Amy Stewart is all packed up but not quite ready to go. The author of eight published books, four New York Times bestsellers among them, sips her coffee a stone's throw from the Old Town Airbnb rental where she and husband Scott Brown, who runs Eureka Books, are staying until they decamp for Portland, Oregon, at the end of the month.
The Texas native has called Eureka home since 2001, penning 10 books here, including the as yet untitled fourth about the Prohibition-era adventures of the real-life Kopp sisters that began with Girl Waits with a Gun. Only one, The Last Bookstore in America, an unpublished novel she wrote when she first arrived in town, is based in Eureka. But Humboldt has influenced Stewart's work.
"Flower Confidential came about entirely because I lived here," she says, recalling the visit to Sun Valley Flower Farms that was the impetus for the book and the generous access the company allowed her for research. "I'm very proud of the first chapter, which is about the stargazer lily bred by Leslie Woodruff here in Humboldt County. It's the only piece of real investigative reporting I've ever done," she says, grinning broadly. Wicked Bugs, too, was locally inspired, its first inklings jotted down in a Humboldt State University parking lot. And between 2011 and 2013, she wrote the Drunken Botanist cocktail column, which shares its name with one of her books, for this paper.
So why the hell does everybody move to Portland, anyway? "I want to be in a city," she explains. "I'm ready for the pleasures of city life again." She and Brown are also ready for better access to healthcare (we all know somebody who had to travel to the Bay Area with a broken bone, right?) and air travel, which is essential for promoting books and speaking engagements. Add to that the amped-up networking possibilities of being able to say she's a "Portland writer," the museums and restaurants, and the scale tips in favor of a move.
"The plan is to not ever cook again," she says with a laugh. Stewart and Brown, it turns out, hate cooking. Hate it. For her, it's time wasted on domestic chores that could be spent writing. And while they have a few favorite restaurants in Humboldt, "We've eaten at all of them many, many times." Portland will undoubtedly offer more variety and their new place has a tiny kitchen fit only to reheat food, so it's dinner out and delivery from here on out.
Of course, some of the very things that lure one to a big city, she realizes, could also prove distracting — Humboldt has, in that respect, given her a quiet place to focus. Stewart plans to start the fifth Kopp sisters novel as soon as she's settled. "I'll keep writing them as long as my publisher wants them," she says, though the fact that they are based on the real lives of their heroines means they must end eventually. Stewart is still having fun, switching up the structure with each installment. In book five, World War I approaches and "the parallels between 1916 and 2016 are terrifying."
Stewart and Brown are excited about what's ahead, but that's not to say they won't miss Humboldt, or that they won't be back. Brown will still be running Eureka Books remotely, handling large purchases and visiting the business now and then while it's under the stewardship of manager Katie McCreary.
Stewart will definitely miss the rambling 3,000-square foot Victorian the couple recently sold, particularly once they've downsized to a condo with a third of its space. "I'll never have a house that beautiful again," she sighs. "I can't afford it anywhere else." Other pleasures of Humboldt are less tangible.
"This is a hard thing to articulate, but the way that everyone here knows everybody else and their role," she says, but knowing the people you see on the street and what they mean to the larger community, whether as a shopkeeper, a teacher or a member of the board of supervisors. "There's the sense that it matters who everybody is." Life in a city will mean trading some of that familiarity and sense of belonging for relative anonymity. "We're going to be in Portland and be the two people in line for pizza."
"There's also this lovely frictionless thing about living here," Stewart says as she turns the corner walking back toward the bookstore. One can make an appointment, a reservation or get an event going — like the talk she gave about her newest book on Saturday night at the Eureka Theater — without much fuss. For creative people in particular, fewer barriers and gatekeepers can make a difference, and "it's possible to make your little thing happen here," whatever it may be. Stewart uses the example of her paintings, which she's shown at local businesses on Arts Alive! nights. She doubts Portland will be as open. She gives a little laugh. "Nobody's gonna hang my fucking paintings."