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A Little Help from our Friends

Jack guest blogs on the value of friendships, especially in small town shops

This weekend we are once again on our travels with book events, from the John Fox Festival here at home, through a visit to Clifton Forge Library, and then on to the Virginia Festival of the Book in Charlottesville. As usual when we are away for a few days our friends rally round to staff the bookstore on rota.

Just call us The Little Book Co-op of Big Stone Gap.

These friends handle book sales, oh yes, but there are also the shop animals to care for, boxes of donated or traded in books to be valued and priced (or politely refused), mail to be collected and opened for book orders, and phone inquiries to be responded to. Although amazed that anyone would be willing to take this on, we are delighted that we have so many friends who will. They represent one aspect of the community presence of our bookstore; we really are almost a co-operative owned by its customers. Quite often a ‘regular’ will be hanging out, checking e-mails or browsing the bookshelves, when suddenly he finds himself in charge of the shop for ten minutes while I do a post office run or dash out for milk.

Occasions like this weekend require a bit more pre-planning, but, despite other calls on folks’ time, we always manage to keep the shop open. We never succumb to the erosion of hours, no matter how tempting; it’s our observation that when small businesses become careless about that, their days are numbered.

So, we pay homage to the many friends of ‘Tales of the Lonesome Pine’ AKA ‘The little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap’.  And we also salute Mark and Sally Smith of Memphis, who are coming to watch the shop for two weeks in April while we get our Christmas and birthdays 2012 and 2013/Valentine’s Day/fifteenth wedding anniversary holiday in. (We’re going to Istanbul. It’s expensive. We’ve been saving for months and we’re going to have the time of our lives.)

You’re going to love Big Stone, Mark and Sally, and they’re gonna love you. Our thanks to you all for keeping the shop while we’re running about promoting a book about bookstores. There’s a certain full-circle feel about it, don’t you think?

For more examples of how people have rallied to their community bookstores, check out the March 18 Christian Science Monitor article detailing bookstores that have been moved, staffed, or even cooked for by locals lending a hand. If you’re in Illinois (Edwardsville, to be precise) check out Afterwords Bookstore, a lovely shop with a similar story. Or ask your local bookshop about their ‘co-op’ friends. They’re guaranteed to have some.

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Filed under Big Stone Gap, book reviews, bookstore management, publishing, small town USA, Uncategorized, VA

Did Andrew Survive Day One?

I’m here to write about Tales of the Lonesome Pine, a bookstore that has drawn me to Big Stone Gap, Virginia from Brooklyn, New York, but I’d like to start by writing about an entirely different bookstore. Sorry Wendy.

My grandparents lived in Michigan, in a small town that once had features I wouldn’t realize were treasures until I was much older: a classic overhanging movie theater marquee, weeping willows sagging into brown lake water, and a used bookstore.

I didn’t know it at the time, but it wasn’t exactly a good bookstore, more a bizarre New Age repository. Half “holistic health”, half used books, I’m pretty sure that all the mysterious vials and bottles were little more than snake oil. The books and the pills were divided by a DMZ of occult tomes that both bridged and barricaded the two from each other. I only investigated this shelf in furtive passes, never lingering. The ability to channel my chi, contact gods, unleash the power of my mind and harness my transdimensional submatrix to pick stocks… it was all just too dangerous and mystifying.

The rest of the book section was just three short shelves: one action, one sci-fi, and one western. My grandfather picked over the western, so I never touched it. But the sci-fi and the action, that was my introduction to the cheap page turner. And while I still love to pick up something that burns up under my fingertips as I blast through, there’s only so much Mack Bolan one summer can take. I mean, the guy must kill 300 people per book. My parents tore A Clockwork Orange out of my hands in absolute horror, but little did they know that their sweet 13-year old was rampaging through twelve Die Hard trilogy equivalents a night.

I tried to go back this summer and found it shuttered. I read it as a sign of the end for bookstores. But now here I am, sitting at the main table in Tales of the Lonesome Pine, and I know it will endure, and I know it’s something special. I’ll tell you why.

As you may have heard, Wendy has a book coming out. I cheated and read an early copy on my long Greyhound ride down here. One concept in the book that I was quite taken with is the idea of a “third space.” It’s not work, full of in-fighting and politics. It’s not home, with chores and all those children, pets and relatives who really would like to be fed and sheltered, thank you very much (whiners!). It’s a place to be both who you are and who you would like to be. It’s escapist and comforting. I felt it like a blast of hot air when I first set foot in Tales of the Lonesome Pine. My first day working here only confirmed it. It was a feeling I knew, because I had felt it in that holistic shop when I was young.

But there’s one crucial difference: Tales of the Lonesome Pine is also a fantastic book store. There are actually books here! Books that people might actually want to read! This is where the rubber meets the road. It’s not just a feeling, but the actual tangible presence. Where the Michigan bookstore was a rattling table in a Victorian con-artist’s seance, this place is full on Poltergeist (I really hope this is just a metaphor, but Wendy did allude to a haunted bathtub). Just glancing over the shelves has me impatient to finish my current read (Vernor Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep), even though I’m really into it. There’s just more, more, more. More than even Mack Bolan’s machine gun could chew through.

In the coming weeks I hope to write more about the store, but also about Big Stone Gap itself. But for now I’ll leave you with an early anecdote. Jack took me to the local diner and introduced me to one of his friends, saying, “This is Andrew… from New York City.” The man replied, “Well, that’s his problem.” As a midwesterner long skeptical of New York it was the right thing to say. I’ll be back at the diner for breakfast tomorrow. Maybe with some luck I’ll have a suitable rejoinder. And I’ll definitely be trying the biscuits with white gravy, which came highly recommended.

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