RIDGWAY – Willa Cather, the shorthaired tabby who has presided over Cimarron Books and Coffeehouse almost as long as her human Priscilla Peters has, looked up at me from her chair in the reading room, which this day doubled as gallery space for a new show of photographs by Ridgway artists. Then she closed her golden eyes, rested her chin on her paws, and went back to sleep.
“She’s 17,” Peters said, after mentioning that the bookstore is in its 21st year. “She just came around one morning. Me and my open arms.”
Peters has witnessed (presided over is probably too strong a word) a good part of Ridgway’s growth since the day in 1976 when the final dam location was announced – downstream of earlier plans – and the town was officially spared from drowning. The store has never just been about books, or coffee. It’s been a community meeting place, a salon, a stop on every Democratic political campaign and a few Republican ones.
(Congressman Scott McGinnis accepted Peters’ invitation to swing by and talk with the locals about wilderness, but he didn’t much like what he heard and never came back.) Congressman John Salazar became a close friend. “And the governor’s office called recently: ‘Can we come have a meet-and-greet?’”
“I could tell Willa was pregnant. She had her four kittens in the old smaller bookstore. Remember Lee Koben? We expanded into his design office. And into Barry Cook’s law office. And Lisa Kerman’s massage studio. We just kept expanding. I grilled every one of those prospective [kitten] parents in depth about their love of cats.
“I’m going to be 73 next week. I’m tired. I can’t be here six days a week like I used to. It’s time. It’s the right time for me to do it. Pass the torch.”
The bookstore without Priscilla? Without Emmylou Harris on the stereo? Without the newspaper clippings taped to the refrigerator, without the activism that brought 1,600 white crosses to the park across the street in silent protest of the war in Iraq?
“It’s a journey selling anything. I haven’t put it on the market yet. And I won’t be going anywhere. You have to kind of stay and help a new business owner. I have a feeling I’ll be consulting for a while. This is my gig. I don’t have to sell to anyone I don’t like.”
Peters began the shop over 20 years ago in the bank building on Clinton Street owned by Joyce and Terry Bucknam. Terry and Priscilla went to high school together in Pasadena. Their 55th reunion is coming up.
“But Clinton Street was tough. Ridgway 20 years ago was tough. I really needed to be on Main Street. Susan [‘Lupita’ Baker, who owns the Rio Grande Building on Sherman Street] had always wanted to add on, so that’s what we did.
“The term – the notion – coffeehouse/bookstore was hardly known back then.” But she found an old Astoria espresso machine in the basement of Telluride’s original pharmacy, signed up the roasters at Steaming Bean, and dove in.
“I love what I’ve created. I hear every week from somebody: ‘I love this place.’”
Just then a woman Priscilla knows walked through looking at the photographs. She heard the words “passing the torch,” guessed the meaning, and burst into tears.
“No. Honey. Don’t cry,” Peters said, reaching up.
“But you’re an institution.”
“Oh. I love you. I’m going to still be here.”
“What are you going to do? Retire?”
“Not in my vocabulary. I’ll keep rabble rousing.”
One had only to look at the collection of bumper stickers on the shelf to believe it. “Life lessons,” Priscilla called them.
Against Abortion? Don’t Have One; Keep Your Theology Off My Biology; Want to See God? Keep Texting While Driving; I’m for the Separation of Church and Hate.
Willa Cather slept right through the commotion.