Tag Archives: used bookstores

A Shopsitter’s Christmas



As I’m spending Christmas in a bookstore this year, I thought I might share a few of my favorite Christmas tales with all of you. What’s more festive that curling up in front of a roaring Fireplace for your Home, popping open a box of wine, and diving in to a jolly holiday classic? Nothing as far as I know. While there are dozens, I’ve selected a few that have special meaning for me. Here goes.

The Cat Who Came for Christmas, by Cleveland Amory. My grandmother introduced me to this wonderful memoir many years ago. A self-described curmudgeon finds an abandoned cat on Christmas eve. Heartwarming human/feline bonding ensues. Especially poignant for me this year, because I’ve found my very own Christmas kitty. See photo.

A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens. The quintessential Christmas classic. A story of faith, forgiveness, and redemption. All the biggies. Ebenezer Scrooge mends his evil ways with the help of three Christmas spirits. Little ghoul that I am, I probably liked this story most because of the ghosties.

Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, by Agatha Christie. For those that might enjoy a little murder with their mistletoe. The eccentric Belgium detective finds himself spending Christmas at a country estate, where one of the guest proves to be a cold blooded killer. It’s festive. Honest. 

The Christmas Day Kitten, by James Herriot. Another kitty arriving just in time for the holidays. I have a vague, but persistent notion that this one made me cry. You’ve been warned.

The Latke Who Couldn’t Stop Screaming: A Christmas Story, by Lemony Snicket. While my own Jewish heritage provided me little more than the ability to kvetch in Yiddish, I do love a good latke. This story is about a potato latke that, well, can’t stop screaming, but it’s also about being true to yourself and your beliefs. A good message for whatever holiday you celebrate.

Not a comprehensive list, but a fun exercise nonetheless. I must now go finish putting coal in the kitten’s stockings. They’ve been naughty, as all proper kittens are wont to be.









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Too Many Books


“Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”

-Robert Browning


I’m depressed.

OK, maybe depressed is the wrong word. I’m here in Big Stone Gap, knee deep in kittens, good food, and friendly people. I’m happy, I’m content. What’s better than living in a bookstore? It’s kind of a dream come true, right? So why am I…wistful?

I believe it’s the unavoidable realization that I will never be able to read as many books as I would like. This may not seem like a big deal. I mean, there are plenty of things I’ll never get to do in my lifetime, that’s what the Travel Channel is for. In the normal course of things, I can accept that my life will contain the pleasure of reading only a small, finite number of books. There are times, however, when I feel the weight of all those unread words. This feeling is strong when I visit libraries, and naturally, bookstores.

When I first arrived at Tales of the Lonesome Pine, the shelves bursting with books whispered possibility as only bookshelves can. The knowledge that I had all month to peruse left me giddy. Who knew? Maybe I’d take a gander at the romance section; I’m not proud. Or the Westerns. I’ve never read a Western! The craft section! The gardening section!!! THE MYSTERY ROOM!!!! It was all at my disposal. I imagined tiptoeing through the shelves at midnight, as The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy played softly in the background.

Two weeks in, I’m feeling a little less giddy. Maybe it’s because I’ve only finished two books since I arrived. Maybe it’s because I can’t decide what to read next. Maybe it’s because, with only two weeks left in December, the dream of endless reading possibility has been effectively cut in half.

I can take books home. As many as I want. But that doesn’t alter the fact that I will never read all the books on my ever-shifting list. Maybe this is OK. The ultimate Zen lesson. A reading life can never be fully satisfied. But why would you want it to be? Imagine the tragedy of actually, literally, having nothing to read. When I die, I will not have read the vast majority of the books my fellow humans have produced. Dreary thought? Perhaps, but I will certainly have enjoyed the time I spent trying.




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Sliding into Laughter

After the intense emotions of the “Hazel Days,” it is with glee that I steal my friend Heather’s FB post and offer it here. Some of you may remember Heather as our bookstore cleaner who moved to Colorado recently. Her older son, Reese, is a solidly built lad of 11 (who has autism). I would have asked Heather to use this, but in their first week in their new house, they don’t have Internet access yet, except in one corner, stealing wifi from a neighbor for five minutes at a time. And she has to fight three healthy boys (including her husband) to get chair share time. Besides, it’s easier to ask forgiveness than permission. (For those of you wanting news of Hazel, she has her own FB page: CLAN Hazel.)

And  now, heeeeeeeeere’s Heather!!!!

So…. we are in the pool at the local Y, where there are two giant twisty waterslides. Reese is doing his usual ‘go up to the top, sit down, think about going down, scream, stand up, go back down the stairs’ thing three times in 20 minutes. In a moment of what I NOW know was complete stupidity, I go up the two stories myself and suggest to David he go down the slide to show Reese what it’s like while I stay with Reese at the top.


Picture this: David is at the bottom of the slide yelling up to Reese how great coming down is. Reese and I are at the top looking waaaay down. I eventually coax Reese into loosening his death grip on the sides of the slide, but I can see that he is not fully prepared emotionally for what is happening, and begin to help him to the stairs when he is caught in the flow. He starts clawing like almighty hell trying to stop the inevitable. He slides down around a bend and tries to stand and … climb… back… up!

David and the YMCA lifeguard are now screaming for Reese to sit down, and we watch him slip to a point on the slide where we can no longer see him at all. He does not come down. The lifeguard motions for me to slide down, find Reese, and help him the rest of the way.

Let me preface this next part by stating that I do NOT like waterslides. In the least.

I grudgingly sit at the top of the slide and start down…

and quickly realize that this water is moving VERY, VERY FAST, and there is no freaking way on heaven or earth I can stop or even slow down. How the hell did Reese stop himself?

I fly around what I feel must be the twentieth bend (in reality there are 5) and there is Reese – standing on the slide against the water flow, gripping the sides, FACING me. I yell for him to hold on as I hit him full force. He lands on top of me, and we smash through the last three bends like wrecking balls to land in the pool, falling to the bottom with such force I swallow and snort what must be a third of the pool’s total liquid volume. I flail myself to the surface like a mad woman, believing my child is quite possibly drowning right in front of me (at the YMCA).

I come up sputtering and choking to find Reese standing in the pool with a look of total surprise on his face. He then slowly breaks into a grin and exclaims, “Oh, yeah!”

Oh, hell no. Never again. Never. Ever.


Filed under animal rescue, humor, small town USA, Uncategorized

A sign of the times

Jack’s guest post comes a little early this week –

It’s not surprising that many bookstore customers, on hearing my accent ask where I’m from, and then talk of their own family connections back to Scotland or Ireland. This area of Southern Appalachia has strong ‘Scotch-Irish’ antecedents. Frequently these conversations will drift around to the difference between perceptions and the reality of Scotland from an American point of view. Most Americans have an image of Scotland derived from movies like ‘Braveheart’ or ‘Brigadoon’ (Vincent Minnelli famously toured Scotland looking for suitable places to make ‘Brigadoon’ but eventually made it in Hollywood because he couldn’t find anywhere in Scotland that looked ‘Scottish’ enough!).

These conversations will often move on to questions about the real Scotland and how it fits into the modern world and global economy. Of course perceptions aren’t helped by confusion over what Scotland actually is in relation to – The U.K., Great Britain, The British Isles or even ‘England’.

In case you, dear reader, also find that confusing – hold on tight, and here we go –

The British Isles is a geographic description that covers Great Britain and the complete island of Ireland.

Great Britain is the union of two nations – England/Wales and Scotland (Wales was never a separate nation, sadly – it’s a Principality of England).

The island of Ireland is split into the independent Republic of Ireland and the much smaller province of Northern Ireland.

Great Britain plus Northern Ireland makes up the U.K. (The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, to give it its full name).

Got all that?

Finally I will often mention that in September 2014 there will be a referendum in Scotland on the restoration of the country to independent status again. Supporters call it ‘independence’ while opponents call it ‘separation’ – ah! The power of words!!

Talking of words, Wendy and I recently saw this sign on Interstate 77 just north of the NC line. We thought some of our Scottish friends might see the significance –


Shurely shome shignificance (as Sir Sean Connery would Shurely Shay)


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Box Store?

Jack’s regular Wednesday guest post examines his guilty conscience –

One of the areas of contention between Wendy and me regarding the bookstore is the thorny issue of ‘tidiness’ and cleanliness. To explain further – I favor the Aladdin’s Cave model of used bookstore, while Wendy would rather everyone be able to find any book easily through rigorous alphabetizing and categorizing. In addition, I have no sense of smell, so tracking down elusive cat pee is next to impossible for me.

I’m not oblivious to the delights of a clean and tidy store and I do get a satisfying feeling when it gives out that general ambience. I’d even admit to really appreciating visits to other bookstores that achieve that kind of slick well organized look. So, what to do?

The cleanliness and cat-pee problem is ably dealt with by our ‘wonder-woman’ Heather every Monday and even I appreciate the difference after she is finished.

However our other big problem is not having anywhere to easily store large donations of books when they appear by the box-load. A couple of bags is one thing, but eight or ten large boxes is something else and we can’t let them clutter up floor space. Sorting out the acceptable from the non-acceptable usually results in at least a couple of boxes of ‘throwaways’ and they need to go somewhere – at least temporarily. Up to now that has been the garage, but that has now been taken over by (horrors) a car!

MidGe in the garage.

MidGe in the garage.







To the point –

Two of our good friends, (mother and son), who are regular attenders at our various evening events, brought us ten large boxes of books just the other night. Another gripe – books are heavy, so shifting large boxes is back-breaking work. Luckily their taste in reading is eclectic so at least the collection can be spread pretty evenly throughout the store. While the needlework gang were busy setting the world to rights last night I made a start and, sure enough, out of the ten boxes I rapidly identified two boxes worth of ‘throwaways’ (actually three liftable boxes).

We absolutely hate throwing away books and will even turn them into planters or hand-bags and purses to avoid that terrible fate, but sometimes it just has to be done (I think the reason the garage filled up with books is for just that reason).

Today is garbage day and I have a heavy heart – not only because the erstwhile contents of the garage wait at the curbside, but there are three boxes sitting forlornly waiting the same fate.

Mea Culpa!


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Robo-Owen’s Guide to Reverse Culture Shock

We are pleased to present here the first of Andrew-the-shopsitter’s guest blogs post-shopsitting. He promises to send them now and again, and we look forward to them. For those unfamiliar with the term, Robo-Owen is a wee anamatronic kitten presented to Ali and Andrew on their departure.

It’s now been a few weeks since I left Big Stone Gap. And while I didn’t feel as if I had experienced any culture shock following my arrival in September, I must admit some reverse effects upon setting foot in New York again. My ability to maneuver in crowds is only now returning, after a number of shoulder bashes on busy avenues. I am very wary of cops, and have somehow convinced myself that there are a number of New York street laws I’ve somehow forgotten and am unconsciously violating. My ability to pick good pizza slices has atrophied.

There have also been positive side effects. I find myself itching to replicate some of the regular activities from the bookstore (although I don’t see many of my friends having the requisite skills for Needlework Night). I seek out company in ways I didn’t before… in small town ways. Instead of waiting to catch up at a party I’ve dropped in on friends to chat and drink tea. I cooked some recipes I learned at my family’s Thanksgiving. And I find myself back in the habit of reading.

There is a suspicious lack of animals in my apartment. Sure, there are the mice, roaches, and centipedes, but they’re not good company like cats and dogs. Speaking of, I introduced my brother’s cat Baxter to Robo-Owen. They seem to get along, but judge for yourself.


Robo-Owen is a poor doppelgänger for the possibly-evil, possibly-dumb real thing. For one, he never interferes with my cooking. But now my food-defense instincts are so strong and ingrained I’d be ready if he somehow reprogrammed himself for human food. He also doesn’t have claws, so my skin is no longer a tapestry of angry red lines. This makes him a disappointing sparring partner. Sometimes I’ll try and goad him, but unlike the real thing Robo-Owen is unflappable. Robo-Owen never falls asleep on my stomach or leaps into my arms. All in all he’s good company, and even has a mechanical purr, but he’s no replacement for the real deal Owen Meany.

Just like Robo-Owen is no real cat, I’m no longer a real shopsitter. But old habits die hard, so I may just start loitering around my local used bookstore until they kick me out for aggressive re-alphabetizing. Whatever my future away from Big Stone Gap may hold, I know that book and bookstore culture will remain a part of my life. So I look forward to sharing more of my own experiences with the book life in the near future.

Happy Holidays to all of you and to all of my friends in Big Stone Gap!

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The Weight of Books

Yesterday our “Let’s Talk” group met for its monthly session in the bookstore. This is an open-invitation group that chooses a one-word topic, rotates moderator duties, and has a grand time dissecting the ideas involved.  Past topics have included evil, debt, karma, suffering, forgiveness, and–last night–ghosts.

Many tales were told of spirits returning, and as we shared stories, a theme emerged: that the returns we were speaking of were almost all benevolent, and that often even those of us (like me) who have never seen a ghost have felt presences, sensed weights or feelings that gave the impression of someone–a loved one or a stranger–being there.

That led us to the idea of a word I’m not sure I can spell: nefesh (that’s the phonetic version) the spirit that animates, the complete life of a being, in Hebrew. That word appears fairly often in the Bible, and more often than we might think in our lives, even if that’s not the term we used to define it.

The weight of being, the sense of someone’s presence, stays in their physical stuff, was what the group basically agreed. Call it memory projected by the bereaved, call it animation from beyond by the departed; just don’t dismiss it, because even those who have no truck with ghosts and goblins still have encounters with this nefesh thing when they enter a departed loved one’s room, pick up her hairbrush, smell his aftershave.

Could books be a prime example? People read book for all sorts of reasons: entertainment, information, enlightenment, to score points, to follow the crowd, to escape. Whatever the reason, does the reader leave a tiny piece of self behind in it? Not the jammy fingerprint at the top of the page or the grease spot from the burger–although we see plenty of those in the trade. I mean do people leave the weight of their presence behind when they read a book? Rather than your picking up a blank slate full of ideas for you to accept or reject as you choose, are you picking up (in a pre-loved volume) a little bit of the ethos the previous reader left? Does the book have a wisps and whiffs of what those who went before thought of it?

It’s an interesting idea, isn’t it? I really had considered books as idea houses: take them or leave them, but what’s in here is written down, pinned like a butterfly for study rather than one to admire in flight. But what if, oh what if books that have been read twenty, thirty times by different people carried just the hint of what people thought about the ideas contained therein? Would the dissonance of conflicting ideas create white noise to rub out acceptance? Or previous approval aid the willing suspension of disbelief?

Sometimes, when I’m handling the few very old books we have in our shop, 1800s titles, the tome in my hands feels heavy with solemnity, a weight beyond paper and print. Perhaps it really is nefesh, a sense of all the people who have read it before, and left the breath of their thoughts on its pages.



Filed under Big Stone Gap, book repair, book reviews, folklore and ethnography, Uncategorized, VA