How 800 residents of Powell, Wyoming, opened a store together

Melody WarnickBuy local, Cool projects, Great TownsLeave a Comment

Creative Commons/Jimmy Emerson, DVM

Creative Commons/Jimmy Emerson, DVM (

In 2002, when the last clothing store shut down in the ranching town of Powell, Wyoming, the 5,300 residents feared for the future of their Main Street, which was already disintegrating into a gap-toothed ghost town of shuttered storefronts and struggling shops. A Super Walmart had just passed them up for nearby Cody; wouldn’t everyone drive over there for their tube socks and pajamas? Other chain stores wanted nothing to do with Powell. It was too small.

So a few locals, including the owner of an office supply store, a CPA, the head of the Powell Chamber of Commerce, and a jewelry store owner, took matters into their own hands. They made plans to open a community-owned, for-profit variety shop. It was conceived like a co-op. More than 800 of the town’s residents bought investment shares in increments of $500 or $1,000, although they were warned that it might be more like a donation if things didn’t work out as planned. Within a year, the group raised over $400,000 and opened the doors to the Powell Mercantile. Go under the candy-striped awning and you’ll find everything you’d expect to see in a bargain store, from t-shirts to jeans to tube socks.

It was never the founders’ plan to operate a charity. “We knew we could do something that would help downtown, but we also wanted this to be a successful business,” explains Ken Witzeling, the former president of the Powell Mercantile’s board of directors. In its first year, the Merc, as people call it, beat expectations by doing $520,000 in business. Investors eventually got a 7 percent return.

More impressively, the Merc has attracted additional small businesses to Powell’s downtown. The store’s success has even inspired copycat co-ops across the West in hard-scrabble ranching towns you’d never associate with the word “co-op,” like Ely, Nevada, and Worling, Wyoming. As Bill McKibben points out in his excellent book Deep Economy, “The Powell Mercantile hasn’t solved all the world’s problems; it buys from the same sweatshops the big boxes patronize. But it’s at least solved some of the town’s problems.”

Have you ever heard of a project like this where you live? What do you think—would you invest?

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Stuff I’m Reading: Three Authors on Belonging

Melody WarnickReading and writing, Stuff I love, UncategorizedLeave a Comment

We Are Not Ourselves, Euphoria, Station Eleven

My lazy summer is abruptly coming to an end, with revision deadlines and intense back-to-school shopping with my daughters. Here’s your back-to-school assignment: Go to Musing, the blog of Parnassus Books, in Nashville. Put it in your RSS feed. Wait with baited breath till a post by Ann Patchett pops up. Enjoy.

I’ve never been to this bookstore physically—never even been to Nashville—but reading about books is my fave, and Musing provides much delight in this arena. Some of it even has to do with This Is Where You Belong. A couple months ago, a post featured interviews with three authors, Emily St. John Mandel, Matthew Thomas, and Lily King, who were asked whether they felt like they belonged anywhere. Their answers were fascinating. As King responded, “After traveling and living in different parts of this country and abroad for several years, I have returned to New England, where I grew up, to raise my own family in a small town not all that unlike the one I left when I was eighteen. So I do have a sense of belonging and of home here. And I like it. But I also feel that itch to uproot and plunk down someplace unfamiliar for a while. It’s essential to me.”

Is uprooting essential to you? Where do you feel like you belong? Or do you? Go read what the other authors had to say about it.

P.S.: I read Station Eleven last year. Loved it.

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Stuff I Love: Stately Type t-shirts

Melody WarnickRetail habit, Stuff I loveLeave a Comment

I’ve been following Stately Type on Instagram for a while now, because it’s awesome. Every week or so, husband-and-wife team David and Holly Lesué pick a place, usually a city or a state, but sometimes a country or a destination, and debut designs for three different t-shirts for it. Their fans, all 13,000 of them, get to vote for their fave, and the winner gets printed and sold online.

Stately Type

First off, it’s just good design. The Lake Powell t-shirt , an homage to vintage Patagonia, kills me, and for months Quinn’s been lusting after the 801 Beehive sweatshirt, whose antecedents only true Utahns understand. But the most interesting part is watching this become a crowdsourced social media phenomenon, as followers throw out ideas, tag local friends, and work themselves into a frenzy on behalf of places they love.

I’ve blogged before about the rising popularity of place-centric art, which I think is a manifestation of how devoted people are to where they live, or where they’re from. Smart creative companies like Stately Type know how to cash in on that.

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What makes you feel at home

Melody WarnickUncategorizedLeave a Comment


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Stuff I’m Reading: Where Do Millennials Really Want to Live?

Melody WarnickPlace love, PlacemakingLeave a Comment

Everyone wants to figure out where Millennials are going to settle down, and the major theory is that they’re completely enamored of cities. But is that really true? Gizmodo’s Alissa Walker points out that about half of Millenials live in cities, but only 13 percent in downtown neighborhoods. The rest, like Americans in general, have wound up somewhere in a suburb, a small town, or a rural area.

Gizmodo chart--where Millennials live

No worries, says Walker: They can still get their urban vibe on in suburbs that are trying really hard to look like big cities, with dense, mixed-use developments, walkable and bikeable neighborhoods, and good restaurants and bars. Or they can pick door #2: small cities. Places like Milwaukee, Cincinnati, and Pittsburgh offer the best of cities, with the added bonus that they’re much more affordable than New York or San Francisco (where a Millennial would have to make $60,000 more than average to afford a mortgage).

Plus, as a Milwaukee Millennial points out, “There is an energy of millennials who are coming together and galvanizing and they want to be the creators. Not to take away from what they are doing in places like Austin and Brooklyn, but do you want to participate in their culture, or do you want to be like San Antonio or Milwaukee and be the creator of the culture? A lot of us want to be the creators—we want to be the ones making the change.”

Read the whole article at Gizmodo.

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I Would Live There: Asheville, North Carolina, Edition

Melody WarnickGreat Towns, I Would Live ThereLeave a Comment

In sixteen years of married life, Quinn and I have managed to get away without our children maybe four times. When it happens, it’s through the enormous good graces and generosity of some family member or friend or other, and always, we’re left wide-eyed and grinning at our good luck. We’re free! Can you believe it? (Disclaimer: This doesn’t mean we don’t love our kids. It just means that sometimes they drive us absolutely insane, and a 48-hour separation is the best possible outcome for everyone’s mental health.)

This time, our friend Lucynthia mentioned in passing that she and her husband, Nate, would be happy to watch our kids so we could go on a mini-vacation. “Ah, that’s really nice and delusional of her,” I thought to myself. But then she pressed the issue in an email a few weeks later. “When are we going to watch your kids?” she asked. Like she actually meant it. Before she could come to her senses, we booked a two-night vacation to Asheville, North Carolina, for my birthday.

Why Asheville? Because it’s three hours away, close enough for just-in-case but far enough to make us untouchable in all but dire emergencies, and because a few friends, as well as Southern Living magazine and the the New York Times, rave about its indie shops, restaurants, and art galleries. Asheville’s biggest (literally) tourist attraction is Biltmore, George Vanderbilt’s 8,000-acre, 35-bedroom estate, but when we realized tickets cost $60 we abandoned our plans to go and focused on the city itself.

And it was utterly delightful. Here’s why.

The food.

Oh my gosh, the food. Quinn hates it when I go nuts with hours and hours of advance research before travel, so this time I was trying my darndest to just be like, “I don’t care where we go, whatever.” But then my instincts took over and I ended up Yelping the heck out of Asheville. I couldn’t help it. This place, Biscuit Head, was one of the restaurants where we ended up. (Named, apparently, for biscuits the size of a cat’s head.) It’s in some sort of doctor’s office complex — not where you’d ever expect to see a hip restaurant — and yet this is what the line looked like on Saturday morning, all of us queueing up for various biscuit sandwiches with toppings like pulled pork, fried green tomatoes, and Cherry Coke-flavored bacon. Folks know what’s good for them.

Biscuit Head line

I ordered an egg, cheese, and country ham biscuit, which I had to eat with a fork because the biscuit was so tender. Plus, there was a jam and butter bar, with homemade strawberry and blackberry jams, a bananas foster topping that tasted like an unholy apple butter, and a sweet tomato jelly, among other deliciousness. I get the sweats just thinking about it. (Asheville biscuit consumption tally: 4.5 in 3 days.)

Biscuit Head biscuit sandwich

Every meal we ate in Asheville—at Tupelo Honey, Sunny Point Cafe (fried avocado tacos and key lime pie!), and All Souls Pizza—made us want to never leave.

There were other delightful things, as well, including the marvelous arboretum, the Blue Ridge Parkway, loads of art galleries, and indie bookstores like Malaprop’s. We hit up a drum circle on Friday night, sat in Pack Square as the sun went down, and watched these guys do their country busking schtick a few times.

Asheville buskers

On the downtown streets, tourists and locals jostled for space among drummers, guitarists, opera singers, keyboardists, and five-piece bands doing renditions of Sufjan Stevens. (With so many, we wondered if the city was considering permitting street performers. They are.)

And of course I looked at real estate magazines and imagined what life would be like living in Asheville. Maybe next time we visit (I’m really hoping there will be a next time), we’ll take our kids.

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Free flowers

Melody WarnickBlacksburg, Cool projects, Place loveLeave a Comment


I’ve passed this wooden flower stand and its “Free flowers” sign before, only I’ve always been too late to see anything but empty shelves until today, when four repurposed glass jars full of loveliness were sitting there. I only had spare change for the donation box, but I couldn’t resist stopping and taking a jar that once held lingonberry jam and now holds mint, daisies, and what I think might be a dahlia.

Isn’t this adorable and neighborly and such a good idea for those endowed with a green thumb? It’s like a Little Free Library for flowers. I have no idea who’s behind it, but that this exists in Blacksburg makes me incredibly happy. (Thank you, whoever you are on the corner of Harding and Orchard View!)

Have you seen anything like this in your town?

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Do houses matter more than towns?

Melody WarnickCool projects, Great Towns, I Would Live There2 Comments


A lot of people make the mistake of confusing houses with places. We think that once we find a really affordable house, or a beautiful one, or one that we can finally squeeze all our kids and dogs and stuff into, that nothing else really matters. It doesn’t matter where that house is. Only the house itself is important.

I’ve made that same mistake myself. I’ve written briefly here before about my real estate obsession. Even now, while I’m writing a book about how vital towns our to our health and happiness, there’s a niggly bit of me that insists that all that matters is finding a city where I can buy a nice house for less than $400,000.

But a fews weeks ago, I went to a town called Ocean Springs, Mississippi, where dozens of residents lost their homes to Hurricane Katrina. We rented a vacation home from a woman named Beth whose own house had been washed away. The tidal surge broke open the entire front wall, and one of her favorite chairs was found floating somewhere down along the pier. You’d think someone like Beth would just pick up and move away. The house is gone. Why bother?

But that’s not what happened. Most people I talked to in Ocean Springs were hard pressed to think of many people who had moved away after Katrina. Most stayed and slowly rebuilt through the very definition of hell or high water.

Part of the post-storm solution for helping people stay in place and rebuild faster are Katrina Cottages — tiny houses that are quick and cheap to build, yet make people feel a lot more at home than trailers do. Someohow Ocean Springs became a landing zone for several cottages envisioned by different architects, and now 18 or so of them are currently installed in a little rental community called Cottages at Oak Park.

Cottages at Oak Park, Ocean Springs, MS

An offshoot of my general real estate obsession is my love for tiny houses, and people, these are the most adorable ones in the world, painted in cotton candy colors with white picket fences. The teeniest are 300 square feet, the biggest 1,800 (not that tiny). I’m in love.




What do you think? Would you live in one of these? More important, where would you put it? Living in the right house can make us feel at home in a place, but I love how the Katrina cottages are built to keep people in their town even when bad stuff happens.

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Why I spent a ton of money on Small Business Saturday

Melody WarnickBlacksburg, Buy localLeave a Comment

This year, my daughter’s thirteenth birthday happened to land on the day after Thanksgiving, and so, because she’s officially a teenager and required by law to obsess over clothes, we went Black Friday shopping. On Thanksgiving night. For four hours. The mall was exactly the bacchanal of consumerism that you’d expect, and yes, I did get a very cute jean jacket at the Gap, thank you very much.

A day later I returned to the pre-Christmas fray with another shopping mission: to spend a whole lot of cash in Blacksburg’s local businesses for Small Business Saturday. Like Black Friday, Small Business Saturday is a fabricated excuse for spending, started by American Express in 2010 because, in the words of CEO Ken Chenault, “small businesses are the engine of job creation in the U.S. economy.” As on Black Friday, one is expected to buy a lot of stuff.

But there is a significant qualitative difference. In the mall, I’m searching for good deals on stuff I want; you can practically see the dollar signs in my eyeballs. Shopping on Small Business Saturday, on the other hand, feels like a higher-level experience, half-consumerism, half-charity.

Quinn on Small Biz Saturday

By my count, Quinn and I went into seven different stores and bought stuff at every last one. Most of it wasn’t originally on our shopping list, and most cost a bit more than we would have spent on Amazon. But I don’t have one twinge of buyers remorse (unusual for me!), and here’s why:

  1. Because buying things at locally owned businesses keeps 38 percent more revenue in my own local community than buying the same things at national chains.
  2. Because I bought unique things I wouldn’t have encountered at national stores, like a Blacksburg Is for Lovers t-shirt from Uncommonly Gifted.
  3. Because I talked to cool people. At Matrix Gallery, I bought a woven wheat ornament that was made by someone who lives right here in Blacksburg. The woman who sold it to me told me a funny story about trying to make her own woven wheat ornaments while slightly intoxicated. I love me some Target, but you just don’t that kind of quality interaction at big-box stores—nor the satisfaction of knowing that your money is helping a community member’s business thrive.
  4. Because I got a free mini pumpkin cupcake at Mad Dog clothing boutique and free gift wrapping at Imaginations Toy Store.


On my personal hierarchy of spending, bargains have traditionally been at the top. But I’m trying to prioritize locally made purchases, even when they’re slightly more expensive, because they make me happier. I know, consumerism is consumerism, and maybe I’m basking in an unwarranted halo effect. But Small Business Saturday at least gives me the illusion that I’m not just in it for the stuff.

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The Spookiest Thing I Love About Blacksburg

Melody WarnickBlacksburg, Place love, VirginiaLeave a Comment

I am a complete and total wuss when it comes to scary stuff. When I was growing up in Southern California, my dad would take my sister and me every year to Knott’s Scary Farm, where mask-wearing maniacs revved their chainsaws on the Log Ride and 20-somethings in evil makeup chased us around the funnel cake stands. Eventually, after a particularly vibrant post–Scary Farm nightmare, I woke up and went, “Wait, I actually HATE that.”

So you will not find me standing in line at any haunted houses this holiday season (or watching The Sixth Sense for that matter … shudder). But spooky AND historical? That’s somehow okay. For two years I’ve been driving past West View Cemetery in Blacksburg, with graves dating back to before the Civil War, and one gloomy October afternoon last week, I took a solitary stroll through it.

Cemetery tree

The cemetery is still being used, but the oldest tombstones were clumped together beneath a golden maple tree.

Shattered tombstone

Time and weather had been unkind to some of the markers. They’d been shattered, or tipped over, or rendered tiny, weather-worn nubs.

Old gravestone

Others were speckled with an orange moss, but not enough to obliterate that Brooke Lawson, who weathered the Civil War in Blacksburg, died when she was just 28—10 years younger than I am. What was life like for her? She wasn’t from here originally. What did she think of the town where she ended up?

Blacksburg Confederate statue

And what of Blacksburg’s beloved Confederate dead? What was life like for them? The ground beneath the memorial statue has been worn bald by visitors, which I think that means they haven’t been entirely forgotten.

I suppose you could walk through West View and imagine Scary Farm–style zombies emerging from the ground. But the cemetery wasn’t spooky for me. Sad, a little, but also inspiring in a Carpe Diem sort of way. Their time is over and done with. Not mine, not yet. It makes me think of the Mary Oliver line:

“Tell me,
what is it you plan to do
with your one
wild and precious life?”

(According to Haunted Places, only two spots in Blacksburg rate as ghost-ridden: The Lyric movie theater and, oddly, the Holiday Inn. I will be staying far, far away this Halloween.)

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I Would Live There: Roanoke, Virginia, edition

Melody WarnickGreat Towns, I Would Live There, Placemaking, Virginia2 Comments

When people from, say, New York City ask me where I live, and I tell them “Blacksburg, Virginia,” sometimes I’ll add, by way of clarification, “Our nearest big city is Roanoke.” Then they sigh with relief and say, “Oh, I know where that is.”

But they don’t. They hear “Roanoke” and their brains waddle to the mental card catalog and pull out “Roanoke, Lost Colony of.” This is not that Roanoke.

This Roanoke is a city of about 97,000 far, far away from the Virginia cities you have heard of. It’s 3 hours from Richmond, the state capitol, and 2 hours from Charlottesville, where University of Virginia lives, and 4.5 hours from the beach and from Washington, D.C. I’ll admit it: since I’ve moved to this part of the state, I’ve been ever so slightly annoyed that this was our big city. With its rinky-dink, four-gate airport and expensive flights. With its boring, sad mall. With its itsy-bitsy zoo.

But a couple weeks ago, I went to Roanoke’s CityWorks Xpo, a big-ideas placemaking conference downtown, and after a diet of solid inspiration for three straight days, I had a completely different view of the city. It looked like this:

Roanoke from City in the Square

Beautiful, right? Inside that light-brick building, the City Market building, is this little indie food court, with beautiful salads and sweet potato fries from Firefly Fare, and dumplings from Marco and Luca. That spiky building in back? That’s the avant garde Taubman Museum of Art, designed by a guy who used to work with Frank Gehry. In the square below, they hold regular farmers markets. On Saturday, near the tractor display, a crowd cheered on a troupe of cloggers.


Thursday night, skaters from Roanoke’s roller derby team, the Star City Rollers, led the way to Kirk Street, where snaky lines were starting to form in front of the food trucks. This is the street where Quinn and I saw our folk rock idol Dar Williams perform at Kirk Avenue Music Hall last fall—one of the best music experiences I’ve ever had. We were shoehorned into this tiny brick storefront so it felt like Dar Williams was performing in my living room. Afterward, she sat out front and signed autographs, at which point I got to gibber unintelligibly to her about how seeing her in concert knocked a prominent item off my bucket list. (True.)

FullSizeRenderThen on the last day of the conference Beth Macy spoke about her new book Factory Man, and I got to gibber unintelligibly to her as well. She’s a Roanoke-based journalist whose book, about globalization and the offshoring of American businesses broadly, and the Bassett family of furniture companies specifically, hit the New York Times bestseller list. Tom Hanks wrote, “I give it 42 stars. No, I give it 142 stars. Yeah, it’s THAT good.” Then he bought up the rights, with plans to make an HBO miniseries out of it. So yeah, she’s famous. I was so wowed that I could barely remember my own name when I talked to her. (Also true.)

During CityWorks Xpo, I heard a professor from Hollins College, in Roanoke, talk about dramatizing the works of some of their most famous grads. (Annie Dillard went to Hollins; Tinker Creek is nearby.)

I heard a guy talk about revitalizing a sad neighborhood in Roanoke by living there.

I met a woman who started a nonprofit to teach kids how to cook and love healthy foods. After moving here from Maine she briefly thought, “What have I done?” Now, she says, she loves it. The city has changed in the past couple years. People are energetic. Things are happening. Everyone can feel it.

I can feel it now too.

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What I’m reading: Maine and Vermont edition

Melody WarnickBuy local, Reading and writingLeave a Comment

I have historically been more of a book borrower than a book buyer, but in light of the fact that I want EVERYONE I KNOW to buy my book, in hardback, at MSRP, when it comes out, I’m trying to mend my ways. Plus, books make amazing souvenirs. Here’s what made it into my book bag on a trip to New England.

Books that I bought in Maine and Vermont


  1. Three magazines about Maine from the amazing Longfellow Books in Portland, Maine: Down East, Eat Maine, and Zest Maine. Would it maybe surprise you to know that I’m writing about food in Maine right now?
  2. Mud Season, by Ellen Stimson. About a woman who moves her family to a farm in Vermont and … rues the day? Stay tuned.
  3. Delancey, the wonderful memoir about starting a restaurant by Molly Wizenberg of Orangette. I’ve already read this one, but it was in Longfellow’s free pile of advanced reader copies. (Why do they give books away free in a bookstore? BECAUSE THEY LOVE US.) I’m happy to have an actual paper copy to highlight and wreck.
  4. Lynne Martin’s Home Sweet Anywhere, about an older couple who sells their house and travels around the world for a year. I think I’m just a sucker for any book with the word “home” in the title.
  5. Nick Hornby’s More Baths, Less Talking, a collection of his columns about books and reading from The Believer. When I say LOL, I very rarely mean it, but this—this deserves all the LOLs it gets. I love Anne Fadiman’s Ex Libris, but there’s something refreshing about a guy who admits he hates poetry and most classic literature and sometimes would rather watch TV sports. I’m a convert.

In case you’d missed the themes, it appears I’m gravitating toward books about finding home, leaving home, making great places, eating in said great places, writing, and, um, baths. If you want to follow along, friend me on Goodreads.

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Are people who move more creative?

Melody WarnickMovingLeave a Comment

Some amazing writers have been on the receiving end of a MacArthur Genius Grant: George Saunders, Sandra Cisneros, Karen Russell. (I’m still waiting for my own phone call.) Today, the MacArthur Foundation released a report explaining that among the 897 innovators and creatives to receive its $625,000 no-strings-attached grant are an exceptionally high number of movers.

On average, 30 percent of Americans (and 42 percent of the college-educated folks) live outside the state where they were born. But for the MacArthur Fellows born in the United States, that number skyrockets to 79 percent. Which leads me to wonder: Do creative people move more often? Or does moving make you more creative?

Maybe a bit of both. Creatives tend to congregate in urban centers (an enormous amount were living in California when they got their award) because they’re attracted to cool, zeitgeisty places with a lot of diversity, culture, openness, and art supply stores. The more creatives who are there, the more come. Plus, even geniuses have to make money, and big cities like New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles offer more job opportunities.

Where MacArthur Geniuses Live

But it’s not inconceivable that being highly mobile is one of the things that makes creative geniuses creative geniuses. According to research by social psychologists Adam Galinsky and William Maddux, living abroad increases creativity, perhaps because it exposes people to the kind of dynamic situations and novel ways of life that produce new ideas.

Sure, Paris would be nice, but there’s no reason why you couldn’t get the same benefit moving from Utah to Iowa to Texas to Virginia (ahem). At least there’s this assurance from the MacArthur Foundation:

We strongly believe that creativity exists everywhere, and one of our continuing goals will be to recognize and inspire others to embrace that creativity, in all of its many manifestations, both inside and outside traditional, expected locations.

Translation: Creatives in Idaho, North Dakota, Nebraska, and West Virginia–the only states ignored by the MacArthur Foundation so far–should be waiting for their phone call.

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The problem of residential FOMO

Melody WarnickGreat Towns, Winners and LosersLeave a Comment

While the Internet crawls with rankings of big cities, apparently fewer of us care about smallish towns. But the New York Times has got your back. In an August 21, 2014, Op-Talk piece, they reprint small-town rankings from Conde Nast Traveler, Fodor’s,, Nerdwallet, Family Circle, and Smithsonian, with these conclusions:

Indiana is surprisingly livable!

The Golden State, predictably, cleaned up.

New Mexico: just as nice for tourists as it is for locals.

Don’t give up on the Rust Belt just yet.

Thinking of building a highly livable small town? Consider naming it some variation of “Carmel”!

A few towns show up across multiple lists: Cooperstown, New York; Beaufort, South Carolina; and Woodbury, Minnesota among them. (Meanwhile, none of the great towns I’ve lived in even earned a mention.) Now I’m seriously fighting FOMO here. And the desire to look up real estate listings in Woodbury, Minnesota.

Woodbury house

Just kidding, I couldn’t resist. It’s only $949,000! When I win the lottery, I may come calling, Woodbury.

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Stuff I love: Geography art

Melody WarnickRetail habit, Stuff I loveLeave a Comment

Right before we moved to Blacksburg, Virginia, my husband gave me a little piece of Virginia to put on my wall:

Typographic Virginia

Typography is big in our house, so I was a sucker for this CAPow print (a scant $18 at Society 6), with its hand-drawn lettering spelling out the names of Virginia’s 95 counties. Now framed and hanging in the living room of our house, smack-dab between our two front windows, it’s kind of crying out for some friends, right? If I start building a collection of Virginia prints, this one, from Etsy seller Painted Post, could very well be next.


Landmark State Print


Seen any state-related artwork I can’t/shouldn’t live without?

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10,000 hours

Melody WarnickPlace loveLeave a Comment

CC photo via Flickr by Marianne Bevis

CC photo via Flickr by Marianne Bevis

Tell people you’re moving to Austin, Texas, and they get misty-eyed. They squee. They clap you on the shoulders and tell you how lucky you are, how great Austin is, how much you’ll adore it just the way they adored it when they went to school there/vacationed there/caught a SXSW show there. You eventually come to agree with their assessment: Moving to Austin makes us the luckiest family on earth.

Or at least that’s what happened to us when my husband took a job in Austin in 2010. Never had a place been so well-hyped. And yet even after we’d been there for a few months and had personally sampled some of the wonders (Torchy’s fried avocado tacos, Alamo Drafthouse movies) that people described to us in electrifying detail, Austin wasn’t clicking for us. We felt weird about it, knowing the feverish devotion the city inspired. I remember having dinner with my fried Amber, hearing her rave about Austin and how she never wanted to leave, and thinking, “Huh.”

The adorable Anne at Modern Mrs. Darcy describes staying with some friends who bought a second home in Chicago because they wanted to spend more time there. “Chicago is a great city,” she says, “but there are other great cities. Why Chicago?” Here’s her aha moment:

I’m starting to suspect that to really love a place, you’ve got to meet it halfway: you have to choose to make it yours.

Let’s say you like a place. Because you like it, you choose to spend a little more time there. And the more time you put in, the more you like it. It’s a virtuous cycle. It’s how you fall in love.

Call this the 10,000 hours theory: When you want to become a fabulous tennis player or pen twirler or Twitter comedian, you spend a lot of time practicing and perfecting and just being with that activity until you’re great at it. But you probably don’t start down that road unless you have a baseline of affection for the thing you want to be good at.

Falling in love with your town is like that. You chose that town because you like it, at least a little bit. It may not be full-blown love, but you see some possibilities. You and your town could be really good together. That’s enough to make you start putting in the time, showing up, and suffering through periodic potholes, property tax increases, and storms of the century. All that time, effort, and affection make you the master of where you live. Eventually you become the veritable Serena Williams of Lancaster, or Des Moines, or Sheboygan, or wherever. But to get to that point, you have to put in the time—and you have to want to.

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The best town ever. No, seriously.

Melody WarnickGreat Towns, Winners and LosersLeave a Comment

Outside isn’t the only magazine that puts out an annual list of great places to live. But it’s the only one that creates a March Madness-style bracket of 64 American towns and goads the public into voting on them. In just about a month in spring 2014, 1.5 million votes were cast. That’s flabbergasting. This isn’t picking your favorite American Idol diva. You don’t win anything. All Outside’s town vs. town throwdown gets you is the possibility of pure, unadulterated civic pride and perhaps bragging rights among urban planners and civil servants.

A tourney I can get into.

A tourney I can get into.

But clearly that was enough.

The Elite Eight boasted some heavy hitters: Provo, Utah; Anchorage; Burlington, Vermont; Ithaca, New York; Asheville, North Carolina; Duluth, Minnesota; Minneapolis; and Louisville. In the final week, Provo, a college town of 115,000 and home to my alma mater, BYU, had defeated all comers except Duluth, whose 86,000 residents rallied around the #VoteDuluth hashtag and an accompanying website. The governor of Minnesota tweeted about it, as did both Minnesota senators, including Al Franken, whose Stuart Smalley affirmations could be Duluth’s I-think-I-can motto: “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me.”

Stuart Smalley

And they did it. They won.

Who cares, right? It’s just an online popularity contest, a clever marketing ploy for Outside magazine, right? Well, yes. But the civic optimism is real, and it’s a big deal for Duluth.

Forty-year-old mayor Don Ness posted a victory speech on his Facebook wall, saying, “For decades, a fog of pessimism and defeatism hung low over the city – negative and cynical voices defined our city’s conventional wisdom. Too often we simply accepted the fact that Duluth would never fulfill its potential. Today, Duluth is a different place – the optimistic and positive voices are now being heard…. Those that love Duluth understand that the best way to improve our city is through confident action, investment, and problem solving. That’s the most fundamental change in our city’s recent history.

“Is this change real? Ask yourself this question: Do you think Duluth could have won this contest 20 years ago?

Winner, winner, chicken dinner. CC image by chefranden via Flickr.

Winner, winner, chicken dinner. CC image by chefranden via Flickr.

Hat tip, Duluth. You deserve it.

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