Debut Author Interview: Wendy Welch, Author of the Memoir THE LITTLE BOOKSTORE OF BIG STONE GAP
Wendy’s story is billed as “the little Virginia bookstore that could: how two people, two cats, two dogs, and thirty-eight thousand books helped a small town find its heart. It is a story about people and books, and how together they create community.” Publishers Weekly said “The whole narrative exudes enormous charm and the value of dreams and lives truly lived,” while Kirkus called it “An entertaining book with a full cast of eccentric characters.”
What is the book’s genre/category?
Memoir/Comedy and Books & Reading.
Please describe what the story/book is about.
Two bibliophiles with no retail experience set in motion a comedy of errors when they move to the Appalachian Coalfields and start a used books shop, just as the economy tanks and e-readers debut—and manage to build a community.
Where do you write from?
The front room table of Tales of the Lonesome Pine Used Books and Café, in Big Stone Gap, VA, between customers.
Briefly, what led up to this book?
I was trying to make sense of all the silly, strange, sweet things that happened while we were setting up the bookshop. Having been a storyteller who stopped working in the arts, I was used to organizing my thoughts by narration, so I started talking to myself about what was going on in the store, then writing it down (after two or three strange looks from people in the cars next to me at red lights, or behind me on the walking path). That became the book.
What was the time frame for writing this book?
The draft of the book was about five months in the making, then working with my agent on the proposal was another two months. I actually wrote the book twice. First it was a “here’s how you run a bookshop” but the only agent who saw that draft said, “Don’t be a dinosaur. Bookstores are dead.” And when I told some friends in despair, they said, “You know what? You and Jack are really funny and fun people. Instead of writing ‘here’s how you do it’ why don’t you write ‘here’s what happened to us as we were trying to get it done’?” So I did and that was the five-months-work draft that Pamela, my agent, saw and liked right away.
How did you find your agent (and who is your agent)?
Pamela Malpas at Harold Ober Agency represents me, and she’s brilliant. A friend represented by her introduced us. I had queried 11 agents and received “let me see more” interest from two, when Cami Ostman (author of the running memoir Second Wind) out of the blue e-mailed that she’d spoken to her agent about my book and the agent would be up for a query. So I sent a polite and carefully constructed letter, and Pamela asked to see the manuscript, then asked me to call.
What were your 1-2 biggest learning experience(s) or surprise(s) throughout the publishing process?
When Jack (my husband and co-store-owner) and I realized we’d need someone to watch the shop while we were gone at various book launch things, we asked around for a retired librarian or some such who would enjoy staying in our guest room for two months. We live above the bookstore. The shop is small and in a small town, and we had read about Shakespeare and Co., the bookshop in Paris that had students stay above it free in return for working there, so we cold-called two people – Kim Beatty, Goodwill Librarian on Facebook, and Robert Gray, a columnist with Shelf Awareness – to ask if they could help find someone for us. Kim put the info on her page, and the next day it had been shared some 200 times. Bob then offered to write a column, and that thing went viral. NPR called a week later and had us on Weekend Edition. A magazine in Sweden and two in France put a notice in their editions (and Jack still regrets not inviting the two Swedish girls who applied). The LA Times and several New York online publications picked it up. One of them called us “the last great job in America.” And the Huffington Post followed the whole story. Then SIBA offered to set up a shopsitting service for small bookstores like ours, because they said it was a felt need in the whole community, and we worked with them on that.
It was just amazing to see the shopsitter thing snowball, when all we’d wanted was someone who would enjoy being here and not burn the place down to keep it going while we were away. So I guess that was the first surprise, in two ways. First, bookstores are not dead in the public imagination and interest, no matter what anyone says. And second, as much as one hears about how the whole publishing industry turns on money and fame and who’s bigger than who, suddenly here was this little silly story about a tiny bookshop and people were so happy for us and 158 people applied. That reaffirmed for me that sincerity, just doing your thing, and being yourself, is still a viable way to live AND to write. No one was asking anyone to sell their soul in a pact with the devil to get published. We were just living our lives, and suddenly a bunch of people wanted to be part of it. I think sometimes my publisher and the whole Ober agency laugh at my over-the-top stereotypes of Big Bad New York City. But then both my editor and agent are small town girls who transplanted to rise to successful careers in publishing, so sometimes we all laugh together.
(BTW we found a great shopsitter. His name was Andrew Whalen, a native of Ohio living in NYC. Responsible, sensible, he took great care of our dogs and cats, and by the time we got back the whole community loved him and everyone was stuffing him with casseroles and trying to introduce him to their daughters home from college for Thanksgiving.)
What would you have done differently if you could do it again?
Worked faster and more steadily on the edits instead of procrastinating. I was holed up in a cabin with no Internet or phone the last three days before the final draft had to be in, editing like a mad fiend. That’s not as much fun—or as productive—as taking each day as it comes, getting the work done but enjoying doing it. I’d really found the writing, editing, marketing, figuring out how it all worked as a newbie process, etc. pleasurable until those three days. They were writing Hell.
Did you have a platform in place? On this topic, what are you doing the build a platform and gain readership?
As you’ve heard, I definitely didn’t. Although I had assets and resources to bring to a platform, I didn’t know what they were. First Pamela, and then Cassie and Kim (marketing and publicity, respectively) at St. Martin’s Press helped me harness what I had and develop what I didn’t. They taught me the value of Twitter and Pinterest (I was already a Facebook addict) and they kept e-mailing with little gems like “By the way, you’re going to be in People in October” and “buy a copy of Redbook this month; you’re in it” and “Your book is being published in Korea.” Stuff I hadn’t done diddly to get. They knew who was interested in a sweet, funny story about two naïve people carving a bookstore into a community, and they kept that interest going.
For my part, Jack and I set up visits to about 20 independent bookstores around the Eastern seaboard and as far west as Missouri. People we knew in the business, or people who emailed in the pre-publication days to say how much they liked the book. And while we had a blast doing that, the horrible truth is that only about 3-6% of all books sold in America are sold via small independent bookstores. Jack and I networked and made friends and had a great time going to Parnassus and Winchester Book Gallery and Larry Bowen’s Reader’s Corner, but that’s our world. Cassie and Kim worked their world, and they worked it well. We’re under no illusions about which had more immediate results, but we like to think that we’re helping change attitudes toward saving money versus investing in community—both in retail and in publishing, if that makes sense. Jack and I believe in, understand, share with other booksellers (particularly those at Malaprops, who have been espousing this philosophy for 30 years) a belief in the power of small, community-oriented shops. A LOT of books about bookstores came out this season, and we hope we’re a part of keeping indies around.
Best piece(s) of advice for writers trying to break in?
Two pieces of advice, and they’re intertwined.
1) Be yourself. That way if you do find someone interested in publishing what you have to say, it will be your voice and not a made-up person you feel trapped into being for the whole rest of the process. And if you don’t find someone to publish you, you can enjoy the ride, then self-publish with wisdom and a sense of humor and insider discernment.
2) Celebrate every step from your first draft through hunting the agent, through hooking a publisher, through editing and marketing to publication day. Not only is publishing fickle, but the world is a pretty random place; you never know what will or won’t happen tomorrow. When I finished the draft that ultimately became the book, we called over a dozen friends and had a “Wendy wrote a book and it’ll probably never get published but it was fun” party. And no one at that party, Jack and I included, really gave credence to anything happening after that. When I started querying agents, I didn’t have confidence. And then bang bang bang the dominoes fell. The party was in February, Cami emailed in April, Pamela and I worked on the proposal throughout May and June, then she put the manuscript and proposal out July 3 and on July 20 two houses were bidding on it. When I told the friends who attended the draft party, they were laughingly trying to hide how surprised they were. (And of course we had another party.) Cami, when she got Pamela as her agent, had an “I got an agent” party. Celebrate everything. The journey is more than just the destination.
Something personal about you people may be surprised to know?
I have the world’s worst sense of direction. I can get lost in my own bookshop. Put me down two blocks from my city hotel in a straight line, and you’ll find me two hours later, wandering the suburbs.
Almost anything with a strong female lead in period costume.
www.wendywelchbigstonegap.wordpress.com is our blog and has the bookshop calendar, links to Jack’s music and the annual tour he leads to Scotland and Ireland, and other fun stuff.
People are beginning to visit the bookshop from outside our region; they have lunch in our café and explore downtown Big Stone (which takes about an hour but is worthwhile, nonetheless!) and go down to Carter’s Fold or over to Barter Theatre and have a great weekend out. We’re enjoying meeting so many people from such varied lifestyles and places.
Right now we’re just riding that wave, being in the moment, enjoying the visitors and also opportunities the book’s brought to participate in events like the VA Festival of the Book, the Whipporwill Festival in KY, library and bookstore talks, giving a writing workshop here or there (visit TALES OF THE LONESOME PINE LLC on FB to find out about the August workshop WRITE COMES TO THE CUMBERLANDS). Fun things that start to fill up the calendar around daily obligations. Between and behind the busy-ness I’m trying to get some writing done, and when things calm down I’ll get back to working hard on it. (She said, smiling.) Honest.