Dirty Little Secrets of the Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap

“I smell pee in Self-help.” Cryptic messages like this come to my inbox from Wendy’s outbox each Sunday. I clean the store on Mondays when it’s closed to customers. Cat pee intel is a necessary part of the job.
Dirty secret #1: Wendy smells cat pee everywhere. I have caught her, ponytail undone and glasses askew, on the floor sniffing books. “Is this pee?” We attempt various methods of ‘scent improvement’ from time to time. There was the recipe for all-natural deodorizer: orange peels marinated for two weeks in vinegar. After much anticipation, it was just vinegar with slimy orange peels. Fail.

Dirty secret #2: There is usually at least one pair of underwear draped over a stack of books. Wendy and Jack don’t use an electric clothes dryer. It’s a perfectly acceptable way to reduce one’s carbon footprint, but when customers start asking the price of the pink panty-shaped book covers in the Christian Fiction section, you have an issue.

Dirty secret #3: The last shop sitter was a vampire. The Grammar Girls suspected it right away. Andrew was a little too perfect. His second Monday in-shop, I got no answer at the front door or on the telephone. He later explained he had “slept in.” We knew he was in his coffin waiting for sunset. On another visit, we discovered a second -story window in the guest room wide open, no screen. Was it an excessive need of fresh air, or Count Von Whalen’s launch pad? Then there was the giant bottle of red “hot sauce” he kept on the table. Andrew never sparkled; obviously he was old-school. He also never admitted to OR denied our suspicions.

Dirty secret #4: I cuss the bookstore cats. Once I receive the weekly pee report from Wendy, I arrive ready for battle, steam mop as my trusty lance.  Should I come across a smelly but previously un-targeted area, I cuss the cats by name and in chronological order by age. They hear me. It’s why they  pee in hard-to-clean places. I hear them laughing. Damn cats.

Dirty secret #5: I sometimes accidentally knock books off shelves while vacuuming. I will apologize if there is an author staring up from the back cover. “Oops! I’m sorry, Ms. Cornwell!” Upon returning the books, I do not… always… alphabetize… them. Somewhere in Turkey, an American bookshop owner just fainted.

Dirty secret #6: One Friday, Jack prepared curry in the counter-top grill that serves as stovetop and pot in the downstairs kitchen. Did I mention Monday is cleaning day? The next week was business-as-usual, until I walked into the kitchen and found a gang of wasted fruit flies hanging out at the grill. As I lifted the lid, there came an odd sucking noise. There, in all its horrifying glory, was… “Eeee!”  I called Wendy at work to apologize for disturbing what was obviously a successful trial of how to grow a Sasquatch from scratch.

Robo-Owen’s Guide to Reverse Culture Shock

We are pleased to present here the first of Andrew-the-shopsitter’s guest blogs post-shopsitting. He promises to send them now and again, and we look forward to them. For those unfamiliar with the term, Robo-Owen is a wee anamatronic kitten presented to Ali and Andrew on their departure.

It’s now been a few weeks since I left Big Stone Gap. And while I didn’t feel as if I had experienced any culture shock following my arrival in September, I must admit some reverse effects upon setting foot in New York again. My ability to maneuver in crowds is only now returning, after a number of shoulder bashes on busy avenues. I am very wary of cops, and have somehow convinced myself that there are a number of New York street laws I’ve somehow forgotten and am unconsciously violating. My ability to pick good pizza slices has atrophied.

There have also been positive side effects. I find myself itching to replicate some of the regular activities from the bookstore (although I don’t see many of my friends having the requisite skills for Needlework Night). I seek out company in ways I didn’t before… in small town ways. Instead of waiting to catch up at a party I’ve dropped in on friends to chat and drink tea. I cooked some recipes I learned at my family’s Thanksgiving. And I find myself back in the habit of reading.

There is a suspicious lack of animals in my apartment. Sure, there are the mice, roaches, and centipedes, but they’re not good company like cats and dogs. Speaking of, I introduced my brother’s cat Baxter to Robo-Owen. They seem to get along, but judge for yourself.


Robo-Owen is a poor doppelgänger for the possibly-evil, possibly-dumb real thing. For one, he never interferes with my cooking. But now my food-defense instincts are so strong and ingrained I’d be ready if he somehow reprogrammed himself for human food. He also doesn’t have claws, so my skin is no longer a tapestry of angry red lines. This makes him a disappointing sparring partner. Sometimes I’ll try and goad him, but unlike the real thing Robo-Owen is unflappable. Robo-Owen never falls asleep on my stomach or leaps into my arms. All in all he’s good company, and even has a mechanical purr, but he’s no replacement for the real deal Owen Meany.

Just like Robo-Owen is no real cat, I’m no longer a real shopsitter. But old habits die hard, so I may just start loitering around my local used bookstore until they kick me out for aggressive re-alphabetizing. Whatever my future away from Big Stone Gap may hold, I know that book and bookstore culture will remain a part of my life. So I look forward to sharing more of my own experiences with the book life in the near future.

Happy Holidays to all of you and to all of my friends in Big Stone Gap!