Tag Archives: Andrew Whalen

I Survived the 2012 Bookquake

The sirens went off at noon. I went to the window to find the police barricading the streets. The dogs began barking. They’re always barking, but maybe this was special barking. Things had gone awry.

Something rumbled. At 12:10 I turned to my visiting special lady friend and said, “Did you feel that?” She had.  Must just be something old houses do, we thought to ourselves before going back to our books.

Now the sirens were going crazy. I looked outside, expecting to see the complete breakdown of civilization. Would I need to run to the hunting store next door to buy a shotgun? Nope: Veteran’s Day Parade. Oh.

The Veteran’s Day Parade Must Go On

A woman sifting through general fiction got a phone call. “Oh yeah? I didn’t even feel it,” she said. She got off the phone and told me that her daughter had called to check up on her because there had been an earthquake.

The street adjacent to the bookstore split into a wide gash… three days ago when they dug the trench for the new sewer line. I want to say books fell off the shelf in the quake. But that didn’t happen.

So when you see me wearing my “I survived the 2012 Big Stone Gap earthquake” t-shirt, what I really mean is that I noticed the earthquake, then stuck my nose back in a book and took a long slurp from my cup of tea.

Epicenter of the Mild Distractionquake

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These Customers Look Awfully Familiar…

by Andrew Whalen, Shopsitter

It was approaching closing time. Jack and I had spent much of the afternoon doing what many Americans do in the afternoon: staring at computer screens and not exchanging a single word. We were liberated from our digital overlords when a friend stopped by and forced us to have actual human conversation.

Then the door chimed, signaling customers.

A woman walked in and stared right at me. I wound up to deliver a casual “let me know if there’s anything I can help you find.” But something made me pause. Why is this woman staring at me? Stop that! And then I panicked… I knew what was happening.  Crud, I thought, this must be a local that I’ve met sixteen times and I totally can’t remember her name.

All of these thoughts took about four seconds, but it seemed like much longer. The wheels in my head felt as if they were manned by the world’s laziest hamsters. And she was so familiar…..

It was my mother. My dad stepped in behind her. It all clicked into place. “What. The. Hell.” I said.

Their arrival seemed impossible, so it took a moment for my mind to believe it. Modern travel has conditioned us to ignore the actual space between our spaces. I fell asleep on a bus leaving New York and woke up in Big Stone Gap. The in-between didn’t really exist.

I think we all do this, segregating different zones, holding them separate in our memory and in the ways we think about them. So when my relations from the Ohio-Zone showed up in Big Stone Gap-Zone it took a full furniture rearrangement in my head before I could process it.

Or, at least, that’s my best excuse for swearing at my parents instead of leaping up to greet them with open arms.

They had taken the weekend to drive down from Columbus, Ohio, the back axle of their SUV sagging under the sheer tonnage of snacks and carefully Tupperwared dinners my mom assembled. When it comes to food my mom plans even day-trips like expeditions into the uncharted Congo.

She runs a cookie business (CookieGlass.com!) and is always mindful of food. So when she learned that the evening was to be a dinner with local friends and a visiting writer (Mary Hamilton, telling stories from her excellent book Kentucky Folktales), food was her first concern. We bolted over to the grocery store, my mother determined to supplement the spread. “Now, try not to eat everything,” she warned my Dad several times. It didn’t end up being a problem.

After my parents returned to their hotel in the evening, Jack gleefully relayed my initial shock to the remaining guests. But while the intro may have been a bit bumpy, I hope they had a good time. I showed them around the town and they picked up books for my younger brother and sister. Plus, they managed to get in a bit of every parent’s favorite recreational activity: embarrassing their children. I’m still not sure how it came up, but my Mom managed to share my recurring haunted mirror nightmare with a fair portion of the county. Thanks Mom!

Editor’s note: Andrew’s parents were delightful, and their food delicious; we sent Andrew on useless errands and ate most of it while he was out. And yes, we did egg them on for embarrassing stories to use against our favorite shopsitter. But as we told Andrew, his mother’s forgetting to pack childhood pictures for posting in the bookstore was a serious disappointment. Still, the cookies are so good that we forgive her.


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Pottering Happily About

This morning I woke up at home, next to Jack, with two cats piled atop me and a dog jackknifed against my knees. Crooked sleep under my own duvet…. {blissful sigh}.

Shopsitter Andrew’s parents arrived unexpectedly last night–you should have seen that lad’s face–so we gave him the day off to run about and see the bright light of Wise County. (There’s a new traffic light on the four-lane.)

Jack had prison visits this morning with the Quaker ministry, so that left me in the bookstore with its pristine shelves Andrew’s been sorting day by day, and some odd jobs we never bothered to show him because they don’t come up that often.

With gusto, I tied my hair back and tackled the list: rolling coins from the change drawer; investigating the odd smell coming from one corner of the mystery room (an air freshener had fallen behind a shelf and gone septic); gathering all the odds and ends of crackers and cookies into the bread tin. Jack and I live above the shop, so one half of our downstairs kitchen is bookstore, the other half functioning as a staff room with fridge and microwave. Imagine if the public could see your staff room. :[

In short, I reveled in the quiet pottering of a nesting bird, re-establishing herself on home turf. Bookstore, sweet bookstore, and it’s all mine–well, mine and Jack’s, and now part Andrew’s too, bless the boy. (He’s 27; I’m only calling him a boy for poetic purposes.)

One of the things people have asked about, on the book tour, is what it’s like to own a bookshop. Over and over again I found myself describing a theme that recurs in the book and in our lives: not renting inside one’s own skin. The bookstores we are visiting are independent ones, like ours, for the most part. They don’t have corporate manuals that tell you how things are done. The problems, the challenges, running out of shelf space and trying to find a way to categorize a particular book and figuring out the best use of your limited wall display area, etc.: all these belong to you.

Sometimes I wonder if Americans are taught to despise smallness, not intentionally, just in the daily messages we absorb. We’re encouraged to lead big, “Madmen” kind of lives, vying for the top of the food chain, ladder, whatever.

But let me tell you, there is nothing like rolling the change you collected one customer at a time, from people whose names and reading tastes you know, and putting their dirty coffee cups in the dishwasher after they’ve left, in the bookstore you own. Living large comes in many forms, and some lives– like the Tardises of Dr. Who fame– are larger inside than they appear at a glance.
My day is passing in a contented haze of small chores that will keep our shop cozy and functional.

It don’t get no better’n this.




Filed under Big Stone Gap, folklore and ethnography, humor, publishing, small town USA, Uncategorized, VA

Regan’s Halloween Recommendations

1951 – The Deserts of Iraq

A dashing explorer-priest is conducting a study of ancient relics when his archaeological team uncovers a statue of the Sumerian demon Pazuzu.  A confrontation with evil is inevitable.

2012 – Tales of the Lonesome Pine Bookstore

Andrew Whalen, shopsitter, is woken by clanking and rattling noises in the attic. He investigates, hoping to find Halloween decorations and not to find demons. He is disappointed on both fronts.

But as Andrew encounters the horror within he discovers that it’s not the Sumerian Pazuzu at all, but a transmigrated manifestation of Andrew’s own Netflix Instant Queue, and the horror movie that had awaited him.

This is getting complicated.

Now Andrew is possessed by the spirit of  Regan, a young girl, who is herself possessed by the demon Pazuzu and is ALSO fictional.

Phwew, this is a mess. And totally not an excuse to wear a night-gown all day and eat split-pea soup. Luckily, this particular possession arrived just in time for Halloween! And Regan has recommendations from the shelves. Take it away evil-spirit-movie-demon-girl:

While William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist is way better, the sequel Legion has some fun moments. More police procedural than horror, it’s never as scary as the original, and has far less ME!

Full of supposedly true tales as told by truckers and motorists, the Book-on-CD Trucker Ghost Stories is occasionally chilling, but more often just plain fun.

Ok, I’ll admit. I haven’t read either of these. But I’ve heard good things about Let Me In and the Swedish film adaptation Let The Right One In is the best vampire movie since Near Dark. As for Prophecy… if it’s anything like the movie than it waffles between environmental preaching and gory silliness in the most charming and 1970s way imaginable.

And no Halloween list would be complete without creepy ol’ Mr. King, so I’m recommending his short story collection Night Shift, which includes the story that heart-attacked 13-year-old Andrew, “The Boogeyman.” Plus, there’s no better primer to horror as a genre than his nonfiction Danse Macabre.

Oh, geez. This is just so exciting. I spewed up all my demon gunk.

Happy Halloween!


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The Smoking Bookgun (from the declassified Whalen files)

Sometimes people walk into Tales of the Lonesome Pine bookstore. I believe they are what keen observers of human society would call “customers.” These customers are a varied and mysterious breed. And while my previous training had suggested their intent was most often to “buy” things using “money,” I have been surprised by the variety of encounters possible within this scenario.

What follows is just one of the many stories from…

The Declassified Whalen Customer Files

A common story from people who have worked with titles, whether it be videos or books, is the customer asking after something that’s just on the tip of their tongue. And while they can’t quite remember the ISBN, title, genre, or author, there is always a single fact: The Smoking Bookgun (I’d watch a movie called that). It may be the book’s shape or size, or the main character’s maiden name, but they’ll definitely remember something.

Of course I now have those stories of my very own. In fact, I was tempted to thank the first customer who brought me my first Smoking Bookgun Mystery. But while I knew about these encounters beforehand, I was surprised by two new elements.

The first is how often the mystery ends up solved. People have come in with little more than a twinkle in their eye, but given enough time we’ll eventually find the right thing. My first guess after you say, “I’m looking for this book… it’s blue,” may very well be, “Oh, you mean Laguna Beach: Season 1 on DVD? Yeah, we’ve got that.” But humans have a remarkable capacity for seeking common ground and paring down large groupings into small. It turns out we’re all pretty awesome at it.

Plus, the Internet exists now.

So yes, it may have taken 45 minutes, but eventually I’ll get to mispronounce most of: “here’s your copy of Verlag Von Gerlach & Wielding’s Völkerschmuck! Auf Wiedersehen!” So it doesn’t matter if you’re not sure exactly what book you have in mind. Roll the dice. Your odds are better than you think.

The second element that surprised me was a novel new twist on the quest for that one book you heard about that one time at the family BBQ from your cousin who is totally in the CIA and carried it with him for like six months until the cover wore off and he could really use a new copy before flying off to I-Can’t-Tell-You-Where-Because-It’s-Top-Secret-Stan. I have now been asked on several occasions to track a book based on another fictional character reading it within a movie. That’s right, the only smoking bookgun is a fictional recommendation from Tom Hanks before he went off to make out with Meg Ryan or date a mermaid or whatever else Tom Hanks is up to these days.

Sometimes I can help with this. But if you want that one scroll that Gandalf was reading in the library in the Tower of Ecthelion, we probably don’t have it.

All this said, I make no promises and have no special powers. We may never find that one book that was about this big and about this thick. But I have now my own small contribution to the long and storied tradition of “customers not knowing what they want” narratives. With that complete, I look forward to your stumpers and promise not to respond with any variety of droll, knowing smirk.



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Sleeping on Iron(y)ed Sheets

Anyone who travels for work—book tours, corporate sales, what have you—knows the exhaustion of sleep in strange beds. Each city this book tour has taken us to—New York with its taxi honk operas, Philadelphia and the late night peace protest sing-alongs, Charlotte with that steady humming undercurrent of Big Money—we’ve hunkered into provided beds, covers pulled around our ears, and reached for the dubious slumber of country mice away from home.

So we were delighted when a three-day break let us sleep in our own little beds again. We arrived back at the bookstore, admired Andrew the Shopsitter’s latest innovations (this guy is a gem) and fell into bed.

Then Jack began to cough. And cough and cough and cough, the kind that medical professionals would call “unproductive,” what moms call “dry tickly.”

Or just bloody annoying. The sound of one’s spouse hacking up a lung in small pieces is heartrending, but for someone having her first night in the ol’ home place since Oct. 5th, it’s also bad timing. He tried NyQuil, extra pillows, throat lozenges, as I lay by his side in supportive wife mode, hoping. About 3 in the morning, Jack turned to me. “Go sleep in the living room. Your patient, understanding silence is getting on my nerves.”

The next day Jack announced that after I’d left, he’d stopped coughing.  “Which means the cabin will be okay.” I had a media interview in the early evening, but then we planned to flee to our two-room shack in the woods—so far back that Internet and phone service are not available, and if we hear a motor, it’s coming to us—until time to leave for Asheville Sunday.

The interview ran long because Kim (a writer for the paper in Southern Pines, NC) and I really hit it off, so we got down to the cabin about 9 pm—or, as my friend Heather says, about half an hour past my bedtime. We spooned into slumber beneath the comfy duvet…

…and woke at 1 am to a noise reminiscent of The Blair Witch Project.

“Dafuq?” my husband more or less mumbled, snatching up a nearby hardback and preparing to defend me to the last page. Book in assault position, he traversed the perimeter.

A homegrown girl, I knew. “It’s a mouse.” Locating the noise, I banged on the dresser and began opening drawers to reveal the (now empty) nest. We crawled back into our home turf bed.

The mouse crawled back to hers. And began to install a bowling alley. I got up and banged the dresser. Silence—and then a single acorn came spewing over the top of a drawer, as if fired from a cannon.

I went back to bed. The mouse invited friends over, one of whom played saxophone. There was also a bagpiper, and I think an electric keyboard player. I rose, banged the dresser, and shouted, “Lissen, if you little bastards don’t stop, I’ll call the law, do you hear me? There are noise ordinances! It’s 4 in the morning!”

My husband switched on the bedside lamp and peered at me closely. “What?” I snapped.

“Oh, nothing, nothing,” he said, smiling in a don’t-hurt-me way. “Come back to bed, darling. You’ve had a long couple of weeks.”

At 5 am the mouse partiers headed home. We heard their car doors slam, the loud farewells, the final blasts of the party horns and noisemakers.

That afternoon Jack and I carried the drawer with the cozy nest outside, turned the drawer upside down and watched a large, sleepy field mouse surface, blinking in the sun. “Dafuq?” it mumbled, staring bleary-eyed at us before racing into to the woods.

I’m not proud of this, but at that moment, if I’d had a saxophone, I’d have played it in triumph. But Jack and I then carried the sheet nest over to the rock whence the mouse had fled and left it as a peace offering. Sleep and let sleep.

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Ampersand & Lawn Ornaments

After the first leg of  Wendy and Jack’s book tour they returned with books, pictures, the leftover shortbread and one giant metal ampersand. It’s now set up in the front yard, after much deliberation over its placement. And it’s a constant reminder that ampersands are super super weird. In fact, we spent a good ten minutes debating if it was facing the right way. We’ve certainly all seen plenty of ampersands (I can’t really speak for Jack and Wendy… maybe they’ve managed to avoid them thus far). But it’s just one of those shapes that’s complex, but not quite complex enough to be memorable, so it slides right out of your mind.

Definitely facing the right way… right?

Ampersands started as a form of typographic ligature, which is a combination of two different graphemes (thanks Wikipedia!). In the case of the ampersand the two graphemes are the letters E and T, and the ligature is formed when the two are smushed together (yeah, I didn’t really see it either, but check out the ampersand in fonts like Trebuchet and you’ll get the picture). “Et” is Latin for “and,” so ampersands got their start when a bunch of Romans got too lazy to write out the full word. Which is really lazy, considering they had already worked out an “and” with one less letter than ours.

Not to sound too much like a late-night English student a bit too drunk on “literary theory”, but I’m about to act like a late-night English student a bit too drunk on literary theory. What’s cool about the ampersand is that its appearance actually matters. It’s not a letter at all, but a picture. Replace the letter “A” with “#” and nothing changes. The appearance has nothing to do with the meaning. But take two meaningless symbols and push them together into an ampersand you have something  with a meaning that only exists when it looks approximately the way it’s meant to look.

AND The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap

And since we love reading into pictures, the ampersand has become more than just a smushed together “E” and “T.” The best example where we’ve given it a meaning for itself, separate from “and,” comes from screenwriting, where the ampersand suggests direct collaboration, whereas “and” means one writer, followed by a second rewriter. If I pop “by Michael Crichton & Andrew Whalen” on my screenplay for Jurassic Park 5: Whatever Happened to Nedry’s Shaving Cream Can? it means that the two of us have collaborated via seance. We are equal partners. But if my Jurassic Park 5: Whatever Happened to Nedry’s Shaving Cream Can? screenplay is instead by “Michael Crichton and Andrew Whalen” it means that I took something Crichton had done and rewrote it for myself without consulting him. Take away my ampersand and I go from being the brilliant necromancer co-writer of the summer 2016 blockbuster hit to being the lonely author of rip-off fan-fiction that will never see the screen.

If I were to draw some sort of conclusion out of this, then I would say that the ampersand is an appropriate symbol to have in metal on the front lawn of your bookstore. Letters just sit on the page and we make them real as we interpret them in our heads. Writers create on the page and the readers pick up these pieces and rebuild the ideas for themselves.  Staked down on the front lawn of Tales of the Lonesome Pine, alongside a toilet overgrown with vines, a plastic dimetrodon, and several stone animals wearing wire-frame spectacles, the ampersand is a kind of visual re-creation of the first step in this process, where we take simple scratches and begin to combine them into an entire visual language that can impart meaning, feelings, or hovercraft chases through space-stations. The ampersand is not a letter or an idea: it is a simple statement of how the former becomes the latter.

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