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Bookshop sings a life story
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Bookshop sings a life story

When Winifred Bundy — or “Winn” — gets around to writing a book about her life, she will call it “Fortune’s Little Darling.”

It will tell the tale of her 84 years and the Singing Wind Bookshop, the store she opened on her family’s Benson ranch more than 40 years ago. Hers is a story that fits right in at her shop, along with the dozens and dozens of books devoted to life in the Southwest.

“I don’t see how I’m going to have time right now,” Bundy says, sitting at her kitchen table. “It takes time. You’ve got to sit down and keep your head there. If you write one sentence, fine. That’s good. I find there is too much distraction. I have to run to do this and run to do that.”

Bundy manages both the bookshop and the ranch seven days a week. Monday through Friday, she gets the help of Lianna Contreras, 35, the shop manager, and Contreras’ father, Jim Lerblance, 71.

“It’s tough trying to chase that woman around,” Contreras says. “She likes to stay busy.”

Bundy’s day begins around 7 a.m., feeding the cats, burros and calves that also live on the ranch. On days when aches and pains make for a slower start, Lerblance fills in. About a year ago, problems with her back kept Bundy in and out of a Tucson hospital for months. Contreras and her father stepped up to keep the shop running.

“The ranch is part of the bookshop,” Contreras says. “The job title is ‘miscellaneous.’ On days when there are no customers and ranch problems, we might be up to our knees in mud and hay. ... You have to wear many hats around here.”

The shop started small — two bookshelves in an alcove of the family’s living room in 1974.

At the time, Bundy was commuting to the University of Arizona three times a week to work on three master’s degrees — in library science, history and English. She was also mothering three children and managing the ranch while her husband, a physicist and electrical engineer, worked at Hughes Missile Systems Co., now Raytheon.

It had been her husband’s childhood dream to live on a ranch. It had been hers to open a bookstore.

“I decided that we better do it, or we’re not going to do it ... ” she says. “I just always believed it. I never doubted it. Everybody said I was crazy, but I never doubted.”

Bundy says she had the complete backing of her husband, Bob.

Author Lawrence Clark Powell, one of Bundy’s UA instructors at the time, also supported the idea, she says. She also promised him she would write a book someday.

The shop came first.

Her classmates, many of them “young bucks” coming straight from undergraduate programs, were skeptical of her idea to start a bookshop in the San Pedro Valley. “There were these kids who would say, ‘Cowboys are stupid. They can’t read, and they don’t know anything,’”she recalls.

“Those guys know more than you’ll ever know,” she used to say, defending ranchers and cowboys. “They really know a lot, and they have read extensively.”

The shop’s first check — which she still has — came from a rancher. “I’ve always had the support of ranchers,” she says. “They’re good buyers of books.”

In the more than 40 years since then, Singing Wind Bookshop has enticed book lovers of all types, but especially those with a penchant for all topics Southwest.

The open guestbook near the shop’s front door keeps record of the far-flung locations customers call home.

While many live in Southern Arizona and Phoenix, others have hailed from as far as Scotland, France and Canada.

Greetings and gratitude also fill the book’s pages. “Winn, you are the epitome of class,” writes one visitor.

When Maryann Beerling, the CEO of an affordable housing developer in Tucson, steps through the front door — for the sixth or seventh time, she guesses — she greets Bundy with a hug, a few friends on their first visit trailing behind her.

“I like it because it’s on the ranch,” she says. “I like the history. It’s the best-kept secret around Southern Arizona.”

Bundy and her husband purchased the ranch in 1956 while living in Tucson. Bundy had scoured the classified ads, and the family pinched pennies before finding its future home in Benson, nearly 50 miles away. “It was broken down and then kind of abandoned in a way,” she says.

It was the perfect place to pursue dreams.

She remembers her son climbing trees, convinced he would spot dinosaur tracks from his high vantage point. At one point, that son and a friend discovered cow bones, which they assembled as a dinosaur skeleton.

The ranch holds many stories.

Getting to the shop takes some doing: Cross a cattle guard, go down a dirt road, and pass a sign that says “Headquarters for Books about the Southwest.” Grassland dotted with shrubs and the winter skeletons of trees unfolds behind wire fencing.

Jenny and Queenie (short for Queen of Sheba), the ranch’s two burros, double as greeters. Chester Einstein, Bundy’s large Dalmatian-Labrador mix, picks up their slack inside the shop, bounding up to visitors.

Bundy follows, volunteering to give customers a tour. She weaves through the bookshop, instructing groups when to stop and turn. She points out poetry A to Z and books on Indian boarding schools, horsemanship and early civilizations. There is hiking, biking, birding and canyoneering. She has books on war, books on women, books on religion and books on books.

She recites the tour with precision and warns about swinging the revolving book racks.

“You might get killed by books,” she says.

She almost did at one point, pinned beneath a rack that a customer sent toppling onto her. She had to wiggle out, she says.

Her customers are regulars and rookies both. Some come to find elusive books pertaining to their research. Others have long known about the shop and only just managed to make a trip. Singing Wind’s inventory depends on customer input and tips.

In two rooms not open to the public, Bundy keeps out-of-print books, which she tucked away after realizing that dealers were taking advantage of her prices. By appointment, Bundy will show customers that collection.

“We have everything from $2.50 on up,” she says of the shop’s prices.

Everything is on paper, says Contreras, who began working at the shop nine years ago. Kathy Suagee, the previous manager, was there about 28 years.

The staff rifle through invoices to find new books to order. Most advertising happens by word of mouth and media attention.

“You’re always real close to the edge,” Bundy says. “You don’t make a lot of money in books. ... It’s mostly the people that make it worth it. Readers are fascinating. You find out what they like and then you try to get the right book to the right person. That’s my goal.”

Some of Bundy’s favorite genres, including women’s writings, early Southwestern and Western history and fiction, mysteries and books on architecture and music, fill the shelves. Many of them were built with the help of her husband using mesquite wood found on the ranch.

She often provides tour groups with refreshments — just not in the same space as the books. “They don’t realize that it just takes a second to ruin thousands of dollars,” she says.

Bundy also cooks homemade chili for the bookshop’s four yearly fiestas. She has an entire freezer full of brownies and cookies, ready to be thawed for entertaining.

When Bundy throws a party at Singing Wind, 200 or 300 friends, customers and local authors show up, ready to celebrate the history, culture and literature of the region.

After her last hospital stay, she thought, “Hmm, now we’re going to have a party,” she says. “I didn’t send invitations or call anybody, but 300 people showed up, and we had a barbecue, and it was really good.”

The events at Singing Wind often spotlight and honor Southwestern authors, such as Jeanne Williams, who is known for her novels about the American West. Next month, a Singing Wind fiesta will remember author and journalist Charles Bowden, who died in August and had often attended the bookshop’s gatherings.

“You want to enjoy life,” Bundy says, reflecting on celebrations with family and friends. “Life is too short not to enjoy it.”

And that is what Singing Wind has brought to Bundy’s life.

“I have just been fortunate,” she says. “How can anybody be so fortunate? That is my feeling.”

Contact reporter Johanna Willett at jwillett@tucson.com or 573-4357. On Twitter: @JohannaWillett

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