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.

Because I Say So

Some “rare yet regular” customers who visit family twice a year were here yesterday. As the husband browsed Classics, he asked, “How do you decide which books are classics? I mean, I can see anything by Nathaniel Hawthorne, but you’ve got Joyce Carol Oates here, too.”

Jack gave the usual response: “If we like them.” Which caused the husband to guffaw.

There’s nothing quite like running one’s own shop. No corporate manual: “If the book is older than 75 years and has been assigned to more than one literature department in two disparate American states, OR if the book is foreign and written within the last 20 years and has been assigned …”

Peh. We thought Eileen Goudge and Louise Erdrich had good things to say, so there they sit in perpetuity, conversing with Faulkner between them. Of course, if I had my way, John Irving would be in the bargain basement, but one does bend to certain commonly-held sensibilities.

It’s the Margaret Atwoods, Cormac McCarthys and Robert James Wallers that prove tricky. They’re in, they’re out, they’re hot, they’re not, a movie’s getting made…. We joke about putting up a revolving shelf with the heading “Your 15 Minutes Starts Now.”

But for the most part, we find few people worrying about what’s where. If you can’t find it in Southern Fiction, try Classics, then General Fiction or Historical Fiction. Most serious second-hand book  shoppers WANT to browse. It’s part of the pleasure, to crack the code and get into the heads of the bookslingers organizing that particular shop. That’s how you know you’re on the inside, when you can tell other people where to find Ludlum, Flynn, Higgins and Forsyth–Mysteries and Thrillers, or Guys with Big Guns (aka Westerns and War)?

OK, that’s a trick question, because on any given day, Jack will stick them in one category, and I in the other.

A bookshop divided against itself cannot stand. I finally put a note on the Mysteries and Thrillers room door: “If it’s a political thriller having to do with spies or war, try the Guys with Big Guns room first. Because that’s where Jack puts them.”

It’s upped traffic back there. And earned my husband sympathetic comments.