Last Saturday, we visited with our friends Beth and John Clark in Hartland, about an hour from where we live. They had invited us over to their home for dinner and afterwards we went to a community play in a nearby town. Before dinner, we sat in their cozy living room, made even cozier by a pellet stove, and John told us about his new book-selling venture as we ate cheese and crackers.
A bit of backstory first: John is the town’s librarian, and while there are volunteers, I believe he is the only paid employee. Hartland is small and poor, and not surprisingly it doesn’t have much of a budget for the library. Has this deterred John? It has not. He has a knack for acquiring inexpensive books and DVDs, which he either adds to the library’s collection or sells online so that he can then buy something for the library. He acquires the books and DVDs in a variety of ways—through donations and through scrounging at the town’s transfer station (aka the dump). John has become so well known at the transfer station that the workers now set aside books they think he will want. At a very low price, John also acquired the collection of an entire library, which was closing, but that is a whole story in itself, and I won’t be going into it here.
Because of John’s resourcefulness, Hartland library has a decent collection of books and DVDs, and the library has become a real hub in a community that has seen more than its share of hard times. (John has also made the library a welcome place for people just scraping by, who need his help in a variety of other ways.)
After years of scrounging and selling second-hand books for the library, John has decided he likes it so much that he has started a little part-time book-selling business for himself, which he will expand when he retires. (I want to hasten to add that John is still devoted to the library and does all that he can to enhance its collection. He has plenty of energy for both himself and the library.) For his own business, he and Beth go to thrift shops and book sales, looking for items to sell online through Amazon. They make a great team. John has acquired the knowledge of what sells and what doesn’t, and Beth is organized and methodical and conscientious. John has such faith in Beth’s abilities that he gives her money, and on Saturdays off she goes by herself to sales to scout for books while John is working at the library.
Now, the point of this piece is not to brag about John and Beth, although I am very happy to do so. The point is to illustrate how creative resourcefulness, hard work, and team work can enhance the life of a community and a family, and, by extension, the world. (In their thrift store/book sale forays, John and Beth even find children’s books for their daughter Lisa, who teaches in the Bronx.) It shows how one might thrive in a world of finite resources and an ever-growing population, in a world of peak oil and “peak everything.”
Books and libraries are just one example, but John and Beth’s approach can be applied to other aspects of life. Let’s take food, one of my favorite subjects. In a household, a frugal, creative cook can do a lot with basic ingredients and scraps saved from previous meals. I have used the bones of barbecued chicken to make a mostly-bean soup with a zesty broth. Last night, I saved water from cooking broccoli to use as the base of a soup that will include leftover pasta, tomatoes, white beans, and rosemary.
On a broader scope, there is gleaning of fruit and vegetables that would go to waste. On a walk this fall, I went through a little apartment complex with an apple tree, and there, on the ground, were bunches of rotting apples. Perhaps they weren’t good eating apples, but they would have made good jelly. Another way to conserve resources is to make use of slightly outdated food that is still good. There is plenty of room for improvement here, which I have discussed in previous posts. Despite our country’s hard times, we are still a wasteful nation. However, my town’s food pantry and the Hot Meals Kitchen does use food that would otherwise have been thrown out. And, yes, I admire the dumpster divers, who retrieve perfectly good food.
To my way of thinking, the heroes of the 21st century are not people like Steve Jobs, however admirable he might have been. Rather, they are people like John and Beth whose careful and creative use of resources show us an alternative to heedless waste and consumerism. They show all of us that there is a better way to live, and we would do well to follow their examples.