Tag Archives: big stone gap, bookstores, Wendy Welch, Jack Beck, roadtrip, wildlife,

Crime and Punishment

Jack is again deputizing for Wendy while she battles to meet her writing deadline –

The small Quaker group that meets monthly here at the bookstore believes in community service as a fundamental part of our daily lives. We try to do that in various ways from pet rescue to refugee resettlement and more. However, three members of the group have for years now been regularly visiting with inmates at our local Federal prison in nearby Lee County.

The three who carry out the visitations do so as part of ‘Prison Visitation and Support’ (PVS), a long established national organization based out of Philadelphia.

We (for I am one of them) who do the monthly visits meet with two inmates each and for 45 minutes per inmate, trying whenever possible to go on the same day. Once we start visiting with a particular inmate we carry on visiting him for as long as he is held in that prison, which can mean for quite a long time.

All the foregoing is simply to give context for what follows –

There is one guy who I’ve been visiting for three years now, who I will call ‘Brian’ to preserve his anonymity. He epitomizes something all three of our team agrees is what makes life bearable for our ‘visitees’ – hope. No matter that he has a whole life sentence with no parole he has continued to rely on fairly tenuous attempts to have his case re-opened or sent to appeal and our monthly visits have always ended with his latest news on that front.

So far, so normal – until last Saturday.

When Brian arrived another of our team, who’s inmate had refused a visit (it happens occasionally) was able to join our conversation which turned out to be very different from usual. He had been suffering from some throat discomfort and had been taken to a local hospital for an examination and biopsy. Naturally he had been very worried, but the results were waiting for him when he got back to the prison and he was told they were clear – not cancer. At times during the conversation he was close to tears of relief as he explained his feelings and for once there was no running commentary on his attempts to appeal his sentence. On our way back to our lives of normality in the car the three of us were discussing the visit and how Brian’s experience might affect his attitude to prison (he had commented on how caring both prison staff and hospital staff had been).

But then –

Yesterday a guy who also visits the prison regularly (not part of PVS) dropped into the bookstore with a message Brian had asked him to pass on. The hospital had redone the biopsy and it had turned out positive for cancer after all – and at an advanced stage. Brian is being transferred to a different prison today to be close to a cancer center with a very good reputation and, knowing he wouldn’t be visiting any more with me, wanted to say how much he’d appreciated our conversations.

There will be some folk (in fact I know some) who will say that he deserves no sympathy – that he was found guilty by a jury of his peers of terrible crimes and is justly suffering the appropriate punishment. They might even say that the possible death sentence this 52-year-old is facing is simply a further judgement from ‘on high’.

But I had grown to like Brian and I was stunned when I heard the news. I was also very moved that, in the midst of his traumatic situation, he made sure that I was made aware how he valued our friendship.

As a Quaker I will be holding my friend Brian ‘in the light’!

PVS is always in need of volunteers – their website is http://www.prisonervisitation.org/


Filed under Big Stone Gap, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, Uncategorized

You’ll tak the high road – –

Jack’s weekly guest post – –

A question I’m frequently asked since I moved permanently to the US is whether I miss my native Scotland. The strange thing is that I have probably seen more of my homeland since emigrating than I did before leaving. That may seem odd, but it’s because I’ve been running an annual small group tour for the last eight or nine years at the end of June. When I have the great pleasure of showing enthusiastic visitors around then I tend to discover places I just never got around to getting to when I lived there. I also make a point of going a few days before the tour starts to give me the chance to catch up with old pals.

Of course if this was a hundred years ago I would probably not get to go back at all and I think that would be very hard.

Something else that makes an enormous difference is modern technology; the world has become a much smaller place with the advent of computers and the internet. I’m in almost daily contact with friends and family back there, followed the nail-biting news of the referendum on independence and continue to soak up the ongoing political aftermath.

Another constant reminder of where I come from is the repertoire of songs and stories I’ve gathered over many years and whenever I sing anywhere I feel myself transported back to Scotland. It’s very rare on these occasions not to have lots of questions from folk afterwards and that’s always a good opportunity to point out the aspects of Scotland that folk over here tend to forget – the inventors, scientists and philosophers. It’s not all castles, tartan, bagpipes, golf and whisky (although there’s certainly that too).

One of the dangers that I’m aware of (from observing others that went before) is the temptation to become a caricature ‘Jock’ and adopt a false persona, although I suspect that’s less likely here in Appalachia if only because they’ve had to thole a few professional hillbillies themselves, so I try to be careful.

But I’m looking forward to heading back in June again; to drive past Loch Lomond and through Glencoe on the way to Skye and out to Lewis before heading back to drive round the north coast and over to Orkney. Then to Inverness and via Culloden to Aberdeen, my native county of Fife and finally to Edinburgh. Yes, there will be castles, tartan, bagpipes, golf and whisky – probably haggis as well!

Digital Camera

This not my car!


slàinte mhath y’all – – –



Filed under bookstore management, folklore and ethnography, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, Scotland, small town USA, Uncategorized

The Best Laid Plans – – –

– sometimes go very well indeed

We had our annual Burns Supper on Friday evening, celebrating the life and works of Scotland’s national poet Robert (Rabbie) Burns. Everyone agreed it was one of the best we’d held over the 10 years we’ve been doing it. Well attended, excellent speakers, wonderful food and smoothly flowing throughout.

shuttle pipes

Randy Stanley – our resident piper


Alex Long delivered ‘The Immortal Memory’










Sandy Huguenin proposed the Toast to the Lassies and Chef Kelley Pearson responded.


Wendy and I sang some Burns songs











Chef Kelley excelled with Cock-a-Leekie soup, haggis, tatties n’ neeps and shepherds pie













The ‘piece de resistance’ – Scottish cheesecake on a shortbread base topped with cranachan and a raspberry.














Here’s to next year – y’all come – – –



Filed under Big Stone Gap, bookstore management, folklore and ethnography, Scotland, small town USA, Uncategorized, Wendy Welch

Jack’s weekly guest post.

In which Jack moans about the weather –

Well – I woke up this morning to a blanket of snow, it hasn’t stopped yet and there’s more on the way. You would think that, coming from Scotland, I’d be used to it!

The trouble is that I come from the lowlands and not only that but most of my life I lived close enough to the Forth estuary to get the ‘salt water effect’, which usually kept the snow away. That changed when Wendy and I got married and moved to higher ground that was a bit further inland. Almost every year after that our village got snowed in good and proper for a couple of weeks every January or February and we weren’t a high enough priority to warrant early attention from the county snow plow; and since we lived up the only side road, when the plow eventually went through it created an even bigger bank of snow across the end of it!

That pattern seems to have followed us to Big Stone Gap and this is shaping up to be the third winter when we will replay our experiences of New Gilston.

Last year we had a series of storms every couple of days that eventually dumped nearly three feet of snow and had the whole area shut down for weeks. The town administration eventually ran out of grit and salt so their best efforts (and they were mighty) were eventually in vain.

It’s not so bad as we live below the shop, we have plenty of supplies in, the liquor store is across the street and the supermarket is within walking distance.

However, Wendy’s job required her to drive to Richmond and remain there until Friday, which is when an even bigger snowstorm is due and forecast to last through Sunday, so she is very likely to be delayed getting home.

Meanwhile I am preparing to make a big batch of Chicken Madras curry which is my comfort food of choice and will keep me happy and warm me as I watch the snow piling up outside.


Y’all take care out there, dress warm and don’t drive if you don’t have to!


Filed under Big Stone Gap, bookstore management, humor, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, Scotland, small town USA, Uncategorized

Should Auld Aquaintance – – –

A guest post from Jack on a special occasion –

It’s just a year since our beloved Valkyttie passed over the rainbow bridge and we can begin now to celebrate her more memorable escapades without breaking into tears.

Val-Kyttie surveys her domain...

Val-Kyttie surveys her domain…

For newer readers Val was our venerable bookstore cat/manager and was age 19 when she died. She began her life as a tiny abandoned kitten in the Leith cat and dog home in Scotland and we adopted her as soon as Wendy arrived in my homeland (as promised; I bribed her to marry me with early promises of kittens).

Val got her name because she was feisty (the valkyries were warrior princesses), but I wanted to be able to call her ‘Kittie’ for short. She displayed her bravery starting in her sixth week of life, by seeing off a local tom (ten times her size) who tried to use our yard as a shortcut. A seasoned traveler she moved effortlessly from Fife to Lancashire, then across the Atlantic to the US. Everywhere she lived, she established as her undisputed domain and took full charge.

When ‘The Little Bookstore’ was published we insisted she appear on the cover and the artist, a cat lover, obliged; she is sitting on the roof of our front porch. When the publishers of the large print edition asked for a photo for that front cover, we gave them a picture our friend Elissa took of Our Matriarch in full managerial mode, surrounded by bookshelves. Whether by accident or design, the Polish, Portuguese and Korean editions all have her hiding somewhere on their covers. Of course that means she garnered many new friends all over the world, while many of her less distant fans asked specially to meet her when they visited the bookstore.

During the last couple of years of her life, she had to put up with a continual stream of foster kittens. She could be quite stern with them, yet displayed grandmotherly traits with the more wayward ones.

Just yesterday our good chef Kelley made bacon and eggs for my breakfast and I found myself automatically moving to a less accessible corner to eat it. I realized that I was remembering that Valkyttie always noisily insisted on her share of the bacon.

When we lived in the tiny rural village of New Gilston in Fife she would always accompany us when we walked along our favorite woodland trail. In January I was in Scotland for the funeral of a friend and scattered Val’s ashes among those same trees.

That’s when I shed my tears. Now we just think of the happy times. Every cat is special, but once in awhile, a special x ten cat comes along. Valkyttie was special x 100.

And now she lives on; a friend of Wendy’s got ‘hold of another cracker of a photo Elissa took, and Valkyttie’s message will never die.

Valkyttie antiquated bookstores meme valkyttie bookstore meme Valkyttie meme


Filed under Uncategorized

Here We Go Again – – –

Jack’s Wednesday guest post just sneaks past the marriage counselor –

We’ve lived in five different houses in the seventeen years we’ve been married and, despite their very different ages and styles, there’s one thing they all have in common – – the length of time it takes us to work out where things should be located and which rooms should be for what (usually anything from two to five years). The process involves setting things up one way, then completely changing them on an annual basis!

This habit has, of course, continued into our current location and now seems to be co-incidental with my yearly Scottish tour. Most years the bookshelves get shifted around while I’m away and I have to re-learn where everything is as well as help with any remaining outstanding moves.


But this year was a bit different. Wendy had spent my absence not so much moving things as planning how we would together move things upon my return. The focus would be the ‘Mystery Room’ (the room that houses the mystery and detective novels). This also just happens to be the room that houses the littlest foster kittens. Did I mention that there are always more kittens when I return than when I left? We agreed a maximum of six at any one time, so naturally I came back to nine, and I have no idea how many there were while I was away.

Down the center of the mystery room were the two biggest, heaviest and most solid bookcases in the shop. They took up more space than was needed and cut down on the natural light from the windows. So the plan was to move them to the garage where the current narrower shelves had been passed along to our good friends David and Felicia. Then we would re-position some ‘Jack-builts’ in place of the heavyweights while afixing a couple of cheap store-bought shelf units against the walls (still with me?).

Of course this had to be done immediately I returned, was still seriously jet-lagged and re-adjusting to temperatures around 25 degrees higher than Scotland. There’s no half measures with Wendy and once you start there’s no going back or stopping until it’s done!

As we were fixing the last wall mounted shelf unit in place she said “do you think this works”? “Why of course dear – it’s a great improvement” I responded (I sure as h*ll wasn’t going to say anything else)!


But the kittens thought the whole exercise was great fun – particularly helping to identify all the new places they could get trapped or just hide from us!

“Welcome home, Honey”


Filed under Uncategorized

The Green Green Grass of Home – – –

In Jack’s weekly guest post he continues to complain – whit’s he like?

One of the things I’ve never really got used to living here, is the rate that everything suddenly starts growing once the temperature rises and the summer thunderstorms hit. I mean grass, weeds and things that might or might not be weeds. One of our regular customers paused to admire some mint that’s taking over part of the front yard and asked if she could volunteer her daughters to ‘tidy up’. Please, please I said!

Between running the bookstore, an annual tour of Scotland, an annual Celtic festival, a weekly radio show and trying to keep on top of the upkeep of a 1903 building, there’s little time left for gardening.

The irony, of course, is that even if we had the time and inclination, we are actually completely useless gardeners. We grow tomato plants from seed and then plant them out where they quickly die – same with most other things – potatoes, peas, brussel sprouts, peppers – – -. We rarely even keep house-plants going for any time.

Meanwhile that pesky grass needs mowing, and the weeds need whacking – assuming I don’t expire trying to get the mower and weed-whacker started!

But wait! “What light through yonder window breaks – – – -”

So yes – Sunshine is good and so is the lack of snow, not to mention longer days and tee-shirt temperatures. I’ll fly into Edinburgh this Monday morning and will be reminded of that quite forcibly I suspect! So I can’t complain can I?

“Sumer is icumen in – – – -“


Filed under Uncategorized