Bonnie Jo Campbell — an author and her modest kitchen, revisited

“I always tell my students that if they are serious about writing that they should live in a very modest house and try to keep expenses low so that they don’t have to work themselves too hard to pay the mortgage. They think I’m kidding, but I’m not.”

bonnie jo campbell in her red kitchenOnce Upon A RiverAnother of my favorite stories of all time, originally published in 2012, back while I continue to wrestle with my taxes:

We have a famous author in our tribe — and she shares her Retro Renovation story with us today.  Bonnie Jo Campbell‘s recent book of short stories, American Salvage, was a National Book Award and National Book Critics Circle Award finalist, and her 2011 novel Once Upon a River: A Novel (affiliate link)(I LOVED this book!) continues to earn rave reviews from virtually everyone who reads it. For example, in July 2011 the New York Times Review of Books, reviewer (and famous author herself) Jane Smiley wrote:

As in “American Salvage,” her celebrated story collection from 2009, Campbell has a ruthless and precise eye for the details of the physical world…. Campbell so intently scrutinizes Margo’s [the teenaged protagonist] inner life that she does not seem to be asserting any larger point about American culture or human nature — but she is…. It would be too bad if, because of Campbell’s realistic style and ferocious attention to her setting, “Once Upon a River” were discounted as merely a fine example of American regionalism. It is, rather, an excellent American parable about the consequences of our favorite ideal, freedom.

kitchen countertop before and after
red kitchen countertop
Author Bonnie Jo Campbell used simple nail-on aluminum molding to edge the countertop in her darling kitchen remodel.

The reason I choose this particular excerpt of Jane Smiley’s review, is that I sure would pay attention to any renovation done by an acclaimed writer with a “ruthless and precise eye for the details of the physical world”! Bonnie’s story is that she waited 24 years to replace the worn countertop original to her Kalamazoo house, using resources found here. Read her books and you would never doubt that, of course, she would keep her updates in line the midcentury modest design of the house. Moreover — and here’s another place I  pay big attention — she underscores the benefits of “modest.” Bonnie writes:

Hi Pam — A bit about our house:

I call it a swamp house, and my husband and I bought it in 1987 for $24,500. I always tell my students that if they are serious about writing that they should live in a very modest house and try to keep expenses low so that they don’t have to work themselves too hard to pay the mortgage. They think I’m kidding, but I’m not. It’s very hard to make time to write in any case, and so if there’s a way to spend less time earning a living, then follow that way. I also am honest when I say that my poor housekeeping is part of the plan.  I can have a clean, well-kept house or I can get books written, not both.

And that was a lot of the reason why I never took the time to improve my kitchen, because I wanted to keep my focus on my writing.  And it paid off.
My last two books American Salvage and Once Upon a River have gotten quite a bit of critical acclaim. So I was able to take some time out to make my kitchen a nicer place to be. I still might not have done the improvements had my brother Tom the plumber not been unemployed.  I had done some babysitting for him a few weekends, and he wanted to pay me back by helping me with the sink and counter.

The house was built right after WWII, as were many of the houses here, and I know the house was built by a single man, because it was built without a single closet. The kitchen is fairly small, with a modest amount of storage. There’s not really room for a refrigerator in the kitchen, so I keep it in the utility room. When my husband’s mother moved in with us a few years ago, we put on an addition, so we now have a four bedroom, which allows us both to have offices, which is a great luxury.

red countertops before

I’ll say up front that my goal was just to get a new counter and sink because my old one was just terrible. And I  lived with the old one for 24 years.  I’ve been pretty distracted in that time, first studying mathematics as a grad student and then becoming a Novelist.

red countertopred kitchen countertopI had a pretty challenging time getting the sink I wanted since all the plumbing places around here told me I could not get a sink to install with a hudee ring. From these photos you’ll see that the sink was hopelessly stained because all the porcelain finish was gone. The countertop laminate was a travesty. The wall behind the sink had shelf paper on it. (Yes, I lived with it for 24 years.)

kitchen counter installationHere are some before photos of counter plus my husband Chris Magson and brother Tom with Hudee Ring (before cutting plywood).

kalamazoo stoveThe stove is a Kalamazoo brand stove that my husband became obsessed with. It’s sort of a museum quality piece, a replacement.

red microwave ovenI also have an amazing red microwave… not sure how I lucked into that at Sears. Maybe it’s not retro, though the food processor beside it is.

red kitchenred kitchenred checkerboard floorAs for the wide photos, I truly regret that I didn’t sweep my floor and polish it a bit.  I’m attaching a kitchen floor picture, one that shows how nice the floor looks when it’s waxed. We’re kind of a farm family here. We burn wood and keep donkeys, and so things can be pretty messy.

Bonnie Jo Campbell in her updated kitchenCheers!  Bonnie

Thank you, Bonnie, for taking the time to share this all with us. (Again, readers, Bonnie can attest how I torture featured contributors with the back and forth.) Your swamp kitchen update is perfection. And no need to apologize for unpolished vintage floors — we have all been there!

Read more about Bonnie Jo Campbell’s kitchen update (and her life):

If you want to buy one or more of her books, you can also see them here: Bonnie Campbell’s books on Amazon (affiliate link).

Readers, note that I wrote about Arborite Red Xabia appears to be a good substitute for crackle ice laminate. You can see the effect very clearly here. Red crackle ice is going to be much more expensive, because it is a specialty product. Also, I have a sample of the red cracked ice laminate from some years ago, and I was concerned about the pixelation of the digital printing. I know other readers have used it, though, and were happy with it. Bottom line: Get samples — large samples, preferably — before you commit.

Products that Bonnie used to create her retro red countertop: 

  1. Margie Bovard says:

    Nice save! I waited 21 years to tear out the 1970’s bastardation of a kitchen remodel in our 1920’s 4 square. Congradulations!

  2. Janet Camp says:

    I have a very similar house in Milwaukee with the exact same cabinets! My kitchen is much larger as there is no dining room, and have teeny tiny closets. My house is story and a half, so around here everyone finishes the upstairs for closet/storage space. I love the red counter to bits, but I think I would not want a Hudee ring if I ever get rid of the one I have.

  3. Dianna says:

    I love this renovation story because it shows why it can sometimes take years to redo something.

    I love the red counter top and the fact that the kitchen is meant to be used.

    And I love the small house that supports your endeavors. I live in one of those, too. Less than 1,000 square feet of a rectangle 23′ wide x 52′ long, and all mine!

  4. Cindy says:

    Similar to my modest kitchen in my 1940s Cape Cod. I did a marble Formica counter top and wish I would have gone with the chrome trim. I love your floor. Did you do that or was it always there?

  5. Pat says:

    Where did you find a red dish drainer and mat? I would love one! And, thanks for not painting those lovely cabinets!

  6. Liz says:

    This re-run is so affirming. We live in a modest mid-century house, and sometimes it’s so hard to go against the grain, even in a time when MCM is trendy, and McMansions are “out of favor.” We’re still so enthralled with “bigger is better” in this culture that I sometimes get a bit of an inferiority complex about our choice to work less and live modestly…especially when my friends go to Europe or tropical vacations. It helps so much to know one has company.

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