Tag Archives: running a bookstore

Box Store?

Jack’s regular Wednesday guest post examines his guilty conscience –

One of the areas of contention between Wendy and me regarding the bookstore is the thorny issue of ‘tidiness’ and cleanliness. To explain further – I favor the Aladdin’s Cave model of used bookstore, while Wendy would rather everyone be able to find any book easily through rigorous alphabetizing and categorizing. In addition, I have no sense of smell, so tracking down elusive cat pee is next to impossible for me.

I’m not oblivious to the delights of a clean and tidy store and I do get a satisfying feeling when it gives out that general ambience. I’d even admit to really appreciating visits to other bookstores that achieve that kind of slick well organized look. So, what to do?

The cleanliness and cat-pee problem is ably dealt with by our ‘wonder-woman’ Heather every Monday and even I appreciate the difference after she is finished.

However our other big problem is not having anywhere to easily store large donations of books when they appear by the box-load. A couple of bags is one thing, but eight or ten large boxes is something else and we can’t let them clutter up floor space. Sorting out the acceptable from the non-acceptable usually results in at least a couple of boxes of ‘throwaways’ and they need to go somewhere – at least temporarily. Up to now that has been the garage, but that has now been taken over by (horrors) a car!

MidGe in the garage.

MidGe in the garage.







To the point –

Two of our good friends, (mother and son), who are regular attenders at our various evening events, brought us ten large boxes of books just the other night. Another gripe – books are heavy, so shifting large boxes is back-breaking work. Luckily their taste in reading is eclectic so at least the collection can be spread pretty evenly throughout the store. While the needlework gang were busy setting the world to rights last night I made a start and, sure enough, out of the ten boxes I rapidly identified two boxes worth of ‘throwaways’ (actually three liftable boxes).

We absolutely hate throwing away books and will even turn them into planters or hand-bags and purses to avoid that terrible fate, but sometimes it just has to be done (I think the reason the garage filled up with books is for just that reason).

Today is garbage day and I have a heavy heart – not only because the erstwhile contents of the garage wait at the curbside, but there are three boxes sitting forlornly waiting the same fate.

Mea Culpa!


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Dirty Little Secrets of the Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap

“I smell pee in Self-help.” Cryptic messages like this come to my inbox from Wendy’s outbox each Sunday. I clean the store on Mondays when it’s closed to customers. Cat pee intel is a necessary part of the job.
Dirty secret #1: Wendy smells cat pee everywhere. I have caught her, ponytail undone and glasses askew, on the floor sniffing books. “Is this pee?” We attempt various methods of ‘scent improvement’ from time to time. There was the recipe for all-natural deodorizer: orange peels marinated for two weeks in vinegar. After much anticipation, it was just vinegar with slimy orange peels. Fail.

Dirty secret #2: There is usually at least one pair of underwear draped over a stack of books. Wendy and Jack don’t use an electric clothes dryer. It’s a perfectly acceptable way to reduce one’s carbon footprint, but when customers start asking the price of the pink panty-shaped book covers in the Christian Fiction section, you have an issue.

Dirty secret #3: The last shop sitter was a vampire. The Grammar Girls suspected it right away. Andrew was a little too perfect. His second Monday in-shop, I got no answer at the front door or on the telephone. He later explained he had “slept in.” We knew he was in his coffin waiting for sunset. On another visit, we discovered a second -story window in the guest room wide open, no screen. Was it an excessive need of fresh air, or Count Von Whalen’s launch pad? Then there was the giant bottle of red “hot sauce” he kept on the table. Andrew never sparkled; obviously he was old-school. He also never admitted to OR denied our suspicions.

Dirty secret #4: I cuss the bookstore cats. Once I receive the weekly pee report from Wendy, I arrive ready for battle, steam mop as my trusty lance.  Should I come across a smelly but previously un-targeted area, I cuss the cats by name and in chronological order by age. They hear me. It’s why they  pee in hard-to-clean places. I hear them laughing. Damn cats.

Dirty secret #5: I sometimes accidentally knock books off shelves while vacuuming. I will apologize if there is an author staring up from the back cover. “Oops! I’m sorry, Ms. Cornwell!” Upon returning the books, I do not… always… alphabetize… them. Somewhere in Turkey, an American bookshop owner just fainted.

Dirty secret #6: One Friday, Jack prepared curry in the counter-top grill that serves as stovetop and pot in the downstairs kitchen. Did I mention Monday is cleaning day? The next week was business-as-usual, until I walked into the kitchen and found a gang of wasted fruit flies hanging out at the grill. As I lifted the lid, there came an odd sucking noise. There, in all its horrifying glory, was… “Eeee!”  I called Wendy at work to apologize for disturbing what was obviously a successful trial of how to grow a Sasquatch from scratch.


Filed under bookstore management, humor

Honey Do – Right Now!

Jack’s weekly guest post

Husbands of a practical turn who live in old rambling houses will be very familiar with the ongoing list of tasks to be accomplished just to keep everything ship-shape, far less the more extensive jobs needed for renovations.

Some four years ago we applied for a license to serve food in the bookstore and this turned up the need for an additional sink in the kitchen area. Assembling all the needed plumbing requirements, I practiced a few essential curses, then set to with a will. Several bashed knuckles and contortions later, it was finished – – almost – –

A drawer unit had been where the new sink was installed, so now the space where the drawer had opened out had no room for the actual drawer. The obvious answer was to take the front off the drawer and fit it as a dummy over the space. Much easier said than done! Eventually a temporary fix was accomplished that worked so long as no one tried to open it. From then on we got used to the sound of the drawer front falling on the floor fairly regularly and I got used to adjusting the not very effective method of holding it in place.

My long-suffering wife regularly asked me to do something permanent about it and just as regularly I promised I would.

Last night was our weekly Needlework Night (AKA ‘Stitch N’ Bitch’)and as I passed briefly through the all female company I heard the familiar sound of the drawer front hitting the floor. Wendy appeared with an expression of determination on her face, saying “WILL you fix that thing properly?”

“Of course dear,” I said, and continued with what I was doing.

Shortly I heard a sound – rrriiipppp, it went – rrriiipppp again, and again. The needleworkers fell silent, eyes fixed on their work. I looked toward the sink area —

–where Wendy was just finishing putting the drawer front very inelegantly but quite firmly in its place. With brown packaging tape.

Maybe you'll fix the darned thing now?

Maybe you’ll fix the darned thing now?

My mother had a favorite story she told me often in her later years:  apparently she, my dad (a house-painter with his own decorating business) and we very young children would visit his widowed mother on Sunday afternoons. On occasion she got up from the table, dipped her finger in the jam-jar, walked over to a piece of loose wallpaper she had been complaining about for ages and stuck it down with jam. Not a word did she say!

It must run in the family (although the drawer front is now firmly and permanently fixed by me, I hasten to add). Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. . . 


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

Jack guest blogs on retirement

When I retired from my college professor career in 2002 I imagined a gentler and more relaxed way of life, maybe catching up on some reading and re-indulging in hobbies I hadn’t had time for in a while. Certainly, to begin with things seemed to be going in that direction, despite continuing involvement in education and training as a consultant and even visiting such romantic destinations as Vietnam and Romania in that capacity.

When Wendy and I first moved permanently to the US things continued in that fairly leisurely way. Everything changed, however, when we moved to Big Stone Gap and opened the bookstore! Ah- the bookstore!!

Most folk probably think that opening and running a bookstore is a dream come true and that is true to some extent – but for me there is a darker side. As the shop became established and our stock expanded so did the need to find space and fill the space with bookshelves. For the last few years I’ve fondly imagined that I’ve made my last set of bookshelves, but no, Wendy (my boss) somehow manages to continue to find ever more obscure corners just crying out for another lot.

And I don’t help myself, either. Just a few days ago I was down in our basement (currently only accessible from outside in the back yard) and realized that there was a covered over internal staircase. EUREKA! Well – ‘maybes aye and maybes naw’ (as we say in Scotland) – the trouble is that, although half the basement is a decent height, there’s only brick and concrete walls and no ceilings. There’s only very minimal lighting and no power outlets, and the hidden stairwell is full of later added cables and water pipes to the washing machine that’s going to have to find a new home.basement stair






Then there’s shelving all these pesky books that people will insist on bringing in – but hey, that’s another story – – –

What does all this add up to? As an old colleague of mine once said to me when I asked how he was enjoying retirement – “Jack – it was made for a younger man than me!”

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Filed under Big Stone Gap, humor, small town USA

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

The Perils of Alphabetizing

Shopsitter Andrew guest blogs today, ruminating on his first week amongst the bookstore shelves….

Bookstore shelves trend toward chaos. I’m not sure if people are to blame… or if it’s some law of physics. Like the weather, small changes in the system can lead to big distortions. Mix up a Mailer and a Mann and somehow you’re only hours away from Nora Roberts popping up in the Westerns.

On some level I had suspected this. But as I started tackling the shelves one by one, re-alphabetizing and stacking, the emotion I was surprised to feel again and again was guilt. My favorite British television personality, David Mitchell, has a joke about how he feels guilty when he doesn’t wear certain pairs of underwear as often as others. “Sorry blue striped, but you’re just too tight,” he’d sigh. Well, sorry Frank Herbert, you just won’t fit there.

I found myself amongst piles of sci-fi paperbacks, wracking my brains to keep from snubbing John Scalzi and to ensure justice was dealt to L. Ron Hubbard, who had held a prized eye-level slot before my gerrymandering. I probably wouldn’t have given as much thought, or poured as much heart, into such considerations if the actual living, breathing authors were sitting in front of me waiting for a seating assignment.

I had several triumphs and a number of failures. I relegated L. Ron’s pulp-schmaltz to a dark corner. But in doing so I had to shift Heinlein and the entire Dune series into equally unfavorable light. All of Asimov is together in a prime display area, but it meant pushing Pierre Boulle down (I’m a sucker for anything Planet of the Apes).

The absolute worst was when I found myself running out of space, which forced all sorts of horrors I’ll never be able to forget. Beloved books are now mid-stack, lost in forbidding towers of flashier spines. I hope one day Game of Thrones and To Say Nothing of the Dog can find it in their hearts to forgive me. But probably nothing can forgive the dreaded double stack, with a pile of paperbacks directly in front of another. It’s fine when it’s Anne McCaffrey obscuring more Anne McCaffrey, but something is deeply wrong with the world when David Weber blocks out A.E. Van Voght.

The amount of emotion we’re capable of projecting on to things that could never emote back could power decades of mediocre day-time soap opera hand-wringing. But it must just be in our nature to attach baggage to even small choices. Or maybe this is just a revealing look at one man’s particular neuroses. Whatever it is, I’ll be tackling paranormal romance next, so watch out Stephenie Meyer.


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

Science Fiction Escapees

We work pretty hard to keep our bookshop tidy. Jack says I am fixated on it and that used book stores should be the wee bit sloppy – aids in the thrill of discovery, doncha know.

Yes, dear. But I do like a wee bit of order to my life, and the shop’s bookshelves. Which is why I’m befuddled at the science fiction section. The books keep escaping.

The customers who cruise sf in our shop are tidy people; they tend to be looking for particular authors rather than browsing, so they’re pretty easygoing about keeping the books in place. I’ve seen men slide books out from the bottom of a paperback stack, realize it wasn’t what they wanted, and hold the whole stack up so they could return it to the exact same spot. Book shoppers are good people.

So I know it’s not them, the reason that L. Ron Hubbard keeps winding up in the children’s room. Or that Jack Whyte hangs out in Home Improvement. I can just about understand Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series relaxing with the Amish romances in Christian Fiction, but why on EARTH does James Axler keep heading for Patricia Cornwell? You think they’ve got something going?

I swear, one of these nights, I’m going to creep downstairs with night vision goggles and just watch, to see when the books begin their migrations, and what they talk about. In fact, this may well explain the mysterious dips in the liquid levels in our whisky and wine collection. I’m going to have to check the copyright dates for legal drinking ages.

Meanwhile, every morning, as I carry Axler back to his spot at the top of the Science Fiction shelf, I swear I can hear the books snickering. And sometimes, I catch a whiff of cigarette smoke.

(Don’t forget to scroll back to Sept. 10 and enter the final Caption Contest sponsored by St. Martin’s Press. It closes Sept. 24; winner receives a free book. Ostensibly mine that comes out Oct. 2, but if you want another one we can probably manage that.)


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