Tag Archives: Big Stone Gap movie

One for all, and all for – – –

Jack guest posts (late – and briefly)

Poor Kelley, our master chef and proprietor of ‘The Second Story Cafe’, which resides upstairs in our bookstore, went down with the galloping cruds today. She managed to struggle through lunchtime, then we sent her home to bed with a stern warning to not show face until we open on Tuesday.
So we will be the resident cooks tomorrow – – –
– – – But, wait, tomorrow we inaugurate our series of musicals dinners, with Christian Dimick and Witold Wolny providing classical guitar music and the cafe serving Italian food starting at 6.00 pm. Yikes!! But then there’s breakfast from 8.30 am and lunch from 11.00 am – Heavens, jings and help ma boab!!! We’ve been dining on Kelley’s delectable offerings every morning and lunchtime since she started, without a care in the world as to how the food was produced, so now we need to remember how to do this stuff – pronto!
Tonight (after we raided the grocery store) Wendy prepared quiches and lasagna, while I set up the coffee and primed myself to produce a risotto tomorrow afternoon (not to mention bacon and eggs in the morning). Wendy’s also working on something called a “blueberry french toast casserole.”

Ho boy.
We’ve had a fair bit of unexpected emergencies this week involving a bleeding dog and a sick goat. These meant Kelley and her acolytes minded the bookstore as well as the cafe, so this is all just a fair exchange of labor IMHO.
Now – where is the rice? and the olive oil? and the – – – – –
Y’all come – if you dare.

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Filed under Big Stone Gap, bookstore management, humor, Life reflections, Uncategorized

The Great Cornbread Controversy

Kelley, the chef here at Second Story Cafe, has been soliciting opinions: should cornbread have sugar in it?

Yes, it’s that ugly, age-old conflict of North vs. South, encapsulated in food. Northerners tend to say yes, Southerners no. And we all know what happened the last time these geographies disagreed on an important issue….

Before we dive into this rather heated debate, permit me to point out that cornbread has brokered culture blend way longer than it has provoked division. When Europeans “discovered” America, they found corn a staple of food for the people already here, and adapted it into their own recipes. Cornmeal went from something served more like polenta to the pone that became a part of every Appalachian’s diet.

[Side note: A great story Dan Brown missed in his use of Rosslyn Chapel for The DaVinci Code is the decorative carvings of maize on its walls – put there at least two centuries before corn came to the Isles from the New World. This fascinates Jack and the people who visit Rossyln as part of the annual Scottish tour he leads. How did corn show up in art when no one had seen it yet?]

My grandmother made the best cornbread, in a pre-heated, pre-buttered cast iron skillet so the crust was hard and the inside crumbly. Hers wasn’t sweet, but dripped butter enough to make Julia Child pause. Growing up, cornbread at Sunday dinner, alongside ham and green beans, preceded cornbread in a glass of milk for bedtime snack. And if there happened to be any left (an unusual occurrence) it was Monday morning breakfast before catching the school bus, as well.

cornbreadAfter Gran’s death, during my lean graduate years, I resorted to those pre-packaged mixes, about 30 cents each. Of the two brands that fought for supremacy in my local grocery, one was sweet and bright yellow, one savory and pale. I bought the bleached brand out of loyalty to grandmother; for under a dollar, even counting the butter, I could make an evening meal out of cornbread and a side vegetable. Breakfast the next morning – leftover cornbread heated up, then dumped into cold milk–was about 40 cents.

In New York City, they of course take a sophisticated (read: compromising) approach to this subject: you can buy artisinal cornbread from the local bakery with jam in the middle, or with a tangy herbed butter mix. That sound you hear? Gran rolling in her grave. She might not have cared about the jam, but the $4-a-tiny-loaf price tag? *Eye roll*

So I don’t mind if cornbread is sweet or savory, choosing rather to celebrate its cheap (in Appalachia, at least) wholesome goodness and its cultural blending. But if you want to see some REALLY fun debates, hop over to Second Story Cafe’s FB page and read the comments. “Sugar in cornbread”???!!! Feuding words.


Filed under folklore and ethnography, humor, Life reflections, Scotland, small town USA, Uncategorized, VA

♪ Sometimes People can be Mean ♪

The Health Department came for their 30-days-after-opening inspection yesterday. The gentleman who conducts these visits is a true gentleman, supportive, honest, forthcoming with answers to questions and with information newbies might not even know they need to ask for.

During the course of the visit, he told our chef Kelley there had been “a complaint” that our facility did not have the capacity to undertake all it was doing.

Huh – you’d think we’d have noticed if we were incompetent. Yet even as my dander began to rise, a customer eating in the cafe smiled and said, “Being translated, someone’s pissed off that this place has been such a success from the word go.” Everyone laughed.

And that was that. The health department gentleman investigated and found groundless the “you’re not smart enough to do what you’re doing” complaint, and business went on as usual.

But it really got to Kelley: “Why would someone want to mess with someone else’s livelihood without rhyme or reason? Why would they complain about ‘capacity,’ or are they just being mean? Don’t they understand the consequences for others?”

That’s a good question, and I’m not asking it specifically about us, but about that human proclivity overall to interfere with each other in a negative way–often involving lawyers and state agencies, but also gossip, fists, and sometimes churches. Do people take such negative approaches because they see a need to “protect” others? Because they feel a sense of power they want to exert, or because they feel powerless and want to get to feel powerful? Or just pure flying sparks of human meanness and not enough impulse control?

No one will ever know. I’m reminded of the episode of the old TV sitcom Murphy Brown, some 20 years ago, when she was invited as a guest onto a children’s television program “Mulberry Lane” (yes, it was a send-up of Sesame Street). Her visit went horribly wrong, resulting in the puppets singing a song about mean people, and how you should just get on with your lives and leave them to their sadness.

I sang it for Kelley: Sometimes people can be mean, ’cause they’re jealous or mad or excited. And then we went back to work, living our lives, running the cafe and bookstore, being happy people with successful businesses upstairs and down.

Sometimes people can be mean ♪ Just close your ears and walk away ♪


Filed under Big Stone Gap, bookstore management, humor, Life reflections, small town USA, Uncategorized, VA


destiny finishOK, team, my friend Destiny and I need your help. That’s her on the left, crossing the finish line on the Veteran’s Day 5K charity run, about a month after she donated a kidney to a guy who was dying. Yeah, you read that right. Some of the A-listers from the Big Stone Gap movie filming here ran as well, but I don’t think anyone could have been as brave as Destiny.

Destiny is making me some Christmas ornaments, and later a couple of throw pillows. They are all book-shaped. We got her the pattern off Craftsy (if you wanna go look for it) so she could cover us in these adorable things, and also sell them for herself in the store.christmas books book pillowsThe fabric she’s got for the Christmas ones is on the left, and those are the pillows on the right.

So now we need some cool, made-up titles for her to use on the ornaments. Think “GREAT CHRISTMAS TITLES THAT SHOULD BE.”

So far we have two titles we like: Rudolph the Well-Read Reindeer, and Hat Trick: the unauthorized biography of Frosty the Snowman. But we need more. So comment here with some great titles for Destiny’s little puffy books? Thanks! We know we can count on the collective wisdom of the bibliophilic community and we look forward to reading them.

destinyThis is Destiny with her mom, who passed away a year ago. She was one of our most fun customers. Destiny donating the kidney was part of her doing 50 random acts of kindness (big and small) in honor of her mom’s life. I think I’m going to talk Destiny into writing a book.


Filed under Big Stone Gap, book reviews, bookstore management, crafting, humor, Life reflections, publishing, Uncategorized, writing


Jack’s guest blog today is on the soothing powers of music and bookstores.

I’m always struck by how quickly the bookstore makes a space for people, embracing, accommodating, enfolding, even harmonizing….

Today I had a phone call from my old and dear friend, Greg Fields – one of the folk I met when I first visited Appalachia back around 1991, long before I ever dreamed of being a permanent resident.

Greg was calling to see if I’d be in the bookstore today as he wanted to visit. He had been once before, not too long after we opened, but not since, and Wendy and I have been traveling a fair bit lately. We’ve actually missed the peace and enfolding embrace of our shop, ourselves.

An excellent singer, Greg is a banjoist and guitarist specializing in old-time and bluegrass; he teaches music at ETSU in Johnson City TN. When we first met he got intrigued with my Scots songs and my finger-picking guitar style; each time we’ve met since then (all too rarely) I find his repertoire has more Scots songs in it. He has a sympathetic approach to these songs, not attempting a false Scots accent and choosing those that ‘chimed’ with his own culture.

When Greg arrived today, everything else (read: all the projects and cleaning in the bookstore that had accumulated while Wendy and I were in New York City for a week) went on the back-burner for a few hours as we caught up and exchanged our latest guitar licks and songs. It was delightful to start singing an old Scots song and suddenly hear a bottle-neck second guitar part harmonizing along, just as it was equally wonderful to play a second guitar part to Greg’s fine rendition of ‘Trouble in Mind’!

But this is how the bookstore works: back burner or no, it rumbles forward. As we were playing and singing, one of our regulars arrived. He is mentioned in Wendy’s book, a man with schizophrenia fixated on guitars. He has had many guitar lessons from me over the years here in the bookstore. As he sat down with a cup of coffee and began quietly listening, the expression on his face turned to pure bliss.

No trouble in mind…..

So an old friend I rarely see brought a very special gift to another friend I sometimes feel guilty about not paying enough attention too on the many times I see him. And the bookstore offers the space to make them each feel important, even as their friendship makes me feel important to them. Now that’s a real gift!


Filed under Big Stone Gap, bookstore management, folklore and ethnography, Life reflections, Scotland, Uncategorized, VA

A Lovely Balance

NYC Day 3 013 Yesterday Jack and I did a pre-event interview, said hello to the team at St Martin’s Press, and then wandered up Fifth Avenue people-watching for the afternoon. The Diamond District (hello, Kimberley Process); the Flower District; the “every fast food known to humanity” District; up we walked.

For those unfamiliar with NYC, it is organized in numbered streets so you can always tell which way you want to go… supposedly. Somewhere around the 50s we passed St. Thomas Church, which advertised an Evensong for 5:30 pm. It was 5, so we went in and sat down. All the cell phone people and sirens and other street sounds faded. The boys were practicing. Sweet voices, high ceilings.

Evensong included a song from Thomas Tallis, and the usual collects and psalms and a hymn. We loved the quiet, reverent worship. High church is not our usual thing, being Quakers, but it’s nice to know that God has so many people worshiping Him in so many ways.

From the church we left, calmer than we’d entered, and went downtown to watch the Times Square lights coming on in the dark. Big, beautiful buildings full of power and amusements. They were pretty. And tall.

But their ostentatious display seemed somehow vapid after that lovely Evensong. Like an overdressed woman standing next to a tulip garden. There’s beauty, and there’s beautiful reality.NYC Day 2 047

NYC is pretty to look at come nightfall. God loves humanity and wants to help us.

It’s good to know there’s balance in the world.


Filed under Big Stone Gap, Life reflections, publishing, small town USA, Uncategorized, writing

Another Cuppa Pee, Luv?

When Jack and I first visited my NYC editor Nichole and agent Pamela in 2012, we landed as two country mice, tails tucked and whiskers quivering, eyes big with wonder. This year, we rolled into Penn Station, pulled out the iPhone, and started texting. Pamela picked us up, hailed a cab, and off we drove to our cheery Inwood hideaway for a cozy cafe dinner and a catch-up.

The next day we met our old shopsitter Andrew Whalen for a fun day hiking Central Park and shopping for overpriced duvet covers in trendy Soho. Yeah, we know how to live large in the Big Apple; we bought housewares.

Back to the flat for a post-dinner glass of wine and catch-up with David and Nichole, whose place we were crashing. We cracked open a bottle of red and Jack’s ubiquitous single malt as Nichole launched into a story….

Up until recently, David (an opera singer by trade) was the president of the apartment building coop, housing some 30 families of various eccentricities. There’s Mrs. M downstairs; “she’s 140.” There’s the dour Bulgarians. And there’s the lady who sublet her second bedroom to a succession of roommates, all of whom were “okay guys, because they’re friends of my boyfriend.”

That ringing endorsement kept the truth from surfacing at first, when a guy on the fourth floor complained to David that the pile of old wood left after a renovation was attracting neighborhood dogs. The urine smell forced him to leave his windows closed.

David asked the super to move the stuff, but a week later the smell was back. And the tenant smelling it said, “Weird. I hear ‘splat’ and then the odor wafts up.”

As David and the pee-smelling man sat discussing the problem, a Dixie cup went flying past the window–followed by a splat and a smell of urine. “CHOCKS AWAY!”

David went to the super and explained what he’d seen. He had a hard time explaining it, because he was still having a hard time believing he’d seen it. “No, seriously with my own eyes, a Dixie cup and it was pee, I’m telling you, it was pee, from the fifth or sixth floor!”

One can only imagine the poor super’s response: “You takin’ the piss?”

Meanwhile, Nichole –who had been working some pretty long hours that month–put two and two together to reach five. She deduced that the odd man in 6C was holding his wife’s parents hostage in the smaller bedroom. “We never see them, and Mia’s looking so pale and wan these days. That must be it!!” She began planning an intervention that may or may not have involved Kevlar.

Meanwhile II, the building super–who’d really had it with the flying pee stories, but was just flat alarmed by the request for a battering ram–went and sat in a tree across from the apartment in question with a pair of night vision goggles and a black light. And waited.

When the pee flew, it came not from the flat with the weird man Nichole “just knew” was holding his in-laws hostage, but from the one with the string of successive roommates. When confronted, Subrenter denied everything, but the super hadn’t spent the last five hours in a tree to put up with more crap. Subby got voted out by the building’s coop members.

As we collapsed with mirth around the coffee table, Nichole admitted to feeling guilt over her preparations to storm the sixth floor. Would the family have been sitting, drinking tea, when the intervention team barged in? “Oh, hello there. Cuppa, anyone?”

Amid the general hilarity, Nichole, choking on a giggle, added, “I know people in other places think we have these big grand lives, but this is what it comes down to: little, and busy, and problems to solve!”

Big, little, and in-between, we had a grand night discussing the best place to buy a cheap duvet cover and the fastest way to evict a guy who flings pee out the window in Dixie cups. And it just goes to show, the grass really is greener on the other side of the fence. Of course it is; the fool in 6F has been fertilizing it.


Filed under Big Stone Gap, book reviews, humor, Life reflections, publishing, small town USA, Uncategorized, VA, writing