Tag Archives: small towns

“Hi, this is NPR” or: Sincerity is a Virus

Something interesting happens in the brain when you pick up your bookshop’s telephone and a a voice says, “Hi! This is NPR calling.”

Yeah? Pull the other one; it’s got bells on.

But it really was NPR, in the form of a nice lady named Gemma, who in her gorgeous English accent explained they were interested in doing a story about our search for a shop-sitter.

Talk about viral: that’s what happened to our “vacancy” trading full room and board–but no salary–for two months of freedom for Jack and me to run around bookshops, selling my book and enjoying the camaraderie of other bookslingers. The info went into a Swedish literary magazine, several New York publications, the L.A. Times, and then Wednesday I picked up the phone and said, “Good morning, bookstore” and Gemma was on the line.

Happy as we are personally for this publicity, we take it as a sign that reports of bookstores’ deaths have been greatly exaggerated in the media at large (saving Linda Wertheimer’s presence; she was our very professional and kind interviewer). If no one cares about bookstores, or the printed books they sell, why have so many people applied for this position, with we don’t know how many more applying between now and Sept. 7? (That’s a Friday, and the new cut-off date; we want to do final phone calls Monday 10th and have the person by Monday night.) One article called it “The Last Great Job in America,” while a few thousand people online re-posted and re-sent and make wistful comments like, “Oh, isn’t this a dream job!” and “How I wish I could!”

Because we all long for what bookshops provide: honesty, kindness, a human connection, and a literary balance to our lives. Small shops are spaces that let us breathe; books are mind-blowing devices that change our lives. Who could ask for anything more?

Someone congratulated me recently on “successfully pulling off a viral marketing campaign” and I almost hit her. Sincerity is not marketing. We needed a shop sitter, asked Kim at Facebook’s Goodwill Librarian and Robert Gray of Shelf Awareness to help us find one, and hit a societal artery. I wish marketers everywhere would look at what we hit, and stop making assumptions about what Americans need when it comes to books and bookstores. Look again. LOOK!

OK, enough with the soapbox. Just please keep in mind that our shop-sitter will be someone who has that elusive yet easily-observed quality of being genuine. What else are we looking for? Jack and I laugh that we’re hunting someone who has a basic familiarity with the collective library of humanity, a sense of wonder at the stories humans tell and write down, and a brisk efficiency toward cat pee. One of our cats is senile. (Don’t get stars in your eyes; this is a real job involving dog hair, spiders and heavy lifting.)

We need this person or persons Sept. 20-Nov. 20 because the shop wants covering during the town’s annual Celtic Festival. Don’t worry; we will train you in all the other intricacies, but straight sales are the easiest part, and those happen during Big Stone Celtic, when the town is converged on by Celtophiles from around the States.

Potential shop-sitters please send to jbeck69087@aol.com your experience with litter boxes, history with books, proof you are nice but not a pushover, and what you would do if you were suddenly called home for a job or emergency, plus any questions you have for us. Thanks!

(Btw, if anyone wants to enter Caption Contest VI, it’s just a couple of blog posts down, and a lot of fun. The picture is so gosh darn cute. Scroll down if you fancy it.)


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


Our bookshop is closed on Mondays, but sometimes it’s our busiest day. It’s part of the small town ethos; you’re not really closed unless the door’s locked and your car is gone. Two Mondays ago, as I sat at the table doing some pricing and sorting, the door opened and two older women walked in.

“Help you?” I smiled.

The two women were embarrassed that they’d barged in, but they were talkative. Staying with relatives in nearby Kingsport as they did every year, they’d made their usual detour to the Tolliver House, the gift shop attached to the outdoor drama. Big Stone Gap’s famous son John Fox Jr. wrote Trail of the Lonesome Pine more than 100 years ago now, and the folk opera created from this novel is still running strong in his native town.

Not so the volunteer pool to continue keeping the gift shop (featuring local crafts and authors) open seven days a week, I explained to the disappointed women. Feeling guilty that Big Stone pretty much rolls up the sidewalks on Mondays, I invited them to go ahead and browse our place. They did, but over and over again, the older lady returned to her disappointment at not getting new scrubbies. Apparently a high point of her annual pilgrimage to Big Stone was getting to buy new crocheted round discs, made from old nylons, that were “perfect” for cleaning the bottoms of pots. She lamented the scrubbies sore as she and her daughter cruised the shop, ultimately buying several Christian romances.

A couple of days after these women came through, in one of those cute coincidences of life, a friend who likes to crochet brought me a dozen scrubbies to sell in the bookstore. I laughed and told her about women visiting from Texas. “I think I’ll mail them some,” I said. “She paid with a check, so I have her address.”

My friend looked skeptical. “You think they’d pay after they got them?”

“‘Course they would!” I said, defensive of my tribe. “Book people are honest!”

“OK, OK,” my scrubby-making friend replied, hands up. “Send ’em.”

Off the scrubbies went, with a wee note explaining that if she didn’t want them, she could mail them back, and if she did want them, please remit $3 each plus whatever the postage was.

Ten days passed and nary a word. My friend, who enjoys teasing me, asked every day, “Hear from scrubby lady yet?”

I remained outwardly confident, but inside, began to wonder. Even people with good intentions don’t always keep up with them in this day and age….

The check came yesterday, folded inside a handwritten note on pretty stationary, thanking me for taking the trouble and having the trust to do such a thing. The check covered three scrubbies and the exact postage.

See? The world is full of good, decent people. And most of them frequent bookshops.

This is a scrubbie. If you want to make your own, crochet pattern central has lots of suggestions. http://www.crochetpatterncentral.com/directory/scrubbers.php
And if you want to buy any of my friend Anne’s, I will mail them to you! (She’s raising money for her grandson’s birthday party; it’s a good cause.)


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

Pluck It….

Okay, so I’m just a quiet little person with a happy small life who runs a sweet wee bookstore in the middle of nowhere. I like it that way. New York doesn’t know me, and DC sure doesn’t ask my opinion about anything–or, for that matter, care to hear it offered unsolicited.

I just run a bookstore. That’s enough politics–large and small “p”–for me. So let me say this one thing, and then I’ll go back to being that cheerful pudgy woman who sells books and keeps her mouth shut about the crap flying around in the real world.


I understand economic sanctions. I still assign my college students the film “Food, Inc.” and ask on the final exam why bovine hormone milk got pulled off Walmart’s shelves  (Answer: D because shoppers voted with their wallets by not buying it).

But I have cousins who think I’m halfway down the slippery laundry chute to Hell because I still shop at Lowe’s (when my local hardware doesn’t have what I need) and EVERYBODY knows that Lowe’s supports “the homosexual agenda.”

I’m sorry, but I have many gay and lesbian friends, most of whom couldn’t organize their way out of a paper bag.

Yet now those friends are threatening to cut me off if I continue displaying in my shop the cow calendar from Chick-Fil-A. (They put out a very funny one with parodies of literary classics, like “Old Mooler,” and “Jack the Flipper.”)

Get over it, lads and ladies; I think those cows are cute – sometimes cuter than you. The calendar stays. I’m not taking advice on what not to eat from a pig wearing way too much mascara and bling for daytime television, nor accepting religious guilt from a cow.

Put bluntly, Chick-Fil-A and the Muppets are each corporations having a field day with the marketing boom from this gleeful exchange of crossfire. Keep playing these stupid games, you two, and I will learn to live without either of you. It’s not like you have feelings. It’s not like you’re people.

It’s more like you’re laughing all the way to the bank at how easy it is to wind up those little toys called consumers…..

Now please leave me alone to finish this chicken strips basket, so I can go back to working my bookstore. Thank you.


Filed under folklore and ethnography, humor, small town USA, Uncategorized, VA

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

Teaching Facebook a Lesson

Our bookstore attracts free spirits, intellectuals, and weirdos–sometimes all in one person. So of course some bookstore friends and I have enjoyed inventing a new game; it’s what creative, bibliophilic, dangerously over-educated and slightly maladjusted people do.

It started after the latest hoopla about “the big F is ruining our privacy and we are being sold as products to marketers via those little pop-up ads” escalated into “Homeland Security is watching you.”

Yeah. The government’s clear-headed efficiency dealing with every project undertaken to date has me quaking in terror about the laser beam of intellectual resources targeted at ferreting out anarchists like me.

Actually, I’m not an anarchist; I voted Democrat in the last election (in case you were confused on that point). But since I live in the Bible Belt’s buckle, that makes me look like an anarchist to some of the neighbors. I don’t mind. They usually send over fresh-baked muffins or rolls with their religious flyers. And when I leave flyers for the Democratic party on their front porch, I anchor them with a jar of homemade chutney.

It’s easy for the five thousand or so of us living here in Big Stone to remember that politics is politics, family is family, and ain’t nobody out there beyond the mountains who loves us as much as we love each other. The same cannot be said of The Facebook Community. I suppose when you get a billion or so people together, there are bound to be disagreements that become hard to settle. But the idea that someone, somewhere is keeping an eye on who disagrees with whom, about what, and why, is not nearly so plausible as that a whole bunch of someones (or, more to the point, somethings) are keeping tabs on what we talk about and what we “like” so they can sell us more of the same.

So some friends and I have started the game of “therapy posting.” Once a week, we get on our timelines and write statuses (stati?) like “package tour to Uzbekistan, small animal husbandry, 1900s German cookie molds, cute memes of fuzzy kittens, sourcing fertilizer, the collected works of Karl Marx and Charles Schultz, and yoga for parrots.”

Go on, try it; it’s fun! And it confuses the heck out of those little pop-up ads. Mine went from “promote your new book in ten easy steps” and “Petsmart” to “10 household supplies you should hoard” and “Lowe’s.” (I guess the Apocalypse Soon crowd would need a lot of building supplies….)

My friend Rachel posted a mess of stream-of-consciousness random ideas, and her pop-ups went from “a message from the First Lady” to “buy Sarah Palin’s autobiography.” She said she wouldn’t play any more after that.

So maybe search engines and cookies are easier to confuse than real people. Here in Wise County we live side by side, screaming obscenities at each other in the political arena, then sitting down to casseroles. ‘Twas ever thus in small towns, where the mayor could be your mortal sworn enemy, your church organist, and in all likelihood married to someone with whom you play on a ball team. And you’re all gonna meet at the bookstore anyway.

Facebook could learn a lot from us, if they were REALLY listening.

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

Small Town Secrets: an oxymoron

If you want to know what’s going on in a small town, visit the laundromat, the hairdresser, or the bookstore.

Actually, skip the hairdresser; they’re too smart to tell all they know. But in the bookstore, nobody has to speak a word for some cats to slip out of the bag and into the mainstream gossip currents.

The other day someone was trolling our Religion section, and picked up a book by Elaine Pagels. The customer frowned; since Pagels is a scholar first, Christian apologist not at all, we’re used to people in the Bible belt’s buckle sometimes finding fault with her theological standpoints. But this guy was frowning at the inside cover.

“Price not marked?” I smiled, reaching for the volume.

The customer glared at me. “Where’d you get this book?”

“Uhhh, we get most of our books in trade. People bring in books they’re done reading, and swap them for others.”

He turned the glare on the book in his hand. “Hmmph. I gave this to my pastor as a Christmas present three years ago.” His finger traced the inscription inside the book. “To Pastor X, in hopes this will spark some lively sermon topics.”

One could see why the good reverend might have parted with it….

Such “oops” conversations are infrequent, but memorable. The worst “small town bookstore” moment is actually in my book coming out in October, so I’ll leave that one for later; running a close second was the time an older woman came in and browsed–again–religion. (There’s just something about churches and secrets….)

On the “family” shelf sat several books on raising Christian kids, keeping love alive in marriages, etc. The woman’s eyes scanned the shelf, then her hand darted in and plucked out a volume. Opening it, she heaved a sigh, and placed it back on the shelf, opened another nearby, repeated the sigh and replacement.

I was about to offer to help her find whatever she was looking for, but she turned to where I sat at the laptop and said, as if we were continuing a conversation, “I knew they were having trouble. He wouldn’t tell me–my son, I mean–but they’re getting divorced. He’s brought in all their marriage books from when they went to counseling.”

Her face was tight with tears she wouldn’t let out. I put the kettle on.

The funniest secret slip was a few years ago, when a woman browsing cookbooks got excited and called her mother. “There’s a soup cookbook in here that used to belong to Paxton Allgyer,” she said into the cell phone. “What was that stuff she always brought to the church social that everybody liked so much, but she never would give out the recipe? …Seafood bisque?” She turned to the index in the back, searching, then shouted into the phone, “It’s here! Yes! ‘Bye.”

She bought the cookbook with a smirk. I have no idea what happened at the next church social, and I like it that way.

People sometimes ask Jack and me, “What do you need to run a bookstore?”

A sense of humor, a functioning tea kettle, and a large supply of whiteout.


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


Not a lot of blogging today because it was the annual Tri-State Gospel Sing. Here’s a few photos of the day.





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