Tag Archives: small town life

A Thing I Look Forward to All Year

This Sunday will be the Epiphany service at the Methodist church the next town over. “Lessons and Carols” is a collection of just about every musician for three counties ’round packing out the big, beautiful, Norman-esque Norton church to do Christmas music. (No, the Normans didn’t reach Wise County in the Middle Ages, but some architects apparently sent missionaries.)

I look forward to this event–held the third Sunday in January–all year. Maybe it’s because it comes after the crush is over; most of the tinsel and glitter are out of the floorboard cracks; lawn decorations sit in boxes at the base of attic stairs. It’s January: cold, bleak, emotionally exhausted and financially drained January. We may as well sing together as face Winter alone.

And there’s just something about Christmas carols, when you don’t have to think about all the other stuff surrounding the holidays, that goes straight into your veins. When you can really hear them, their messages are exhilarating.

Musicians dust off sheet music and embrace hastily-cobbled partnerships–bluegrass trio, classical harpist, brass ensemble, unaccompanied folk singers and all. The music at Lessons and Carols doesn’t change much. Sometimes the strolling guitar team does Joy to the World instead of God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen. The violin quartet moves between Handel and Mendelssohn.  There aren’t many surprises.

So few that, in the four years Jack and I have been singing at this event, I’ve developed trigger points. When our neighbor David–his wife Heather works at our store and he heads the college music department–leads his choir into Little Drummer Boy, no matter how I steel myself, I go to mush. The thrumming, sobbing, opening bass notes, followed by all those black-clad quiet voices in blended harmony, “Come, they told me….”

A little boy soprano always sings the first verse of Once in Royal David’s City, before the congregation joins in. One pure small voice soaring through that high-ceilinged church, then everyone rumbling forward more-or-less together with “Jesus is our childhood pattern….”

I’ve learned to wear something with pockets and pack them with tissues.

Jack wonders why I like this event so much.  Musically,  it’s all over the place. It’s predictable, and long–now grown to two and a half hours PLUS prelude music. The benches are uncomfortable. We even do that hackneyed candle thing with the lights out.

Ah, but “come, they told me…..”


Filed under folklore and ethnography, small town USA, Uncategorized

Nothing Else to Say



December 15, 2012 · 7:53 am

Verna’s Blanket

Jack and I hold a Society of Friends meeting (Quakers) once a month in our bookstore. The other Sundays we attend one block up the street, in a small congregation with a kind pastor, a wise church council, and a kick-butt organ-piano duo.

Last year, the church lost one of its members after a lengthy illness. Verna was married to a man who clearly adored her as much as she did him. While her ability to walk dissolved, she leaned on his arm; when it was gone, he pushed her wheelchair. We laughed and joked and talked with her as we’d done every Sunday, pretending we didn’t see. Verna was a dignified woman; always carefully dressed and coiffed, she waited in her pew ahead of everyone else once the chair was in play, so we wouldn’t see her entrance and exit.

As her motor skills slipped, she finally had to sit in the wheelchair in the aisle rather than in her pew with Bill. He moved to its outer edge. During the hymns, he would hold the book in one hand, and reach down to touch Verna’s hand or shoulder with his other. Throughout the sermon he would periodically lay his arm across the back of her chair. It looked uncomfortable.

It looked like love.

Losing weight and bundled in a thick blazer over her sweater, Verna had for the last year or so kept a fleece blanket in tasteful muted colors folded across the back of the pew she shared with Bill. When she moved into the chair, the blanket was returned at the end of each service to its accustomed spot.

Jack and I were away when Verna died, so missed the funeral. Bill was gone about a month, then came back to the pew where he’d sat for so many years with Verna. Meanwhile, her blanket, folded neatly, lay in its accustomed place across the back.

Of course we don’t need a blanket to remind us of Verna, but we like having it there. We smile and joke and touch Bill’s shoulder as we shake his hand, and invite each other over for Sunday lunches. No one in our tiny congregation ever mentions the blanket.

We don’t need to. Like Bill’s arm, like Verna’s dignity, it’s just there: quiet, unassuming, there.



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

Construction Ballet

Construction workers have been busy installing a new sewage pipe in the streets around Tales of the Lonesome Pine. But the more they close off sections of street, first on one side of the house and then the other, the more it feels like they’re building a giant moat around the bookstore.

On Wednesday Jack moved the pickup to a parking lot across the street while men and women in hardhats tore a deep channel out of the road. They worked at a breakneck pace and had laid the pipe and covered it with a new layer of gravel by late afternoon.

The chaos and noise seemed to be over, so I moved Jack’s pickup back in front of the store. Big mistake.

The next morning saw the construction shifted down the block, with Jack’s truck now a key part of the roadblock cutting the street off to traffic. Cones lined up diagonally out from the back bumper. A new border was drawn.

“So what’s the problem?” you might ask.

With the pickup forming a new boundary for construction, it became the line inside which immense yellow machines roared and tore at the street. I sat and watched at the window as they spun out gravel with a backhoe, all within inches of the truck door. It became a kind of performance piece, with each terrible machine whizzing as close to the pickup as possible while other construction workers admired the precise daredevilry of the driver.

For several hours they played chicken with the parked truck. I got up every few seconds to look through the window, fully expecting to see a massive metal claw lodged in the truck’s roof. I began chewing every pencil in sight.

Finally I couldn’t take it anymore and went out with the keys. “Can I get that out of your way?” I said. One guy glanced over and insisted it wasn’t a problem, then turned back just in time to marvel at a bulldozer that had swung its blade up within two inches of the door while simultaneously spinning into a 180 turn. They were like guys watching skateboard stunts, except with a skateboard that weighed 8000 pounds and could crush a refrigerator. And with the pickup boxed in by a dump truck there was nothing I could do.

About an hour later a construction worker came in to the store. He took off his helmet, as if about to offer condolences. I tensed and latched on to the table with clawed hands.

“Can you flassdiscommoe?” he said.

It didn’t sound anything like “move your truck” or “we destroyed your truck” or “your truck is about to explode,” so I didn’t process it at all. My brain could only understand the word “truck,” and he had failed entirely to oblige this temporary insanity.

“You want me to move the truck?” I asked.

“No, no. Can you flush the commode?” he said. I breathed again. It had nothing to do with the truck. With that settled I moved on to the task of unlocking why he wanted me to flush the toilet. After some confused back and forth the truth came out: they needed to test the new pipe.

They were done for the day. And as the toilet water spun down the drain with my test flush I knew that Jack’s truck would be safe. The truck and I had survived the construction ballet.


Filed under Big Stone Gap, shopsitting, small town USA, VA

A Spy in the House of Books

by guest blogger Ali Fisher – read on to find out WHO she REALLY is….

The secret’s out. The jig is up. My alias has been compromised. It’s time for me to come clean: there’s a spy in the house of books and I AM THAT SPY. This is my story.

Full disclosure: I work in the Library Marketing Department of Wendy’s publisher. Even fuller disclosure-er: I’m shopsitter Andrew’s aforementioned special lady friend. Since this is a tell-all post I’ll give it to you straight; those connections gave me the in I needed to launch my top secret operation. My mission? To verify the bizarre and outlandish stories from Wendy’s memoir and to–ehem–test the claim that “Virginia is for lovers.”

Hereafter are the declassified findings of my undercover investigation…

Holy crap! Everyone is so welcoming here!

I don’t know how I managed to plan this trip for just the right weekend, but after a few relaxing days touring the countryside, breakfasting at the Mutual, browsing books, and warming my lap with pets of various temperaments, I wrangled an exclusive invite to a shopsitter-going-away/locals-double-birthday/cast-of-Wendy’s-memoir party at the very bookstore under my observation.

I was warned that the evening would be super casual, so I knew I needed to adjust my go-to spy entrance (normally I would parachute onto the roof, remove my gear mid-somersault, dive down the chimney, emerge in sequined evening wear and grab a glass of champagne off of a nearby platter). Therefore, I made a rare and oft-dangerous decision for me–to cook something. Fortunately I had an easy, no-bake ace up my sleeve: Smitten Kitchen’s salted brown butter crispy treats. I didn’t even have to lace them with truth serum to get people to tell me the REAL stories behind the stories.

Not to Be Combined With Salsa

My conclusion: Wendy told it like it is. The characters of Big Stone Gap are every bit as wonderful, welcoming, and slightly strange as she said. You should probably come see for yourself.

As for my field research on the claim that Virginia is for lovers… well now, that’s classified.

Editor’s note: No it isn’t; the earth moved while you were here. :]

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

I Survived the 2012 Bookquake

The sirens went off at noon. I went to the window to find the police barricading the streets. The dogs began barking. They’re always barking, but maybe this was special barking. Things had gone awry.

Something rumbled. At 12:10 I turned to my visiting special lady friend and said, “Did you feel that?” She had.  Must just be something old houses do, we thought to ourselves before going back to our books.

Now the sirens were going crazy. I looked outside, expecting to see the complete breakdown of civilization. Would I need to run to the hunting store next door to buy a shotgun? Nope: Veteran’s Day Parade. Oh.

The Veteran’s Day Parade Must Go On

A woman sifting through general fiction got a phone call. “Oh yeah? I didn’t even feel it,” she said. She got off the phone and told me that her daughter had called to check up on her because there had been an earthquake.

The street adjacent to the bookstore split into a wide gash… three days ago when they dug the trench for the new sewer line. I want to say books fell off the shelf in the quake. But that didn’t happen.

So when you see me wearing my “I survived the 2012 Big Stone Gap earthquake” t-shirt, what I really mean is that I noticed the earthquake, then stuck my nose back in a book and took a long slurp from my cup of tea.

Epicenter of the Mild Distractionquake

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

How to Be in a New Place

As Jack and I cope with book launch day, Andrew-the-shopsitter guest blogs about living in new places and making new friends. Take it away, Andrew!

How do I write about Big Stone Gap? I think there’s a temptation to cram it into an existing small-town narrative. Something about nostalgia for times past and simple living:

The local diner feels like a time machine, a place where people still get together and talk over a cup of coffee…

I didn’t expect to find ___________ (iPads, greek yogurt, movie snobs, a good slice of pizza) once my Greyhound pulled away from the island of Manhattan.

Seeing photos of bluegrass and country stars stretching back 40 years on the wall of Maggard Sound is a reminder of the rich cultural traditions of the region…

Community still means something in Big Stone Gap…

None of these things is completely untrue. The Mutual Pharmacy and Diner actually is a great place where people know each other. And yes, my bloodstream has been enriched by their grits and two types of gravy (I know the brown is made on-site, but I still prefer the white). People have been friendly and welcoming, demonstrating the hospitality and the occasional Yank-ribbing I had expected.

But to take any of those stories and make it what Big Stone Gap is about, now that’s just unfair. But I think there is a real lesson to be taken from being dropped into a new place, whether Big Stone Gap or Atlanta. How we experience the identity of a place isn’t so much about a cliche you can drop on an entire populace, but about how we as individuals engage with those around us.

When I moved to Seattle after college I found myself learning the city: its streets, restaurants, bars, and parks. But there were some ways in which I would never know the city like my native roommates. They were of the place and had absorbed a culture that would never be totally mine. Still, there were times when I felt like I had the edge, whether knowing the restaurants in the International District, or the best bars downtown.

My point is not just that I’m a freakin’ genius who is better at living than others (maybe I’ll save that argument for a later post). My un-genius became clear to me when I went back to Columbus, Ohio, where I grew up and lived for 19 years. I’d borrow my Dad’s car and get lost for hours trying to find a sandwich shop I ate at every day in high school. Or I’d go to get Chinese food and realize that the place had closed and I didn’t know where else was good. Or friends who lived in Columbus would tell me to meet them in a certain district (I’m looking at you Victorian Village), and I had never even heard of it.

I never had to engage with Columbus. And while my heart knows it and is of it, I never gave the city the thought it probably deserved, because it was never forced on me. In Seattle (and later New York) every step down an unfamiliar street, every trip on the bus, was entirely new. My engagement with the city had to be a conscious one, or else I’d probably still be wandering around the Central District, lost and hungry.

When I’m walking around Big Stone Gap I am entirely out of my element. So I’m back to needing conscious, constant engagement. Every step, every opportunity to meet someone new or try something different deserves my full attention. Amazing people (Gappers? Stoners? Biggers? Gappees? Gappinites? Gapperois?) have been open to sharing a bit of themselves, but it’s ultimately on us as individuals to grab at any chance we’re given to learn more about our surroundings.

And I think that’s a point worth making. Perhaps with some effort we can even try and see our own communities in the same light. Look at it like an outsider and grab at those chance encounters and friendly offers that we so often pass up. Could I hang out in a diner in Brooklyn and jaw with regulars? Or catch a Celtic concert and swap stories with the musicians? Or drop by the work of someone I’ve only just met, just to see how cool their job is? Probably, yeah. But I wouldn’t. And I didn’t. But I have in Big Stone Gap.

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