuguese women. She carried a steno pad, a micro-cassette recorder, and a heavy Minolta Camera with extra lenses and a detachable flash. She used Tri-X black and white film. The women wondered why she might find them interesting, but they welcomed her into their kitchens, living rooms and shops. The result was a book, Stories Grandma Never Told, published by Heyday Books in 1998.

The day the book came out was the day this young journalist felt like a real author. It was released at the annual Dia de Portugal festival held at the San Jose Historical Museum. As Portuguese music played, young queens in white paraded, and crowds feasted on Azorean pastries and linguica, she sold book after book after book. Women bought them for their mothers, sisters and daughters. People featured in the book came to have their pictures taken with the famous author. Her whole family was there. It was heaven.

That was my third book but the first one that was my idea, my words, my pictures, me on the page. I had gotten the idea while writing The Iberian Americans, an overview of Portuguese, Spanish and Basque immigrants. Very little had been written about Portuguese women. I could see how I was a direct product of my mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, and beyond. I had never asked for their stories, but now I dove in, starting with everything “Portuguese” listed in the telephone book. It was a long process, and I had a hard time finding a publisher. I was about to give up when Malcolm Margolin at Heyday offered me a contract.

Sue interviewing MarieBalshorThe book came out 21 years ago. Heyday did a great job producing and promoting it, but they decided after eight years and three printings to let it go. I republished it under my own Blue Hydrangea imprint. Decades later, it’s still selling better than my other books. To increase distribution, I am republishing it this month with Ingram, the company that supplies most bookstores. This means that if you request this book at any bookstore, they should be able to order it for you. will not be the only place to get it.

To bring “Grandma” up to date, I have been looking up the women I interviewed. A lot has changed. Many of the older women I interviewed have died. I’m grateful that I was able to capture their stories. Otherwise, they’d be gone. Some of them documented their lives for their children and grandchildren, but others never thought it was important and the kids didn’t ask, just as I didn’t until I started working on my book.

Finding people is a lot easier these days. I didn’t have Google or Facebook back in the 1990s. I collected my interviewees by word of mouth—“you should interview so-and-so”—by showing up at events, and by many hours taking notes by hand in various libraries.

So many of these women became friends. They felt like family. We exchanged letters, Christmas cards, and phone calls. We met every year at the Dia de Portugal, where they’d wear their Azorean costumes with full skirts and white blouses as they peddled food or marched in the parade. It’s hard to lose them. I already knew about many of them, including my Aunt Nellie, Aunt Edna, my mother, and my college mentor Dolores Spurgeon. I mourned the loss of my buddy Marie Gambrel. Now I know that Virginia Silveira, Edith Mattos Walter, Bea Costa, Pauline Correia Stonehill, Doris Machado Van Scoy, Maree Simas Schlenker are also gone.

But I also know that former student Krista Harper is now a college professor, that Katherine Vaz got married and lives in New York, and that former Sacramento news anchor Cristina Mendonsa now broadcasts across the United States. It has been a long time, but many of the younger women are still celebrating their heritage the way they used to.

Books on Portuguese Americans occupy a lot more shelf space than they used to as a younger generation of immigrants go all-out to tell their stories. Portuguese Heritage Publications of California and the University of Massachusetts Center for Portuguese Studies and Culture have both put out numerous books about the Portuguese. But Stories Grandma Never Told was one of the first.

I’m proud of that young curly-headed woman who pushed through her natural shyness to make the phone calls, take the trips, and ask the questions that resulted in Stories Grandma Never Told and of the stubborn older woman I am today who refuses to let those stories disappear.

The new Ingram edition, with a return to my favorite cover, will be out on my birthday, March 9. You can still buy Stories Grandma Never Told in print or as an ebook at, too. That version will soon be updated, too.

God bless my Portuguese ladies.

Books are alive and thriving in Lincoln City, Oregon

Those who predict the demise of books should have been at the Northwest Author Fair in Lincoln City, Oregon on Saturday. I joined 49 other authors packed into long tables outside Bob’s Beach Books to sell our books, schmooze with potential customers and network with other authors. My table happened to be next to the cash register. People were lined up buying stacks of books all day. Not necessarily my books . . . but books.

The day started with drizzle but soon changed to hot sunshine. Nonstop traffic passed nearby on Highway 101, and shorts-clad tourists toured the nearby antiques shops and stopped to browse the books. They brought kids who were bored and kids who liked to read, and quite a few brought dogs that socialized under the tables. I sat two tables over from popular author Phillip Margolin, and the fans surrounded him, buying new books and bringing bags of old ones to be autographed.

At my table, lots of people admired my book covers, especially the picture on the front of Stories Grandma Never Told (shown), but not too many actually bought my books. That’s okay. I enjoyed talking to them, and many took information they may use later to buy the books from me or someone else. Meanwhile, I was taking mental notes on what kinds of book they were buying. We had a little bit of everything at the tables–poetry, history, philosophy, memoirs, children’s books–but what people were carrying out by the dozen were genre fiction–mysteries, suspense novels, romance, fantasy, stuff like that. The woman next to me, Bernadette Pajer, did quite well with her Seattle-based mystery novels. In general, I saw that people wanted to buy books that looked familiar and accessible.

How do we convince casual readers that there is good stuff to be read in books that don’t have dragons, sexy women or men with guns on the cover? That one can read literary stories, essays or even poetry for fun? Or should I just write more fiction? When I offered freebies last year for both my novel Azorean Dreams and my memoir Childless by Marriage, the novel got far more takers than the nonfiction book did. I have a new novel on the way. We’ll see what happens.

A couple of people asked me if my books are available as e-books. They prefer to read on their Kindles or other e-readers. Yes, four of my books can be purchased (cheap) as Kindle e-books. Stories Grandma Never Told is the exception. It’s so packed with photos that I don’t know how to translate it into e-book form without making a mess of it. That leads me to thinking about a future in which all books are sold in electronic form. Would we have author fairs then? What would we put on our tables? How would we autograph our e-books? I don’t think we have to worry about that for a while. The printed book is definitely alive and thriving in Lincoln City, Oregon.

If you missed the fair, Bob’s has copies of all our books, along with lots of others. When I browse the shelves at Bob’s, I want to buy everything. And Bob’s Beach Books is owned by the same family that operates Robert’s Bookshop, the biggest used-book store I’ve ever seen.

Why not read a book today? It’s good for you.

The Writing Life: Sheer Glamor

When Carrie Bradshaw on Sex and the City had her book-release party, the whole city turned out. She had a new dress, new shoes, a new hairdo. People drank champagne and ate caviar. She was the queen of the world for that day.

My booksignings are not quite like that. When Stories Grandma Never Told came out, the book was introduced at the Dia de Portugal celebration at San Jose Historical Museum. We stood in a booth outside, thronged by fans all day. My aunt brought me a malasada—Portuguese donut. I probably brought my own iced tea. I had help from two reps from the publishing house, and we sold dozens of books. That was the best.

For the next signing, at a bookstore in Willow Glen, I attracted about four people, two of whom bought books. At another event in Stockton, I sold one book, to the other author sharing my table.

The first event for my new book, Shoes Full of Sand, was actually better than average. It started out rough. Everything I touched getting ready, I knocked over or spilled. As I walked out the door, juggling a box of books, my purse, and a grocery bag with tea, an apple and a box of granola bars, something dripped on my pants. I attributed it to morning dew from the rosemary bush. But there were more drips when I arrived at the shopping center in Newport.

My feet thundered over the wooden planks of this nautical-themed center with more empty shops than functioning ones. Irish folk music wafted from speakers tucked into the eaves, and the neon bookstore sign said “Open.” Passing a gift shop and a hair salon, I pushed into the bookstore, scanning the window and the nearly bare bulletin board for some sign of my appearance. Nothing.

Inside, a brown card table and a single chair awaited me. “Hi, Sue,” said Bill, the owner, rushing forward to relieve me of my box of books and postcards. “Would you like some book stands?” Yes.

I reached into my cloth grocery bag and felt wetness. My tea had leaked all over, soaking the box of granola bars and the flyer I had brought to hang up for my writing group event. Now I had a wet hand, a wet chair, and was in danger of soaking the wooden floor. I went to Bill’s “back room,” a cubbyhole full of office supplies, coffee, mini fridge and such. A package of white napkins sat on the top shelf. As I reached for one, a dozen fluttered to the floor around me. Sigh. As I picked them up, I noticed a Cheerio sitting amid the dust and dirt. Nice.

I didn’t sit down for a while. It wasn’t as if people were waiting to meet me. It was just me and Bill. The bookstore owner is in his early 70s, grizzled, skinny, missing a lower front tooth, a bit of southern in his accent. He’s a talker. His first wife was Portuguese, so he always wants to talk about that. His father died in February, and he needed to tell the whole gory story. But his stories are good, and it was something to do while I avoided my damp folding chair and waited for my fans to show up.

The bookstore used to occupy a bigger space in the same center. But sales went sour with the advent of the Internet and the crash of the economy, so Bill moved into this much smaller space. As he continued the story of his life, I eased into my folding chair.

People did come, not the people who told me they were coming, but people. The owner of the center’s Champagne Patio restaurant, a Swiss guy named Joseph, not only bought a book but invited me to come by afterward for a free lunch. He sent other people to meet me and buy books. My shrink came and bought a copy of the new book. Another woman bought Freelancing for Newspapers for her boyfriend. Tourists, friends of Bill, and strangers bought books. Eight in all. My ego was pleasantly fluffed.

The hours squeaked by. My stomach grumbled. Down to my last books, I began to worry that I might run out. But I had just enough. Bill and I toted up our sales and he wrote me a check. I did some quick math. I hated to say it, but something was wrong. He refigured and discovered he had given me 40 percent instead of 60 percent. As he wrote a new check, he said, “I can see you’re a hard woman to cheat. My first wife was like that. I don’t know if it’s the Portuguese . . .”

No, it’s math, Bill.

A couple minutes after 2, I left with my box of remaining books, my soggy bag and my overstuffed purse, passed the beauty parlor, now closed, and the gift shop and put my stuff in the car. I had an appointment at 3, so I had to decline the Champagne Patio lunch.

Instead, I stuffed down a Burger King guacamole burger and French fries while being stared at by a young woman playing with a gray cat on a leash.

I think, if I remember correctly, Carrie Bradshaw, went home with a handsome man and had sex while somebody else dealt with books and money. Burger King and soggy granola bars never entered the picture.

What is that green stuff they put in the burger anyway? It can’t be avocado.

Copyright 2011 Sue Fagalde Lick

Where have all the bookstores gone?

Around here in beautiful Newport, Oregon, we have been blessed for years with several wonderful bookstores. A while back, I wrote about how Sea Towne Books has moved into a smaller space and isn’t selling much. Yesterday I visited Canyon Way, which used to be THE bookshop around here. Its ancient rooms went on and on, filled with all kinds of books, plus knicknacks, quilts, clothing, garden tools, CDs and more. There was also a top-notch restaurant, plus a deli, but the books were the thing.

Ages ago, I interviewed the owner, Robie, who told me the long history of store. We hadn’t talked for a while. Well, things have changed there, too. I knew they hosting local musicians in the deli area once a week in what they were calling Club 1216. But I had no idea they had expanded the seating area into space that used to be occupied by hundreds of books.

Chatting with Kate, bookstore manager, fishing boat helper and part-time mandolin player, I learned that she would like me to do a program, which is good, but I also learned that she and Robie have simply stopped ordering books, which is bad. People are buying their books online, and now they’re reading them on machines like Amazon’s Kindle. Funky independent bookstores can’t compete. Either they close or offer something different, so Canyon Way, just up the hill from the Bayfront, is changing the emphasis to gifts, entertainment and food. “I love books, but this will be good, too,” Kate said, hurrying off to help her husband paint the new seating area.

The local authors’ shelf is still there, but I didn’t see my book Stories Grandma Never Told. I hope somebody bought both copies. I did find a copy of my other recent book, Freelancing for Newspapers. It’s a shame nobody has taken it home, but it’s one book over from Stephen King’s On Writing. How cool is that?

I hear even the big brick-and-mortar chains are struggling. On my Freelancing for Newspapers blog, we have talked a lot about newspapers shrinking and going out of business, but bookstores are quietly dying, too. What’s really sad is that most people haven’t even noticed.

The Tide Goes Out at Sea Towne

Sea Towne, a maze of bleached-board ramps and stairways, with a lifelike wooden sailor sitting in the courtyard, and soft music playing from hidden speakers, is Newport’s only so-called mall, but like the wood it’s made out of it, this charming sea of shops on Highway 101 between Subway and Sears has been fading for a long time.

Before my twice-monthly meetings in one of the offices there, I often stop at the Sea Towne bookstore. Owner Bill Terry has been a great supporter of local authors, hosting book-signings, displaying our works prominently, welcoming us like old friends. Since he first heard about Stories Grandma Never Told, my book about Portuguese women, he always says the same thing: Did I tell you my ex-wife was Portuguese? Yes, I say, you did.

In November, I did a signing there to promote A Cup of Comfort for Families Touched by Alzheimer’s. The handful of sales I made that day were the only sales, he said. As I sat at my little table with my books spread before me, I noticed some of the shelves were bare. The faltering economy, plus the growing trend to buy books from the big online outlets, has hit independent bookstores hard. Why drive all the way to Sea Towne, where you probably won’t find the book you’re looking for, when you can order it from Amazon with a few keystrokes?

So yesterday, I was sad but not surprised to find Bill’s old store empty. A sign on the window noted that the future occupants had applied for a liquor license. Another sign, handwritten in black felt pen, noted that the bookstore had moved “around the corner.”

I followed the signs until I discovered Bill’s new store. It’s much smaller, the walls inside a startling shade of yellow. There was Bill, leaning on the counter. He had planned to go out of business at the end of last year, he said. Nobody was buying, and with the snow that smacked Oregon during the holidays, the Christmas rush never happened. He’s still trying to figure out how to fit his books into the reduced space. Four banks of magazines have been reduced to one, and the children’s section, once a sizable nook, is just one wall now. Right away Bill started apologizing for not having my books in a prominent display. No, no, no, I said. It’s still here; that’s all that matters.

I’ll be honest. I buy most of my books from It’s just easier, but I ordered three from Bill in December and another one yesterday. If nobody shops at the bookstores, they’ll disappear.

The bookstore isn’t the only Sea Towne shop experiencing a sea change. The dog boutique is gone. Charisma Gifts has moved out. Several offices upstairs are vacant. As usual, I saw no one at the restaurant where the owners valiantly put up mouth-watering menus every day, serving a handful of customers at most.

Sea Towne still has a clothing shop, a home decorating business, a dance studio and numerous psychiatrists’ and counselors’ offices. I believe the key shop, a tiny cubbyhole opposite the elevator, is still going but it’s only open sporadically.

Sea Towne is becoming a ghost town, haunted by that wooden sailor who looks so real I always feel as if I need to say hello. My footsteps echo on the wooden planks. It feels as if everyone else has jumped ship.

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