Tag Archives: small shops

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

The Sweetest Moments

A lady walked into the bookstore the other day, cane in hand, adult daughter at her side, and announced, “My name is ‘Mary Elizabeth Mullins’ and I have $190 in credit.”

Jack hauled out our big blue ledger and thumbed through ‘M’. “Indeed you do, Ms. Mullins. Would you like a box for your selections?”

She smiled a regal smile. “Yes, please. And point me to your Christian fiction.”

Ms. Mullins picked out the life-among-the-Amish novels she wanted, chatting all the while with Jack. A retired teacher born, schooled, married and widowed in Big Stone Gap, she’d recently celebrated her 90th birthday, and was moving in with her daughter’s family. The family home had been sold, the wagon packed. The only task Ms. Mullins had left was to blow her rather hefty, three-year-old credit with us. Then they were getting into the car and driving  straight to Michigan.

“I saved this for last. I knew I had credit,” she said, “but I wanted to wait until we were actually leaving. I knew I’d want some reading to get me settled in, take my mind off the old home place, not drown in memories.” Her voice was firm and brisk as they selected titles, but her daughter glanced over at the “drown in memories” line, and a look of affection passed between them.

“No,” Mother Mullins continued, “no point in ruing what can’t be helped. Besides–” she rolled her eyes toward the woman at her side. “My daughter’s a lot of fun.”

The younger woman snorted. “By the look of this haul, Mom, you won’t come out of your room for the first month. Just don’t expect breakfast in bed.”

Mom patted her on the shoulder. “Only the first week.”

An hour and two boxes later, our entire collection of Amish romances, along with several other literary selections, were headed out the door. Jack and the daughter had their arms full, so Ms. Mullins with her four-point cane stared at the porch steps a moment, then raised her voice to the pest control men working in the bookstore yard.

“Excuse me, could one of you young men assist me?”

Immediately a flurry of activity ensued; one gave her his arm, one waited at the bottom of the steps, and the third ran for the car door. Ms. Mullins was soon enthroned in the passenger seat, the books shoehorned between sacks and suitcases in the back.

As Jack prepared to close the door, Ms. Mullins reached out and grabbed his hand. Tears brimmed in her eyes.

“I won’t forget you, or this place,” she said, voice shaking.

Jack bent his head and kissed her hand. “Nor will any of us forget you, madam.”

She looked forward and dropped his hand. “Now close the door.”

And away they drove.


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