Tag Archives: book stores

A Window on the World

Jack makes a plea in his weekly guest post –

I’m prompted to write on this particular subject because of a book I’ve just read, a memoir by a prison librarian. But this isn’t the Monday Book post, so that will have to wait for now.

I’m a member of Prison Visitation and Support (PVS), set up to provide a visitation service for all Federal prisoners, including those in both civilian and military prisons.

I joined up four years ago as part of a three person team based around the Quaker group that meets monthly in the bookstore and we all visit prisoners at the local Federal prison. Each of us visits two prisoners on each visit and they are mostly men who are either in for a very long time or forever. They have asked for visits because, for a variety of reasons, they have no-one else.

You’ll not be surprised to learn that there are nowhere near enough of us around the country to visit all the prisoners asking.

I know what you’re thinking – why on earth would you? Why would anyone want to spend sometimes considerable time and expense traveling to an isolated spot maybe hours from home to spend an hour with someone who has committed a terrible crime (often murder, drug dealing or armed robbery?) The answer is frequently hard to take but true, nevertheless. They are human beings and we are the only people with whom they can have contact who are not part of their prison network; the only people who can provide a momentary glimpse of the outside world through a neutral window.

PVS is supported by all the major religious groups as well as many non-religious ones; the board includes representatives of these, plus ex prisoners and ex Wardens. It has an excellent relationship with The Department of Justice and this means we have a great working relationship with our local prison.

That said, we don’t specifically talk about religion and that’s not the organization’s purpose. Actually we are more listeners than talkers.

All this may sound wonderful and uplifting, but there are caveats. If you have any tendency to claustrophobia this isn’t for you. Once the various doors have locked behind you, you are as much a prisoner as the folk you are visiting. It’s also very draining–as Wendy will tell you, because when I come home from visiting she hands me a Scotch and leaves me for a few hours to re-surface. It isn’t physically difficult because you sit across the table from your visitee with absolutely no distractions (no TV or magazines or books or anything) and have an hour to talk. Then all over again with the second one. Yet that can be very hard work! In addition there may be unexpected counts or your prisoners be delayed by internal activities. While you wait for maybe an hour or more you also have nothing to distract you – just an empty table and walls.

If this seems rather intimidating or uninviting, there’s an upside.

Once you have started visiting a particular prisoner, that continues until one of a number of things happen: they are released, they are transferred to another prison, or they ask for no more visits. As a result you might be visiting monthly with the same two guys (and ours is an all male prison) for years. That has been the case for me. My experience has often (though not always) meant meaningful conversations with really interesting characters. One of them had escaped many times from State prisons before ending in the Federal system. He could write a best-seller about digging tunnels.

There are some prisons in remote parts of the country that have no PVS visitors at all and all the others have waiting lists of prisoners who want visits. We have our own waiting list and urgently need some more to join our little group. If you are interested you can contact me through this blog or check out the PVS website – http://prisonervisitation.org/

“I was in prison and you visited me” Now, who was it said that……


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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


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Jack and I are headed out to emcee the Sycamore Shoals Celtic Festival in Elizabethton, TN this weekend. Busy and running about, I offer in place of a hand-written blog this LOVELY piece of news.

INDEPENDENT BOOKSTORES ARE THRIVING!!!! Click the link to read all about it.


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Filed under Big Stone Gap, bookstore management, humor, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, publishing, reading, Sarah Nelson, shopsitting, small town USA, Uncategorized, Wendy Welch, writing

Hi Ho the Glamorous (Bookstore Owner’s) Life

My friend Pamela read yesterday’s post about kittens overrunning the bookstore, and said, “Do you ever get stray books?”

Why, yes. Yes, we do. Friday afternoon a couple called to say they were renovating their basement and had “several” boxes of old books they wanted to donate to Tales of the Lonesome Pine Used Books and Internet Café. About 700 volumes total, they thought.

“Lovely!” I said, swallowing a gulp. “Come on down!” Then I hung up the phone and poured myself a stiff one. Dear Lord, don’t let them be more than 10% Readers Digest Condensed Books, I prayed, sipping.

Free stock sounds good when you’re first starting in the biz, but as the years roll by, you begin to understand that the amount of time spent sorting such gifts is…. hefty, while the amount of income from finding gems among the dross is ….. not. It’s like panning for word gold.

But really, that’s what running a bookstore is anyway: searching out the hidden treasures in books and people, and trying to match the right mind to the right idea at the right time. Size ’em up; pair ’em off. It may not be lucrative, but it’s rewarding.

It’s nice to have 700 more titles to add to the mix, but they must be sorted and shelved so the right minds can lay claim to them. So if you’ll excuse me, the blog has got to be short today, because that’s just the stack from the front room table. The side counters and a section of floor in the mystery room remain to clear. Check back tomorrow, when I’ll either be finished, or dead….. :] And come visit! There’s a great book in here for you, I feel sure.

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Filed under Big Stone Gap, book repair, book reviews, folklore and ethnography, humor, small town USA, Uncategorized, VA

A Good Hard Smack

My husband and I went to Verybigcity, VA so he could take his citizenship exam and become an American. On the way up, we listened to the CD of 100 potential questions he would be asked about the due processes of our government. (He got 94/100; I got 89/100.)

It took us 7 hours to get to Verybigcity, 15 minutes for Jack to take his test. Congratulations, Mr. Beck; now when people ask, you can say you’re an American.

Then we got back in the car and drove to Bigcity, VA, to record a radio program about our Booking Down the Road Trip and my forthcoming book. Sarah, the show’s host, made us feel at home and asked many interesting questions: “Why did you open a used book store in the first place?” and “What’s a trailer park intellectual?” (That’s how we describe many of our customers, people who are intelligent yet didn’t get a higher education, who often have jobs that don’t require–or perhaps even value–their innate smartness and problem-solving abilities.)

The night before the show, we had a lovely dinner with a friend from Bigcity who brought along two of her friends; the five of us laughed so hard as we got to know each other that other restaurant patrons cast glances in our direction–mostly envious. Such fun we had, discovering kindred spirits through casual conversation, enjoying the moment and each other’s ideas and stories.

Taping the radio show was relaxing, Sarah being so good at her job of listening carefully and asking probing questions. As we left, she gave us a verbal list of bookshops and some arts contacts. A little Middle Eastern lunch downtown cheered and warmed us.

All the above is very pleasant; Jack gets to be American so he can vote and be voted for on issues that are important to us; I got to record a radio program about books and people and publishing things useful to humanity; we had a lovely time chatting with an old friend and making new ones; and we walked around a pretty downtown area browsing and eating great ethnic food unavailable where we live. It’s fun to visit a city.

Would it be fun to live in one? A persistent undercurrent beat against our naivety once we left the shelter of existing relationships. “You’re from where?” “You wrote about what?” “You’re who, again?”–all these questions set against some unseen yet very present assessment activity. Is this person worth my time? Can she do anything for me?

I remember a Canadian spoof news show (think Stephen Colbert) where one of the reporters went to Washington DC, and described it as the kind of place that you wanted to give a good hard smack. I don’t want anyone to get the impression that I’m dissing Verybigcity or Bigcity, VA; both have charming architecture and people in them. It’s just that from the hotel clerk to shopkeepers to state agency directors, one gets the impression that they have better things to do than pay attention to who is in front of them. “I’m only doing this until I can [insert other work here].” “Don’t think I’m going to spend my life doing THIS” whether “this” meant direct an artistic endeavor or serve coleslaw.

Everyone seems to be assuming that any comment you might make couldn’t possibly be as important as the plans in his mind, the paperwork on her desk. A clerk at a bookstore: “Mmm, you just became a  citizen? How nice. $5.24 please.”  A waitress: “Bookshops? I don’t know. What did you want to drink?” At an arts society: “Do you have any questions?” and when I started to ask one, overtop of me, “Well, I have someone coming in a moment, so thanks for stopping.”

It’s the small town ethos, I suppose; after all, we are from Southwest Virginia, and Jack is from Someplace Else besides. We’re not interesting, or powerful, or useful and unless we become one of those things can’t have purchase on that slippery ladder of the elusive ranking scale. In SW VA, Gott Sei Dank, that’s not how we handle people. The person in front of you is the person you’re talking to, the most important moment of the moments you are having. He or she is a human, a customer, a citizen of the world who is treated with the kindness and friendliness that are our trademarks.

Don’t get the wrong idea; SW VA can be downright brutal to those who are from someplace else. And yet, in all honesty, I’m beginning to have more empathy for why we have that reputation. If a person from Smalltown goes to Bigcity and gets the intellectual condescension equivalent of “y’all ain’t from here, are ya,” it’s pretty hard to not retaliate when the opportunity arises.

And, sweet irony, being from SW VA is a serious handicap in Bigcity. We’re supposed to be the wee bit ashamed, or at least humble, about where we’re from, because clearly it isn’t powerful, or interesting, except in a quaint, “Hey, can you churn butter” kind of way.

I couldn’t be prouder to be from a place where people live in the moment; are proud of themselves and their families NOW, not for what they’re going to do next month when they REALLY get the job they deserve; honor the right of every person to have an opinion, to voice an intelligent thought; and where we listen to each other.

Because for all the power these cities exude, all the influence they bear on the rest of us, if the trade-off is living a life ranking people by what they can do for you, thank you, no. We might have missed the joy of meeting our friend’s friends if we’d played that game. We might have redirected the radio host’s questions to “this is what you NEED to ask us, dear.” (Not, I think, that she couldn’t have handled that; Sarah gave the impression of having seen everything, twice.)

How much fun, how many interesting people, Bigcity citizens must miss. How many we in Smallville miss by playing the same silly game. Wouldn’t it be nice if this mutual animosity tournament could end so none of us miss out, because my impression is that no one ever really wins a round of “you’re not from here.”


Filed under small town USA, Uncategorized

Twenty Shades of Grey

Twenty shades of grey: that about sums up the four hours we spent driving the Natchez Trace Parkway this morning, from Franklin, TN to Tupelo, MS. That and the rain pounding its merry tattoo on our car’s roof…. if you’ve ever read Ray Bradbury’s stories about Venus, you’ll understand how we were beginning to feel.

It takes a strong marriage to survive four hours on the Parkway in December during a downpour. Jack and I are still speaking to one another, and we count this as good.

But it was all worth it for the bookstores we visited in Tupelo, two charming places of very different approaches and attitude. Greatest Hits is a bookstore-cum-used movies, CDs and games outlet run by Joe. He opened the place three and a half years ago and is going strong. His store is upbeat and messy, like himself. (Frankly, if Joe doesn’t drive a VW bus, he should.)

We bounced across the street to a local diner, then made a beeline for the Wise Old Owl, a messy little paperback bookstore that’s been in business more than fifteen years. Jennifer, the woman running it now bought out her parents about two years ago. The snakes-and-ladders shelving arrangement kept dumping me back in westerns, but Jennifer was a hoot (sorry) to talk to. As with Joe, discussion quickly turned to a favorite subject of used book shop keepers: how do you keep the swap credit within genres, so all the trade-ins aren’t romances and the take-outs sci fi and fantasy?

We spent over an hour each with Joe and Jennifer, talking shop. Joe had no idea what he was getting into when he opened his shop–and like Jack and me, he’d pulled a couple of stunts to keep himself open. Like taking a stack of his flyers down to the Barnes and Noble on the bypass, and putting one on the windshield of each car. Go, Joe!!! Jennifer, having practically grown up in her parents’ shop, knew more about the business when she started. But she told us something interesting: she has no advertising budget.

More and more, I’m convinced that the things business centers tell you are essential, are really just convenient to them. 14 years later, Jennifer is still there, sans marketing plan. Jack and I started with no marketing plan, and here we are, happy, healthy and still in business five years on.

So much for experts. Perhaps experts only want to make more people who look like themselves.

Tomorrow we conquer Oxford, MS and Memphis, TN. I wonder if they’ll notice….


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Jack got a nasty shock when he tried to turn on the heat at cheap motel #1.

The opera house-to-be in McMinnville, TN's downtown

Jack (my husband) and I decided to take a small portion of my book advance and see the world – or, specifically, see a bunch of secondhand bookstores and small towns on back roads stretching between Virginia and Kansas, then back again. So we’re headed down through Tennessee to Mississippi, then back up to Arkansas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri, across to Indiana and Illinois, then back down through Kentucky to home sweet home again.

We concocted this silly scheme because we wondered how many towns still have independent bookstores new or used. Looking them up on the Internet, we have plotted a course and set off in pursuit of little bookstores everywhere. And in the interest of being as local as possible, in our earnest Civic Hybrid that gets great gas mileage, we are only eating at restaurants that are not part of a chain. That’s been rather fun to keep up with; it’s amazing how challenging it is to plot one’s meals without a paper cup containing a straw…

But it can be done, and so it shall be! Stay tuned…..

DAY ONE: No sleep ’til Pikeville

We left my parents in Knoxville and headed down the way toward Athens, where our first bookstore was plotted. We found it with little difficulty; a giant “GOING OUT OF BUSINESS” banner helped. The store is giving up the ghost after a year under the new owners, who’d bought the place from someone who’d had it two years before them. Following more of a Hastings model, they also took games and DVDs et al, but it didn’t help when time came to pay the rent…. Family illness settled the matter for them, and we benefited from their 1/2 price closing sale and shared commiserations.

We’d intended to head down to Signal Mountain, but waning daylight sent us straight to Dayton, home of the infamous Scopes Trial. There Jack found a music store and disappeared for several hours, so I wandered the streets looking at the sidewalk timeline of the trial, and searching for a public restroom. I finally found a nice one in the General Store run by Tim and Janet Culver. Exiting the rest room, I was looking around the shop for something useful to purchase by way of a “thanks,” and Janet began chatting with me. Finding out we were bookstore owners on a casual mission of “know and be known,” she showed me the book she and her husband had self-published in 2000, documenting the trial. Their book quotes documents verbatim, with interpretation between to bridge the narrative gaps.

“We published this ourselves, then found out we couldn’t get distribution because we didn’t have enough clout. It would just about break even if we paid for distribution, so we’re sitting on cases of these,” Janet explained. The tourism draw they’d expected wasn’t a fast enough outlet to disseminate the books into a reading public, so she was interested in doing an event with our bookstore later. We exchanged cards and she slipped a complimentary copy of the book into my bag with my purchase.

This became a pattern we would see repeated in other towns; they might not have a bookstore, but they had a local author or authors who had self-published works specific to the area.

Although the Internet disavowed all knowledge of a bookstore in Dayton, Janet told us a new one had started up on the bypass, and we soon located The Book Barn, just three months old. The place was huge, and held few books for its size, but as the young lady working told us, its owner had finally fulfilled his lifelong dream of having a used bookstore, so what else mattered?

From Dayton we ambled across little grey map lines toward Pikeville, TN. Since the road from there to McMinnville was touted as a scenic wonderland, we pulled into a cheap motel – emphasis on cheap – and called it a night.

Here’s an observation on that whole “shop local” thing: it works great for everything except overnight lodging and gas stations. In fact, according to a book we (Jack and I) have been reading, the whole standardization movement in retail circles (The McDonaldization of Society) began with motels, in an effort to ensure uniform service and cleanliness. Well, I want to be a localvore, but I cop to liking my motels without dead things in the bathtub.

DAY TWO: Pikeville to Franklin

We snail crawled out of bed the next morning and realized we’d crossed a time border at some point the day before. Jack was up before 7 a.m. I treated him to a rousing chorus of “Oh the World Must be Coming to an End” before departing in search of coffees. (There was no machine in the room; did I mention the motel was cheap?)

I followed a shoal of pick-up trucks wallowing through town, and sure enough they led me to the only diner open at that hour. I parked my Civic Hybrid in their midst and walked through the soft morning rain into the diner, filled with men in billed caps blazoned with seed logos, all staring out the window at my poor little 52-mpg car, slouched between two huge Ford trucks.

The waitress walked past me to a local who came in behind me. I sat down at one of the red diner counter stools as if I owned the place and swung back and forth, smiling at the men in the caps, back to the counter at the waitress, back to the men in the caps. They grunted and returned to their coffee.

A second waitress appeared and did a double take at seeing me, then came over and–I am not making this up–whispered, “Do you need something?”

I whispered back, “If you do coffee to go, yes.”

“One?” she mouthed.

I held up two fingers. Oops. This looked like a peace sign. The men in the booth frowned, eyes hooded beneath their cap bills. I swiveled swiftly back to the waitress. She rolled her eyes toward heaven and poured coffee into two huge Styrofoam cups.

The coffee was cheap, piping hot, and really, really good. I departed, juggling two large cups, my wallet, and the key to my electric car. Outside, two men in seed caps stopped as they were entering the restaurant, and one stepped over.

“Here, honey, lemme get that,” he said, and held the coffees while I opened the door.

Fortified by human kindness and caffeine, we hit the road to The Book Rack in McMinnville – except that, like half of downtown McMinnville, it wasn’t there. Empty store fronts, closing down sales in two of the remaining places, and an abandoned theatre that a local told us they hoped to convert to an opera house and revitalize the downtown.

Driving in, we’d seen expensive houses, lots of healthy-looking landscape nurseries, horses grazing–plenty of evidence that McMinnville had some wealth in its citizens, if not its coffers, so its downtown dead zone puzzled me. On we drove to Murfreesboro.

I’ll always think of Murfreesboro as “the great paper chase.” We stopped at a Habitat for Humanity resale store and asked if there were any bookshops about. “Several,” the nice man working the counter said, and gave us directions to one. We misunderstood or misfollowed them, one or the other, because we wound up in the town square, where an upscale tobacco shop, a discount shoe place, and a bail bondsman sat side by disjointed side.

Okay, score one for not having planned communities. The nice man at the tobacco shop said there were no bookshops in Murf except “the ones at the mall, that Million Books place.”

Ah, thank you. But at another store, we got directions to “The Paperback Place,” which turned out to be where that sweet Habitat man had been trying to send us. It took three tries at going the right way on College Street, but we finally found “The Book Corner,” at the edge of an all-but-deserted strip mall. The owner, a thin man with three rings on one ear lobe, chatted amiably with us between keeping up with customers and escorting his young daughter from her special bookhouse room to the bathroom and back.

He’d bought the place,  a labyrinthian twist of romances, mysteries and celebrity biographies, back in May from a woman who’d been its owner 16 years. She had bought it from the original owner, who had started it some 42 years before. We told him his was the first place we’d seen where the owner was working the store, and he shared our surprise at this.

“How can they afford to do that?” we both wondered openly.

Between valuing drop-offs for credit, helping me find the rest room, reckoning up a swap deal for two customers, answering his phone and looking after his daughter, we chatted about subjects near and dear to bookstore owners’ hearts: how fast the romances piled up, whether swap deals should require 50% cash equivalency, how long it takes to break even on rent each month. Our bookstore doesn’t require rent, but his did, and this too was a pattern we would see repeated on our journey: people who have to pay rent have to paddle their little boats much faster.

We left that pleasant shop and hit the backroad highway again, headed to Franklin, which boasted the tenth largest income per household in the nation, and two independent book sellers. The Book Den, owned by Joyce, was a delight–and the most orderly book shop we’d ever seen. Her paperbacks lay sideways so the titles were easily readable, and since she only took hardbacks of current bestsellers, these rested comfortably between stacks. She’d thoughtfully tacked up series chronologies and families next to favorite authors (Lee Child, Nora Roberts, et al). She kept abreast of the latest publications, and one wall of her shop sported new books based on middle and high school reading lists and local tastes in Christian fiction.

It only took a few minutes chatting with Joyce and her employee to see how proud Joyce was of her shop, and rightly so. She radiated confidence and vitality as she explained how she’d bought it in 1995 from its previous owner, hired one of her best friends to help her, and settled in to a second career.

Joyce was the first of the shop owners to mention Kindles. She feared them. “I used to have people come in every two weeks, now they come in once every three months or so, and they tell me they’re reading on their Kindles now, so they’re just coming in for things they can’t get that way.” She shook her head. “I hope they leave me standing.” She shrugged, and showed me how she’d planned her store’s layout so men wouldn’t have to pass romances to reach westerns.

Charmed, we left Joyce’s Book Den and made a quick pop-in to Landmark Books, just a couple of miles down the road. This was more of a first edition and rare specialty books kind of place. Once we spotted Bill Frist’s Healing America on a shelf for $38 (signed first edition) we figured there wasn’t much more to see. This is one of the books the Christian Appalachian Project dumped by the boxful into Wise County some three years back. We’ve made purses, birdhouses, planters and other less useful things from them, but a couple hundred still circulate. Au revoir, Landmark Books.

Tucked into an inexpensive chain motel with a coffee machine, wireless, clean pillowcases and working heat, I luxuriated in the bathtub under the sun lamp and counted our many blessings.What a difference a $10 price differential makes…..


Filed under folklore and ethnography, humor, small town USA