Tag Archives: Kansas

Anna, I’ve a Feeling We’re Not in Kansas Anymore….

DSCN0406Last Saturday as I returned from the Farmers Market, two young women walked up and asked if the shop were open. I affirmed it was.
“Great. We just want to look around.” The pair seemed … subdued, but also exuberant. An odd combination. Also, the more I thought about it, the more alike the girls looked.
Besides, it’s rude to leave browsers alone unless you know that’s what they want, so I ambled into the shop and asked if they wanted help finding anything. The taller of the two said, “We read your book, and we drove from Kansas yesterday just to visit your shop.”
“How long did that take you?” I asked, blinking.
“About 13 hours. We stayed in the hotel here last night,” said the one who would later identify herself as Leslie.
“Oh, what a pity we didn’t know you were here! We had a murder mystery. You could have joined in the fun.”
“We might not have been good company last night,” said Anna, back to me, voice tight. “We came down that Black Mountain Road.”
OMG. Jack and I were in Kansas last year for book publicity, and we remember the 75-mph speed limit, perfectly feasible because you can see for-bleedin’-ever down those long, straight roads. Black Mountain is not so much hairpin curves as a series of interlocking mobius strips. There are places where you drive a two-lane road against a rock cliff, a 90-foot drop down the mountain on the other side.
I couldn’t think fast enough to cover my response.
“You come from a state where ant colonies are designated hill country, and you drove through Benham, Kentucky?” My voice squeaked. “You could have been killed!”
Leslie rolled her eyes. “That’s what Anna said. Several times.”
Anna, investigating the history section, snorted.
Leslie had read Little Bookstore some six months ago, and told her family about her intention to road trip to see the place as soon as the weather let up. (Think snow on a surface so flat, you can see for three days’ walk in any direction, and you’ll understand her sensible urge to wait.)
Her dad was succinct. “Whyya wanna drive two days to see a bookstore?”
Undeterred, Leslie, an accountant by trade (“But I have a personality!”) invited her twin sister along. Anna works for the Immigration section of Homeland Security. We joked that she probably processed Jack’s citizenship claim.
Picture it: two happy-go-lucky career girls, out on a long weekend, headed for some wild and wooly times visiting a bookstore, careening around curves that make truckers wake screaming in the night.
“We looked at the map, and that seemed shorter than going around by the highway. So we figured, what’s the difference?” This from Anna, whose hands only stopped shaking after a second cup of tea. “And then my cell phone lost reception, and we had to kind of guess which way.”
There are places along Black Mountain where you not only don’t get cell reception, but they never find the bodies.
I shook my head. “I’m flattered,” I said. “And grateful you two are alive. Would you like to see some of the town before we map you a different route home?”
So my friend Elizabeth and I took Leslie for a nice relaxing walk on the town’s Greenbelt, where all the curves are gentle. We traded small town anecdotes and poison ivy remedies, and on returning to the bookshop showed them how to go back via the expressway. Anna still looked dubious, but we elicited promises that they would text when they reached safety, and waved goodbye.
We’ve heard from the twins since their return to Kansas, so we know they made it home. And for anyone else from the flatlands planning a visit to our curve in the neck of these woods, please call first. We’ll be happy to advise you on routes.



Filed under Big Stone Gap, bookstore management, humor, Life reflections, out of things to read, publishing, reading, small town USA, Uncategorized, VA, writing

Caretaking the Eternal Library of Humanity

My friend Anita out in Kansas is looking to relocate the bookshop she manages, Al’s Old and New Books. She has discovered that some people think used bookshops are…. downmarket, while others prefer the term “passe.”


Jack and I have often commented that we oversee a library of ever-changing leftovers, some of which have mass appeal, some of which have esoteric appeal. But the reason we like what we do is that we’re not full of the latest bestseller, face outward on the aisle so mega-shoppers walking to the mall can be enticed by “Oh, I heard about that on Twitter!” impulse moments.

We have the long-term, hardcore stuff. The 1970s classics on Marxism, the Leif Ungers and Robert Fords and Lisa Changes. People who write well but disappeared into the well of marketing madness with nary a splash. My agent Pamela and I were talking one day about the “nebulous” position of used book stores in the publishing world. “After all, NYC doesn’t make any money from them,” she said, but then added, “but we all benefit from them. You are the caretakers of humanity’s eternal library, aren’t you? Like a benevolent dragon trying to get the gold horde out there instead of sit on it.”

Used book stores are the place where the sounds of silence outweigh the shrieks of hawkers telling you why THIS BOOK is the Next Great Thing. You can look for yourself–and thus see for yourself–in a used books shop. In a society that equates old with “has been” rather than “wisdom,” used books shops are a place for those who know when not to swallow a line.

We love running one. And this week, we’ve sold an amazing number of  what from a mainstream point of view would be “nobody’s gonna buy these” books. We sold about 20 volumes of philosophy. No, really, PHILOSOPHY! Mostly 1960s textbooks and treatises.

We sold a great wheen of French novels, both translated and in the original language. And we sold a set of plays written in the 1700s. A cheap, simple copy for someone who wanted to look at their structure. $3.20 and out the door she went.

This is part of why used book shops matter. It’s nice to have big well-lit shops with the bestsellers in them at full retail, but it’s also nice to have a dowdy little community center where you can think for yourself. That, and the $1.50 cuppa and the comfy couches and the cat option and the fact that if you come in and say, “Oh crap, I left my wallet at home,” we will say, “Fine, we’ll write it in the ledger and you can pay us next time you come.” And the customer, who only gets down from Ohio four times a year, stares at you like you’ve gone mad, and comes back two months later and pays up.

This is why it’s important for us to be here. Downmarket, my arse. Up the caretakers of the eternal library of humanity!


Filed under Big Stone Gap, book repair, bookstore management, folklore and ethnography, humor, Life reflections, out of things to read, publishing, reading, shopsitting, small town USA, VA, writing