BOOKING DOWN THE ROAD TRIP

Jack got a nasty shock when he tried to turn on the heat at cheap motel #1.

The opera house-to-be in McMinnville, TN’s downtown

DASHING THROUGH THE RAIN (Dec. 21)Jack (my husband) and I decided to take a small portion of my book advance and see the world – or, specifically, see a bunch of secondhand bookstores and small towns on back roads stretching between Virginia and Kansas, then back again. So we’re headed down through Tennessee to Mississippi, then back up to Arkansas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri, across to Indiana and Illinois, then back down through Kentucky to home sweet home again.

We concocted this silly scheme because we wondered how many towns still have independent bookstores new or used. Looking them up on the Internet, we have plotted a course and set off in pursuit of little bookstores everywhere. And in the interest of being as local as possible, in our earnest Civic Hybrid that gets great gas mileage, we are only eating at restaurants that are not part of a chain. That’s been rather fun to keep up with; it’s amazing how challenging it is to plot one’s meals without a paper cup containing a straw…

But it can be done, and so it shall be! Stay tuned…..

DAY ONE: No sleep ’til Pikeville

We left my parents in Knoxville and headed down the way toward Athens, where our first bookstore was plotted. We found it with little difficulty; a giant “GOING OUT OF BUSINESS” banner helped. The store is giving up the ghost after a year under the new owners, who’d bought the place from someone who’d had it two years before them. Following more of a Hastings model, they also took games and DVDs et al, but it didn’t help when time came to pay the rent…. Family illness settled the matter for them, and we benefited from their 1/2 price closing sale and shared commiserations.

We’d intended to head down to Signal Mountain, but waning daylight sent us straight to Dayton, home of the infamous Scopes Trial. There Jack found a music store and disappeared for several hours, so I wandered the streets looking at the sidewalk timeline of the trial, and searching for a public restroom. I finally found a nice one in the General Store run by Tim and Janet Culver. Exiting the rest room, I was looking around the shop for something useful to purchase by way of a “thanks,” and Janet began chatting with me. Finding out we were bookstore owners on a casual mission of “know and be known,” she showed me the book she and her husband had self-published in 2000, documenting the trial. Their book quotes documents verbatim, with interpretation between to bridge the narrative gaps.

“We published this ourselves, then found out we couldn’t get distribution because we didn’t have enough clout. It would just about break even if we paid for distribution, so we’re sitting on cases of these,” Janet explained. The tourism draw they’d expected wasn’t a fast enough outlet to disseminate the books into a reading public, so she was interested in doing an event with our bookstore later. We exchanged cards and she slipped a complimentary copy of the book into my bag with my purchase.

This became a pattern we would see repeated in other towns; they might not have a bookstore, but they had a local author or authors who had self-published works specific to the area.

Although the Internet disavowed all knowledge of a bookstore in Dayton, Janet told us a new one had started up on the bypass, and we soon located The Book Barn, just three months old. The place was huge, and held few books for its size, but as the young lady working told us, its owner had finally fulfilled his lifelong dream of having a used bookstore, so what else mattered?

From Dayton we ambled across little grey map lines toward Pikeville, TN. Since the road from there to McMinnville was touted as a scenic wonderland, we pulled into a cheap motel – emphasis on cheap – and called it a night.

Here’s an observation on that whole “shop local” thing: it works great for everything except overnight lodging and gas stations. In fact, according to a book we (Jack and I) have been reading, the whole standardization movement in retail circles (The McDonaldization of Society) began with motels, in an effort to ensure uniform service and cleanliness. Well, I want to be a localvore, but I cop to liking my motels without dead things in the bathtub.

DAY TWO: Pikeville to Franklin

We snail crawled out of bed the next morning and realized we’d crossed a time border at some point the day before. Jack was up before 7 a.m. I treated him to a rousing chorus of “Oh the World Must be Coming to an End” before departing in search of coffees. (There was no machine in the room; did I mention the motel was cheap?)

I followed a shoal of pick-up trucks wallowing through town, and sure enough they led me to the only diner open at that hour. I parked my Civic Hybrid in their midst and walked through the soft morning rain into the diner, filled with men in billed caps blazoned with seed logos, all staring out the window at my poor little 52-mpg car, slouched between two huge Ford trucks.

The waitress walked past me to a local who came in behind me. I sat down at one of the red diner counter stools as if I owned the place and swung back and forth, smiling at the men in the caps, back to the counter at the waitress, back to the men in the caps. They grunted and returned to their coffee.

A second waitress appeared and did a double take at seeing me, then came over and–I am not making this up–whispered, “Do you need something?”

I whispered back, “If you do coffee to go, yes.”

“One?” she mouthed.

I held up two fingers. Oops. This looked like a peace sign. The men in the booth frowned, eyes hooded beneath their cap bills. I swiveled swiftly back to the waitress. She rolled her eyes toward heaven and poured coffee into two huge Styrofoam cups.

The coffee was cheap, piping hot, and really, really good. I departed, juggling two large cups, my wallet, and the key to my electric car. Outside, two men in seed caps stopped as they were entering the restaurant, and one stepped over.

“Here, honey, lemme get that,” he said, and held the coffees while I opened the door.

Fortified by human kindness and caffeine, we hit the road to The Book Rack in McMinnville – except that, like half of downtown McMinnville, it wasn’t there. Empty store fronts, closing down sales in two of the remaining places, and an abandoned theatre that a local told us they hoped to convert to an opera house and revitalize the downtown.

Driving in, we’d seen expensive houses, lots of healthy-looking landscape nurseries, horses grazing–plenty of evidence that McMinnville had some wealth in its citizens, if not its coffers, so its downtown dead zone puzzled me. On we drove to Murfreesboro.

I’ll always think of Murfreesboro as “the great paper chase.” We stopped at a Habitat for Humanity resale store and asked if there were any bookshops about. “Several,” the nice man working the counter said, and gave us directions to one. We misunderstood or misfollowed them, one or the other, because we wound up in the town square, where an upscale tobacco shop, a discount shoe place, and a bail bondsman sat side by disjointed side.

Okay, score one for not having planned communities. The nice man at the tobacco shop said there were no bookshops in Murf except “the ones at the mall, that Million Books place.”

Ah, thank you. But at another store, we got directions to “The Paperback Place,” which turned out to be where that sweet Habitat man had been trying to send us. It took three tries at going the right way on College Street, but we finally found “The Book Corner,” at the edge of an all-but-deserted strip mall. The owner, a thin man with three rings on one ear lobe, chatted amiably with us between keeping up with customers and escorting his young daughter from her special bookhouse room to the bathroom and back.

He’d bought the place,  a labyrinthian twist of romances, mysteries and celebrity biographies, back in May from a woman who’d been its owner 16 years. She had bought it from the original owner, who had started it some 42 years before. We told him his was the first place we’d seen where the owner was working the store, and he shared our surprise at this.

“How can they afford to do that?” we both wondered openly.

Between valuing drop-offs for credit, helping me find the rest room, reckoning up a swap deal for two customers, answering his phone and looking after his daughter, we chatted about subjects near and dear to bookstore owners’ hearts: how fast the romances piled up, whether swap deals should require 50% cash equivalency, how long it takes to break even on rent each month. Our bookstore doesn’t require rent, but his did, and this too was a pattern we would see repeated on our journey: people who have to pay rent have to paddle their little boats much faster.

We left that pleasant shop and hit the backroad highway again, headed to Franklin, which boasted the tenth largest income per household in the nation, and two independent book sellers. The Book Den, owned by Joyce, was a delight–and the most orderly book shop we’d ever seen. Her paperbacks lay sideways so the titles were easily readable, and since she only took hardbacks of current bestsellers, these rested comfortably between stacks. She’d thoughtfully tacked up series chronologies and families next to favorite authors (Lee Child, Nora Roberts, et al). She kept abreast of the latest publications, and one wall of her shop sported new books based on middle and high school reading lists and local tastes in Christian fiction.

It only took a few minutes chatting with Joyce and her employee to see how proud Joyce was of her shop, and rightly so. She radiated confidence and vitality as she explained how she’d bought it in 1995 from its previous owner, hired one of her best friends to help her, and settled in to a second career.

Joyce was the first of the shop owners to mention Kindles. She feared them. “I used to have people come in every two weeks, now they come in once every three months or so, and they tell me they’re reading on their Kindles now, so they’re just coming in for things they can’t get that way.” She shook her head. “I hope they leave me standing.” She shrugged, and showed me how she’d planned her store’s layout so men wouldn’t have to pass romances to reach westerns.

Charmed, we left Joyce’s Book Den and made a quick pop-in to Landmark Books, just a couple of miles down the road. This was more of a first edition and rare specialty books kind of place. Once we spotted Bill Frist’s Healing America on a shelf for $38 (signed first edition) we figured there wasn’t much more to see. This is one of the books the Christian Appalachian Project dumped by the boxful into Wise County some three years back. We’ve made purses, birdhouses, planters and other less useful things from them, but a couple hundred still circulate. Au revoir, Landmark Books.

Tucked into an inexpensive chain motel with a coffee machine, wireless, clean pillowcases and working heat, I luxuriated in the bathtub under the sun lamp and counted our many blessings.What a difference a $10 price differential makes…..

TWENTY SHADES OF GREY (Dec. 22)

Twenty shades of grey: that about sums up the four hours we spent driving the Natchez Trace Parkway this morning, from Franklin, TN to Tupelo, MS. That and the rain pounding its merry tattoo on our car’s roof…. if you’ve ever read Ray Bradbury’s stories about Venus, you’ll understand how we were beginning to feel.

It takes a strong marriage to survive four hours on the Parkway in December during a downpour. Jack and I are still speaking to one another, and we count this as good.

But it was all worth it for the bookstores we visited in Tupelo, two charming places of very different approaches and attitude. Greatest Hits is a bookstore-cum-used movies, CDs and games outlet run by Joe. He opened the place three and a half years ago and is going strong. His store is upbeat and messy, like himself. (Frankly, if Joe doesn’t drive a VW bus, he should.)

We bounced across the street to a local diner, then made a beeline for the Wise Old Owl, a messy little paperback bookstore that’s been in business more than fifteen years. Jennifer, the woman running it now bought out her parents about two years ago. The snakes-and-ladders shelving arrangement kept dumping me back in westerns, but Jennifer was a hoot (sorry) to talk to. As with Joe, discussion quickly turned to a favorite subject of used book shop keepers: how do you keep the swap credit within genres, so all the trade-ins aren’t romances and the take-outs sci fi and fantasy?

We spent over an hour each with Joe and Jennifer, talking shop. Joe had no idea what he was getting into when he opened his shop–and like Jack and me, he’d pulled a couple of stunts to keep himself open. Like taking a stack of his flyers down to the Barnes and Noble on the bypass, and putting one on the windshield of each car. Go, Joe!!! Jennifer, having practically grown up in her parents’ shop, knew more about the business when she started. But she told us something interesting: she has no advertising budget.

More and more, I’m convinced that the things business centers tell you are essential, are really just convenient to them. 14 years later, Jennifer is still there, sans marketing plan. Jack and I started with no marketing plan, and here we are, happy, healthy and still in business five years on.

So much for experts. Perhaps experts only want to make more people who look like themselves.

Tomorrow we conquer Oxford, MS and Memphis, TN. I wonder if they’ll notice….

OXFORD ERSATZ TO MEMPHIS CHRISTMAS

(Dec. 23 )

The “Booking Down the Road” Christmas expedition continued as we ambled from Pontotoc to Oxford, MS. The town square in this university-fed economy radiates money and charm–and supports three book-selling locations amidst a fluff of boutiques and coffeeshops.

Square Books, with its two offshoot stores Off Square and Square Jr., are all run by Richard Howorth a tall, thin, kindly-countenanced man. (Another pattern emerges: Lady bookshop owners are 5’3″ and well-rounded; the gentlemen are wispy guys who probably didn’t play football in college. Hmmm….)

Square Books is so beautiful, it’s awe-inspiring: sweet little corners with armchairs tucked into them, a coffee bar upstairs, recessed shelves along stair landings, books signed by the great and good topping every display. Jack and I were  impressed, bordering on cowed. This was a bookstore’s bookstore, something to aspire to.

Since we were in his shop at 10 a.m. on the last full shopping day before Christmas, we could see that it was not the best time for Richard, who had his arms full of calendars and his attention pummeled by questions from staff and customers every couple of minutes. He was nevertheless amiable and gave us his card, and I suspect sitting down with him over a cup of coffee post-season would be very enlightening; we may come back when the Natchez Trace Parkway is in bloom and meander on down to his place again. He’s kept one of the few shops selling new books going–since 1979! When he and his wife opened the store, they had worked a couple of years for other retail bookstores, so knew what they were doing.

Yet another pattern emerges; for second-hand shop owners, desire motivates, then desperation teaches; retailers either practice first, or… well, there aren’t so many nowadays, are there? Another, sadder, pattern emerging…..

We wandered into a coffeeshop before leaving Oxford, a chain masquerading as an independent, its deep and comfy leather couches carefully coordinated to match its wooden tables and chairs. So earnestly ersatz was the place, I had the feeling the lad at the window, wearing an Ol Miss sweatshirt and typing away at his laptop, had conjured us all as characters in his novel. When anyone left the shop–the elderly men with the Dickensian Christmas scarves ’round their necks; the cute twentysomething couple, she wearing the white puffy ski jacket and alpine hat, he sporting school sweats and a pompom beanie; the woman with twin babies in the pram, one in pink, one in blue–we would all flatten back onto the pages the student generated.

Wendy and William Faulkner talk books

I told Jack to enjoy his coffee, because like Jostein Gaarder’s “Sophie,” we would have to escape our destiny as literary pawns in the student’s brain. Jack suggested we might need to take a break from driving, as I had clearly become overtired, but I still think Oxford, MS doesn’t really exist; it’s a perfect projection from someone’s mind of how a town should work with itself to organize something lovely around the old courthouse square.

To clear all that sweetness and light away, we headed up Highway 51, stopping in small towns along the way in a vain search for bookstores–or even life. You know that “town centers are dying” thing? No, they’re mostly dead. Railway lines with beautiful houses on one side and a row of tiny, adorable store fronts on the other, every last one of them empty, only one even trying with a desultory “for rent” sign hanging from the door: that was Como, MS.

In Sardis, the Internet promised “The American Book Exchange.” This turned out to be a warehouse for an online seller, guarded by two trucks, a hound dog lying on its closed front porch. The dog raised its head and eyed us in a “don’t make me get up” kind of way as we turned in the dirt parking lot. No humans appeared.

So it went, up the road to Memphis, the Mecca of EIGHT(!!!) bookstores–five used and one independent new. Book Traders turned out to be the only one we managed on our way to find Jack an Indian curry; we chatted with the college student working the shop, as the owner was away for the holidays. The lad had worked there several years, and stayed on after graduation because “it looked like the best job going.” A paperback store very like others in the strip malls of Franklin and Tupelo, it was casually organized and catered to the Patterson, romance and western crowd. The newly-minted grad and I talked book gossip–had Larry McMurtry really reneged on his promise to donate the castoffs of his bookstore to his local library–instead of store policy, and as we left Jack commented that, while all our conversations these past few days had been about books, they’d been about the selling of them. Not our favorites, or new authors we were expecting good things from, but the minutia of how we sold them. People do think a bookstore is all about lovely literary conversations, but fairly often it’s about sorting, lifting, and cleaning the dead spiders from boxes of someone else’s reading detritus. And so it goes.

Interestingly enough, this young’un was the only person thus far to ask, “What is the title of your book?” (Of course we’d been mentioning that little news everywhere we go. Jack even told a waiter.) I suppose it’s only natural that people who deal in books all day every day would not want to get into conversation with someone they’ve never met, who announces she’s got a book coming out. It could be self-published–the literary world still isn’t sure what it thinks about that, although it really does seem to be the wave of the future. The person could be delusional; mentioning St Martin’s Press certainly helps there, since they’re such a respected house. For whatever reason, he was the first book staff to ask, and he even made a note on a scrap of paper when I told him  (WAY too proudly) The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap.

After one of the best Indian meals ever at Bombay House (thoroughly recommended) we tucked ourselves into the swank hotel gotten through a Christmas half-price deal online. We feel a bit guilty about parking here until Dec. 26, as some staff are going to have to feed and care for the  six guests in this 300-room hotel, but as one attendant told me, “We get double pay, so it’s not that bad.” This is probably where I should pontificate on commercialization, but never mind.

Creativity comes in many forms…
TWO LOVELY WOMEN AND THEIR BOOKSTORES  (Dec. 24)
We spent Christmas Eve Day in Memphis tracking bookstores. Of the eight listed, five still stood: three used, two new, one of these independent. We passed the grave of the abandoned Bookstar, which had been an offshoot of either B&N or Borders, not sure which
Two lovely women in two wonderful shops were our total before heavy and no-longer-benevolent traffic sent these little country mice scurrying back to the hotel. First thing in the morning we made it to Burke’s Books, a shop of some twenty years in various locations across Memphis–including one the Internet directed to, an address its owner Cheryl said later was five years old. Gotta love the Net
Cheryl and her husband owned the store, which was quiet when we arrived at 10, leaving her happy to chat. She also had chocolate chip cookies from the die-hard farmers market still running next door, so we got on well right from the start
Interesting to us, Cheryl’s funky-decor, funky-location store is smaller than ours in square footage and stock, but doing considerably more business. (Well, it IS Memphis.) Hers is considered the matriarch of bookstores in town. All the people and sites we asked about books mentioned Burke’s.
She sells via several online sites as well, and as she said, “We’re not getting rich, but we’re not getting killed by the Kindle, either.” I told her the theory I’d written in The Little Bookstore, that e-readers were taking down the strong while letting the small, flexible, independent shops slip through the net. She pondered a moment, then laughed. “I think that’s exactly right. We’ll still be here.” She gave me a chin nod and tossed her jaw-length brown hair in defiance, the proud flash in her eyes as they met mine suggesting sisterhood.
Yep.
We bought a book in one of the shops called The Case for Books, tracing new media that was supposed to replace the thing before it (Internet would kill TV, TV would kill radio, radio would kill singing get-togethers) and showing how it hadn’t, that such activities had altered yet not disappeared. There doesn’t have to be an either/or on e-books and live books. Paper pulp or electronic pulse, it’s still good stuff.
Feeling empowered, we left Cheryl’s shop as it began to heat up with about a dozen customers (in a relatively small space) including two dogs who were obviously shop regulars. (They headed straight for the how-to manuals; one was a Labrador, of course). She gave us her card and asked us to stay in touch, which we look forward to doing.
On to Booksellers at Laurelwood we drove, a place that had no less than three addresses listed on the Internet. Since one was very close, we tried there first, and hit the jackpot.
Of course, the place was packed. A packed bookstore. Selling new books. Jack said, as we stood, taking in the site of some hundred people buying up actual physical volumes, “On the one hand, this is bad because you won’t get to talk to anyone about doing a signing when your book comes out. On the other hand, just look at this. It’s still possible.”
I think there was a tear in his voice.
We browsed beautifully displayed shelves of Crane notepaper, expensive pens and glow-in-the-dark dinosaurs. (We had hit the children’s section.) There we met the blond firecracker Nicole, children’s manager and very sweet person. She finished helping a grandmother buying five copies of The Illustrated Mother Goose. Gran bustled off with an air of relief, and Nicole, turning, took in my diffident, “are-you-too-busy-to-talk” posture and said, “Now, what can I help you with?”
Fish or cut bait; the place was hooching. Remembering poor Richard back at Square Books, I simply launched: “Iwroteabookandit’scomingoutinOctoberit’sfromStMartin’sPressandit’saboutbookstoresandit’sfunnynothowtoandIwantedtotalktosomeonehereabout doingasigningwhenitcomesoutbutyallaresobusycouldIjusttakeaphonenumberandnameofthepersonIshouldcallandI’msorrytobeherethedaybefore Christmasbutwe’rehavingsuchfunvisitingalltheindependentbookstoreswecanstillfindintheSoutheastsowehadtostoptoday.”
She blinked, then laughed and put her hand on my shoulder. “NO problem. Wait right here.” She disappeared into the milieu, and came back a couple of minutes later with a card. “The events manager isn’t here but she and I and the general manager share an office, so we talk every day. Just email me when you’re getting set up. So it’s about bookstores?”
I gave her the briefest of spiels, but she asked more questions. I said something to the effect of we didn’t want to bother her on such a busy day, and she waved her hand in a “Pshaw, neighbor” kind of way.
“You should have seen this place yesterday,” she said, a tiny tremor shaking her slender frame (she was 5’3″, just not round). “I figure since I’m still standing, I deserve ten minutes to talk about books.”
We both laughed, standing as we were in a bookstore piled high with those items, but we understood each other very well. So I told her about all the fun we’d had setting up our store and the places we’d been visiting over the past five days. A faraway look came into her eye.
“The manager and I have actually been talking about doing a quick tour of independent new sellers around here,” she said.
“Well, email me and I’ll tell you which ones are still standing,” I blurted. She gave me an enigmatic look, and only then did I remember that the store I was in had narrowly escaped death that past summer.
Booksellers at Laurelwood was Davis-Kidd, part of the Joseph Beth family. Of course we all know JB went into bankruptcy, but as Nicole explained further, everyone thought the place would be reorganized and keep going. Through a series of shenanigans involving former employees, the Memphis store got left out of  a package deal bought by the former COO from under the owner, and it became its own store, spurning later offers to rejoin the “family.”
“Lots of people think we’re gone,” Nicole added. “We get calls almost every day from people who say, ‘Oh, you’re still open!’ Where are you?”
The bookstore’s population had by this time grown from one customer per ten feet to one per two, so we shook hands and said goodbye. Jack and I stood in line with a couple of volumes he’d found (on the bargain table) and waited about fifteen minutes to reach the man at the register–who kept ringing his bell for help, more in hope than expectation as no one came. The poor guy was sweating by the time we got a turn at the counter, his arms a blur of motion.
Jack smiled. “We run a used bookstore,” he said. “We dream about having this many customers.”
The man’s tired eyes held a smile as he said, “I’ll come work for you, then.” Then he surprised us. As he rang up the books he said, “What’s the name of your store in Virginia?” (He had seen Jack’s ID for his debit card.)
“Tales of the Lonesome Pine, and we call it The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap,” Jack said.
“It’s small?” he asked, and Jack gave him the five-second spiel on my book. The man held out our bag and made eye contact with me, giving one of those between-booksellers chin nods. “Good for you,” he said. “And good luck with your bookstore.”
As we left Booksellers at Laurelwood, I mentioned my surprise that such a busy person would take the time to actually listen to a customer’s casual remarks and ask questions.
Jack nodded. “That doesn’t often happen at big stores, and that was a big store.” (Huge, in fact. Cavernous, but stuffed to coziness with books.) “But it was a big bookstore, owned by a person, not a corporation, so the employees get to be themselves instead of having the debit machine ask ‘was your server friendly today?’. It all goes back to that McDonaldization of Society book we were talking about. People who get to be themselves, think for themselves, at work are happier. And people who work in bookstores know books. So he was interested, and even with that string of traffic, he was himself.”
Score one for independent bookstores. And I look forward to emailing Nicole a list of places she can visit in the New Year.
Dead downtowns are everywhere
ON THE FIRST DAY AFTER CHRISTMAS, MY TRUE LOVE SAID TO ME…. (Dec. 25 and 26)

Christmas Day tucked into a quiet, well-appointed hotel can be very contemplative. We found the local Quaker gathering and joined them for meeting, celebrating Jesus’ birth and all it has meant for the rest of us. From contemplation to human bliss, an Indian restaurant near the hotel opened for the evening meal. Jack turned to me in the middle of his shrimp bhuna and said with a beatific smile, “It doesn’t get any better than this.”

It didn’t Dec. 26, anyway. The rain, sensing we would be returning to our car for what was marked as a scenic drive through the Ozarks, returned with vigor. Also, Monday is a day when many  bookshops are closed, and the day after Christmas a lot of small retailers pretty much think “forget it.” (We have never found this wise, knowing that Christmas money is burning a hole in many bibliophilic pockets.)

So here is the list of bookstores we did NOT get to visit: That Bookstore in Blytheville (yes, that’s the actual name, and I was looking forward to that one because it’s famous for being in the middle of nowhere yet attracting EVERYONE in the lit community); Xanadu Books in Memphis itself; and one each in Pocahontas, Mountain Home and Batesville, Arkansas.

The one we did get to surprised us. “Wolf Books” in Jonesboro, AR sounded like your basic second-hand store, but turned out to be a textbook buy-back. We’d been avoiding textbook traders and Christian bookstores on this trip because the former don’t usually deal in other forms, while the latter rarely focus on books; they’re more like Hallmark shops full of cards and trinkets. We wish both well, and bypass them with smiles.

Since we walked into Wolf (the local mascot) Books before we realized what it was, and since the guy behind the counter pounced on us as though we were the only humans he’d seen in days (which may have been true; no one came in during the half hour we spent with him) Jack just bit the bullet and explained that we ran a used bookstore, had misunderstood the name, we were very sorry and would be going now.

Not so fast. Bobby, the energetic and charismatic co-owner of the shop, hauled us over to his office, gave us  a card and a complimentary ink pen, grilled us about our shop, and explained that he bought used textbooks from across the States at pretty much the same prices as online dealers so he could resell them in his shop, and he’d love to sell ours for us.

“I make it against the online thing because I get customers all their stuff at once, conveniently bundled so they don’t have to think, and I do it fast. It’s all about service in this online world,” he said. We heartily agreed, having found that in the little shops sprinkled along the high- and byways, people survive the Amazon massacre because they are quirky, homely, sensitive HUMAN individuals who treat the people in their shops with respect AND make shopping convenient for them.

The funny thing was, though, for Bobby, service meant speed. For the rest of the used book world, it meant relaxation. We bliss our customers out whenever possible, giving them coffee, encouraging them to sit and read, meander the rooms, strike up conversations. And so do most of our cousins in the biz.

In fact, when we had to find an open Wal-Mart recently because we needed a piece of electronic equipment and didn’t know what small shop might sell it, we experienced culture shock. I forgot where we were and spoke to the cashier as though she and I were both humans with something in common. She stared at me, answered politely, and rang us up faster, as if in fear. We were out of there in two minutes, our purchase in a plastic bag bearing a corporate logo.

“Was that… weird?” I asked Jack as we walked through the crowded lot.

“Not for Wal-Mart; we’re just not used to it anymore. If you stay away awhile, what it really is shows up again.”

Not to stretch a point, but Jack’s observation has an echo in my love-hate affair with hotel TV. Jack and I don’t have a TV at our house, just Netflix. So when we land in a hotel room, I often do a channel surf for “good regular shows.” And there never are any. If you’re not hooked on a show from its inception, the paper thin nature of the characters, the amazing leaps of logic to resolve a crime in 42 minutes, the preachy attitudes of the heroes no matter how many sides a story could have in real life: they’re pretty easy to spot. Jack says, each time I pick up the remote, “Hope springs eternal, eh?” But I usually wind up spending 2o minutes watching one minute on each channel, then click off. It’s more or less a ritual by now. It’s not that I’m anti-TV; I just want a REAL story.

Points to ponder. Are we so inured to certain things in life that we don’t realize we’re not enjoying them until we forgo them awhile?

I did say that our Christmas turned out contemplative.

Enough pontificating: back to the road! Jonesboro seemed a likely place to find a mom-and-pop lunch counter slinging up all-day breakfast (Jack’s second favorite meal) but we drove in endless circles looking for anything unaffiliated with a chain before finding “The Country Lunch Buffet.”

Suckers, we were. A chain like the Steak and Sirloin places near 0ur home in VA, it was set up to look like an independent, the way coffeehouses often have individualistic names but are owned by a conglomerate.

Never mind; the food was good, plenty of green vegetables in evidence next to the beloved orange breaded foods of the South, AND we got a delightful surprise. My cell phone rang and Rachel Gholson, a friend from doctoral student days in Newfoundland, was calling from Springfield, MO. Were we headed that way?

Indeed we were, and we hastened our driving, since 1) Rachel was meeting us for supper; 2) the rain had become a deluge; and 3) Highway 60 is duller than red clay dirt. (Sorry, AR Tourism Board, but you should take those little scenic dotted lines off the map.)

We did stop in Hardy, AR, on advice from our friend Joyce Rowland. Most of it was shut, but we found two important things: cashews and a bathroom, both of which enhanced the pleasure of our onward drive. We also found that Sparrow’s Nest Books, which we had looked forward to, was closed {sigh}. In fact, the drive only became bearable because Jack kept his promise and hauled out the mini disc recorder to record the misadventures of his band Heritage (a Scottish folk supergroup in the 1980s). I’m going to work on writing them up this year. He had us laughing all the way.

Over supper with Rachel it was fairly easy to convince her to join us for a book invasion of Springfield tomorrow (possibly with our mutual friend Julie Henigan–three folklorist females and Jack in a car; friends please be prepared to stand bail).

For a very modest sum, we tucked up in a Days Inn close to the Cajun restaurant where we’d supped with Rachel, and OH BLISS it had an indoor pool. I’ve been trying to use hotel exercise rooms when available, but I really am a water baby, not a treadmill reader. (I keep dropping the book; I suppose the repeated negotiation of bending while walking is good for my tummy bulge. We got some very nice cheesecakes from our friend Elissa Powers back in Big Stone Gap, and we’ve kinda been nibbling those in the car….) Usually hotel pools are full of children emitting fluids (crying or…) but this one was gloriously empty. Jack sat with his book while I did cheesecake-negating laps.

Jack was right. It doesn’t get much better than this!

THE OZARKS ARE ODD – IN A FUN, CHARMING SORT OF WAY, OF COURSE (Dec. 27)

How can I put this? The Ozarks are odd.

We pulled into Springfield last night and had a nice dinner with an old friend from Newfoundland days, who with minimal arm twisting agreed to meet us this morning and spend the day marauding through  bookstores. Rae met us at 9:30 a.m.  (a sacrifice for her, believe me) and we set off.

Rae’s car was much admired as we journeyed.

And promptly ran into our first unfriendly bookstore manager. When I arrived at the typical-strip-mall location we were expecting the usual encounter of unusualness. To explain, about half to 60% of the bookstores we have visited are named Book Rack/Corner/Palace/Exchange and are 25,000 or so paperbacks tucked onto homemade shelving in a strip mall.

GOOD FOR YOU! we say, and since these places are usually staffed by the owner, we know their uniqueness lies not in what they offer or how they offer it, but in who is doing the selling. It’s part of the bookstore charm that owners tend to be colorful local characters, or sweethearts who just missed getting a social work degree, etc. We haven’t met two alike yet.

We bagged our first curmudgeon in this Missouri strip mall. Being the first, he seemed utterly charming, like gathering around the cage and going, “Oh, look! He’s doing it again!” when a gorilla flings poo.  Jack talked with the lad a bit longer than I did, since his Scots accent breaks down defenses, and by the time we left we knew that Cur (who was not that bad, as mudges go) and his family owned the store, they’d been there 20 years, and there were three other used bookstores in town, one run by a “real jerk,” and one by “Mr. Used Books; he wrote a book about running used bookstores, like 30 years ago.” (My ears pricked up.)

Warming to my husband, Mr. Personality also told us about “the secret store.” Apparently, if you are a good little customer and read all your classics, the community will let you in on an unmarked shop at the corner of a busy intersection. The store is in an industrial location and has no sign, but the faithful few know where to find “The Book Jungle.”

See, there’s no other way to put it: the Ozarks are odd. Charming, and fun, but odd. As we left that store, I said to Rae, “Wow. We’ve never met an anti-social used book store owner before. That’s really rare.”

Her bemused, one-raised-eyebrow look should have warned me, but we arrived at the second store convinced Cur was a one-off. At the door we were greeted by a sign that said, “No, we don’t have a customer bathroom. So don’t ask.”

It was the only greeting we got. Rae’s eyebrow made ever more sense as we shopped. Although spacious, this store boasted no overstuffed armchairs, no cozy corners, no warm lamps for reading. Another sign on the back wall said something to the effect of, “Put it back where you found it. If you can’t, why are shopping in a bookstore in the first place?” I nudged Jack. “Let’s get out of here.”

The college kid working with the owner couldn’t have cared less about our bookstore in Virginia, and we started to leave, but the owner looked up and said, “Where in Virginia? Never heard of that.”

We spent 15 minutes making bookstore small talk, and he warmed up enough to show us his $1,000 signed first edition of SE Hinton’s The Outsiders. As we left the store, Rae said, “That place has been here a long time. Now I know that he bought it six years ago, it’s starting to make sense. The personality of the store really changed then. Before, it was friendlier.”

Jack and I have often said, there are people who sell books because they’re books, and there are people who sell books because that’s what they ended up selling.

Okay, two weird bookstores in rapid succession. Now we’d had our quota.

Welcome to Redeemed, our first ever second-hand book dealer for Christians only. Redeemed, to be honest, was well organized and not leaning specifically to the “only Republicans are Christians” attitude we’d seen rather broadly displayed since reaching Springfield. Rae and I, folklorists to our cores, had already talked Jack’s ears off discussing which was the buckle of the Bible belt: Appalachia or the Ozarks. And I have to concede this point of honor to the Ozarks. I thought I’d seen a lot of “God is a white American who spends his weekends hunting” displayed in Appalachia, but we’ve got nothing on this town.

(Caveat the second: let me establish where on the mast my colors are nailed. In essence, I would die before giving up being a Christian, but I wouldn’t kill anyone over anything to do with any religion, period. If you ask me what being a Christian means, it comes down to He really was God’s Son; She really was a Virgin; It really was a Whale; and if you start the hymn, you must sing all four verses. After that, I’m flexible. I do, however, doubt very much that God is a white, English-speaking male.)

So lest you think I’m making fun of something that is the underpinning value of my life, we liked Redeemed just fine as a bookstore. Our big question was, how would a Christian bookstore decide which books to stock? They had a small classics section, in which Madame Bovary appeared, but not Dracula, Brideshead Revisited or Tom Jones. Was this happenstance? Sarah Palin’s books had pride of place in politics, but Barak Obama’s Audacity of Hope appeared on the shelf as well.

How would one run a bookstore based on an interpretation so specific to the shopkeeper’s personal beliefs? This was an interesting question for us. I’ve often said that, if you turn a book shop owner’s heart inside out, what you get is the shop. It’s a display of who and what the person is. Earlier in the trip, Joe’s shop was as messy and free-spirited as a VW bus parked at Woodstock, Joyce’s as neatly executed as a cross stitch pattern. The one TN shop we hadn’t liked sported low lighting and high prices, and once you met the owner, you knew it for a shyster’s dream. A Christian bookstore would be so hard to define, then to defend from its own clientele. How would one do it?

We would never know because the staff were too busy for us to feel comfortable approaching anyone; the place brimmed with people bringing in trade volumes–which made us think with a pang of our baby, back in Big Stone being looked after by the student Edward. The week after Christmas has traditionally been a time when people clean out closets, and we wondered if our back room were already impassible with this year’s dredgings.

Never mind; we have a week left and we’re going to live in the moment! Out of Redeemed’s parking lot we went, on to that secret location for The Book Jungle.

Oi vey. Now we know. Odd is Ozark normal.

This rat maze of a bookstore, with the lowest lighting I’d ever not been able to see in, was literally the size of our hotel room. Yet he must have had 20,000 books stuck in there – very neatly organized, too. If this shop had been a man, it would have buttoned the top button of its collar, not spoken unless spoken to, and known the exact distance to Mars, when the first silent film appeared in America, and how to get out if trapped in an underwater car.

Which pretty much sums up the owner, a man whose name we never got. Our conversation with him consisted of amiable fishhooks tossed out on our side (“Wow! You been here long?”) and grunts on his.

His prices were low – too low for him to have been using a computer. Had we been buying for our own shop, we could have scored big time, but we contented ourselves with a few real finds. It felt too much like taking candy from a surly infant.

Lunch with a couple of Rae’s college friends, and a final bookstore stop: ABC Books. Okay, put the cherry on the icing of the Odd cake: this was a secondhand bookstore where the front was Christian, the back full of paranormals and how-tos. And this shop did display personality, right next to the canners and the “how to survive when the electricity fails” pamphlets published by the owner. And advertisements for “Survival Series” shooting courses, tailored to “never shot before” wives and children.

I looked at Rae, a Missouri native. She grinned. “Welcome to the Ozarks.”

We bought a couple of fun titles there, and I look forward to planting my edible front yard when we get home.

SONG SWEET, LADY LOVELY, BOOKSTORE BEAUTIFUL (Dec. 28)

An Ozark native gets friendly with Wendy in his shop

Redemption comes in many forms. Our Ozarkian odyssey ended with Julie Henigan, a folklorist in Springfield who appeared at our hotel with her gorgeous 1936 guitar. (We’d met her at lunch.) She regaled us with ballads and stories until just after 9, when my head nodding could no longer be disguised as me keeping time to the music. I think I’d started snoring, which was a pity because her music was lovely!

She and Jack went downstairs to close the hotel’s entryway lounge–the clerk next morning said it was her best night of work in a long time–while I plotted our route across Missouri and fell asleep with the atlas on my face.

Awaking refreshed but with a staple mark between the eyes, I bundled Jack into an early-but-not-marriage-endangering departure and our wheels rolled by 8:30. My circuitous route took us up another of those dotted scenic highways (Dear mapmakers: I’m sorry, but you have broken my trust for the last time) and then along a tiny grey line eastward to Lebanon.

For some reason the hotel breakfast had not stuck, and when we turned right at the tiny dot called Buffalo, I was hungry enough to concede to a fast food breakfast, despite our resolve to only eat in local establishments. At that moment there hoved into view a small, local cafe.

I pulled in so fast Jack almost swallowed his microphone. (He’s regaling me with stories of his musical exploits with Heritage back in the 1980s, and we’re taping them for a possible publication project later.) He  started to say something, but saw “bacon and eggs” on the sign, and switched the mini-disc recorder off.

Truth be told, ’twas fairly mediocre breakfast, not quite as homemade as one might have expected. Not all little restaurants in small towns are magic, but it filled the need. We asked Brandy, our server, if there happened to be any bookstores in town, and she pointed the way we’d come.

“One block over.”

We’d driven right past a bookstore and not seen it? I thought our eyes had attuned to 10-point type by now, but we backtracked–and realized why we hadn’t noticed. A plywood-and-paneling shack sat next to a desultory thrift store.

“Aimee’s Books” looked….cheap and cheerful from the outside, and we walked into your basic dormer on a concrete slab. One good prairie wind, and the whole house of books would collapse. 1950s gospel played on a radio as two locals, George and Debbie, chatted about what had been in the paper that week. I took a quick look around, found a cheap book that would do, and planned to beat a quick retreat.

Debbie at Aimee’s Books in Buffalo, Missouri

Debbie asked where we were from. Jack told her, adding that we owned a bookstore. Her face lit up.

“I’m friends with about 300 bookstores on facebook,” she said, and launched into her own story. Illness, divorce, grown children who’d have to leave town to find jobs, and voila, a bookstore was born. When the daughter she’d set it up for found work at the local hotel, mom stepped in to keep it going, since by then the locals were regularly coming by with trades, and happy to have her there. And the store was named for her newest acquisition, somebody else’s three-year-old she was raising to give her some stability. Aimee’s picture had pride of place in a newspaper clipping describing the store’s opening. I began to understand Debbie’s philosophy on life. Warm heart, sweet spirit, messy bookstore. Priorities are important.

Debbie, oblivious to my inner musings, said, “Take George, the guy who was in here when you came in. His wife gives her mom lunch at the nursing home every day, and he comes in here and talks to me while she does that. He comes every day.” I could see why. Debbie embodied “earth mom meets home nurse” practicality and kindness.

She’d already heard about my book, and suddenly she broke off the thread of the conversation to say, “I always wanted to write about the people who come in here. They’re a real bunch of characters. But I don’t write. Not at all. Well, I’ve done a couple of things for local organizations, and on Facebook and stuff. But I never got into the habit of writing.”

“You should!” I just about shouted. “I wrote most of my book while minding our store, between customers.” I pointed to her desk, barricaded behind the only counter in the place. “Just prop your laptop up there and write when no one’s in. You’ll be amazed how fast you amass words.”

She nodded thoughtfully, and I hope her local paper will benefit from my prodding in the future. Maybe she’ll start a blog…..

Another regular customer cruised the store as we talked, and it became obvious that she wanted to talk to Debbie herself, so after some 30 minutes of comparing notes –how hard it was to get away, how lovely to have regular customers who would step in and keep the place running, how $28 a day take-home was a good day for her–we hugged goodbye.

You can’t judge a bookstore by its cover. Debbie was absolutely lovely, and her store fit that community like a hand in its glove, reaching out to everyone who crossed her path.

We drove a lovely small farm road (without any scenic dots, but one of the nicest we’d been on) down to Lebanon, where we entered the first of several bookstores across our route named “[town name] Books and Toys.” A new bookstore with one bay of used books, in a strip mall replete with bright fluorescent lighting, the place seemed almost schizophrenic in its personality, that center aisle of battered paperbacks competing with crisp and colorful new books in side displays. The young woman working the counter gave us a bag printed with its eight or so sister locations; the shops were the creation of three brothers who distributed magazines across the state, and had started their own bookstores. I liked the mystical angle of the three brothers, picturing the youngest as the fairy tale Jack, always doing the wrong thing at the right time to win out in the end. These boys must have been doing something right, as their family-owned chain dominated Missouri.

Hopping onto the highway, we drove to Rolla, Jack picking up his Heritage stories along the way. In Rolla, we found to our surprise a vibrant downtown section, complete with renovated sidewalks, and the most beautiful bookstore we’d seen to date. Large windows in beautiful brick-and-wood settings, an old-fashioned hand-lettered sign announcing “Reader’s Corner.”

The outside should have prepared us, but Debbie’s place hadn’t matched its cover, so we walked in expecting anything, and found the most beautiful bookstore we’d seen yet.

Dark wood shelves with decorative corner work, books lined neatly along them, corner bins and turn racks neatly arranged, and unusual statuary, old typewriters and suitcases atop the lot, stretching to the high ceiling. At the back, two castle turrets stood straight and true above the children’s section, teddy bears storming their towers as a rag doll with braids looked down, smiling vacantly.

I couldn’t speak. Jack took one look and headed straight for the guy behind the counter.

It was about an hour and  half later that we tore ourselves away from Larry Bowen, who probably had gotten embarrassed by our repeated assertions that he ran the prettiest used bookstore we’d ever seen. Brittany, his shop assistant, photographed us together, and we vowed to stay in touch. (His dad was a sign painter, as was Jack’s; he played guitar; etc.)

Jack with Larry, owner of Reader’s Corner

Larry told us several funny (and all too familiar) stories about his adventures as a shop owner, and this blog will feature some of those in the coming weeks. (Yes, in response to queries, I will keep blogging once we return to our regularly scheduled lives, because there’s so much to say from all the lovely shopkeepers we met, but it’s going down to once a week.)

One of the things we talked with Larry about was the ever-present local/Amazon effect. Push me, pull me, shop local, get it cheaper. Larry had instituted a policy that anything Amazon sold cheaper than his shop, he would match at $2 higher. This took into account his expenses at running it, and the low budgets of a downturned economy’s customers. It seemed a good compromise.

Not so fast. A customer who’d come in a few weeks earlier to get a donation for her church went away with $50 in gift certificates. She reappeared and showed him a book on Amazon for $13.57. “Can you beat that price? I want to shop local,” she said, smiling winningly.

Larry sighed, swallowed, and pushed up his metaphorical shirt sleeves. “I can do $15.57.”

Her face fell. “But you can’t beat it? I need 10. The church board wants these for our next Bible study.”

Larry smiled. “$15.57.”

She frowned. “I don’t think our board would authorize that extra expense. It would be $20 more than Amazon, all told. No, I’m sorry, I just don’t think that will do.”

“What about the $50 donation I gave you last month?”

She looked suddenly sheepish. “Well… I mean, we do want to shop local. It’s just we need to be good money stewards.”

Larry smiled again. “So do I. I need to keep my business standing in the community I serve.”

Larry 10 x $15.57, Amazon 0.

Reader’s Corner in Rolla, Missouri: world’s prettiest used bookshop
Isn’t it pretty?
TURNING TOWARD HOME, WITH A SLIGHT TWIST (Dec. 29)
The Booty (with three days to go)

It’s a bad sign when you can’t remember where you spent the night, something most of us left behind in our carefree college days. But I don’t remember where Jack and I parked last night, just that the motel was clean and had an indoor pool. And that we were near storytelling friends Dan Keding and Tandy Lacy, but missed getting together – bummer!

It might be time to start for home. We are now in Mt Carmel, Illinois, and there’s a funny story to go with that in a minute. But first, let me tell you about The Book Stores of St Louis.

Larry Bowen had told us that the four independent bookshops in the big city had hooked themselves together into the Independent Booksellers Alliance, so we looked forward to hearing about this. Our first stop was Puddnhead Books, in the charming village of Webster Groves. (The shop didn’t open until ten and wherever we stayed the night before, I had dragged Jack out of it at 9, so the twenty minutes we ambled the streets peering in shop windows were silent and contrite on my part, triumphantly forgiving on Jack’s.)

Puddnhead is spacious, painted with bright primary colors, and runs heavily to children’s books. It was also the first place we’d seen with a resident animal, but, sadly, it was the dog’s day off. He lives with the adult buyer and event coordinator, and they weren’t in that day; the children’s manager was working the floor.

Jack and I ambled, discovering a shelf at the back with “gently used” half-price books the owners had read and brought in. We scored a couple there and Jack found yet another Bob Dylan book he didn’t own–which, given the morning’s timing debacle, seemed a small price to pay. The bathroom in Puddnhead cemented my belief that this was a charming place: authors who had signed books there left latrinalia on its walls. (That’s graffiti to you and me, but some of my friends are folklorists.)

The woman working the shop spent considerable time talking with us, but it turns out we were the second shop owners in two days to come by. Another couple, who owned a children’s bookshop in Minnesota, had passed through on their way to visit family, and had called in to see “another independent bookstore.”

We talked about the Amazon factor, and she told me something interesting: when Amazon put out its now-infamous call that anyone who produced a print add for local retailers selling anything cheaper than The Big A would get $5 below that price, customers did indeed react. They brought in lists of books they wanted and said, “We were going to buy these on Amazon but after what they tried to do to local shops with that campaign, we hate them.”

Backlash is America’s greatest asset, and much of our history is actually built on it, for good or ill. Up the localvores.

The lady at Puddnhead also spent considerable time advising a family on a book purchase for a young child, again something that doesn’t happen in the box stores. And she drew us a map to the other independent new sellers, plus a couple of used ones. We waved a cheerful goodbye and set our GPS to the second store.

Remember how I said when you turn a bookseller’s heart inside out, what displays is his or her bookstore? Well, let’s just admit that not everyone would feel a natural affinity to everyone else, no matter how hard we try. It’s not that we think the next store we visited is wrong, or bad, or even creepy, it’s just….

If Edgar Allen Poe had married Charlaine Harris, this is the bookstore they would have opened.

Steampunk meets zombie meets gentleman bookseller. Great shelves, reminiscent of that pretty Reader’s Corner run by Larry back in Rolla – but painted black and towering so high our friend Mike Samerdyke (6’3″) would have been hardpressed to reach the top. No ladders. No signs to tell you how to get the books down. Lots of magic books, though, so maybe the owner could levitate. Black floors, black walls, orange spider script designating the shelves. And to top off the creepy factor, Rush Limbaugh’s talk show was blaring over the speakers. In fact, our friend and fellow writer Mike Samerdyke and his daughter Olivia would have loved this shop, as would our friend and fellow writer Neva Bryan; both Neva and Mike adore Dark stuff, but Jack and I are more into little fuzzy animals with big brown eyes drawn by Garth Williams or Jack Kent.

Thanks, Mr. Steam Zombie, your bookstore is darkly lovely and we’re outta here. Bless you, be well, some forms of depression are treatable with medication, and we have some friends we’ll be sending your way.

We had intended to leave the new bookstores behind and visit a second-hand one, but the second Alliance member had shaken us, so we decided to see a third. Hello, “Left Bank Books,” where our spirits soared. They had a resident cat.

Spike ambling back into the office to resume working on his novel. He loved being petted, but flatly refused to pose for a photo. Or maybe we’d kept him from his daily word quota.

“Spike” was sitting in an office at a laptop, presumably working on his novel, when we arrived, and Danielle, the events coordinator, kindly left her desk (where she was clearly pretty busy) and spent fifteen minutes telling us about Spike and Left Bank, and hearing about our cats and shop. Left Bank has been in business 42 years, and has two locations. It does more than 200 events per year, and it has used books downstairs, new upstairs.

I mentioned Amazon and she gave a disdainful sniff. “We’re not worried.”

They didn’t have reason to be; even in the Dead Days between Christmas and New Year, the place thrummed with people (many of whom were happy to greet Spike when he sauntered up the stairs after leaving us. We heard cries of “Hey, Spike!” from several directions.)

“Left Bank” had the comfortable feeling of an overstuffed armchair, books everywhere, people everywhere, cat ambling through. A localvore’s dream, in fact.

Three distinct bookshops, three distinct personalities: that’s a good way for large city sellers to cooperate with each other; we were impressed.

From there we beat it across Illinois toward Vincennes–and, unknowing, the best customer service story of the day. We’d booked a hotel online the night before from… wherever it was we were. By the time we left St. Louis, we really didn’t have a chance to stop anywhere else with a bookstore; we’d marked the town of Olney as having one, but we got there after 5. So we just drove into the dark, me getting a bit tired and cramped, looking forward to the Super 8 in Vincennes.

Which didn’t have any record of our reservation.

We hauled out the laptop and checked the phone number. The hotel clerk looked nervous. “That’s an Illinois area code.”

Illinois, as in, the place we just drove across? The flat place of crazy drivers passing each other, that had only one bookstore in a three-hour stretch?

We rang the number; the hotel was in Mt Carmel, Illinois, about fifteen minutes back the way, and South another twenty. It wasn’t so far off our track, but it also wasn’t where we were standing. I explained and asked the woman at the Mt Carmel Super 8 to cancel our reservation.

The disembodied voice sounded politely sympathetic. “We can’t cancel after 4.”

“The website told me you were in Vincennes! We’re not going South.”

“I am very sorry.”

Every book I’d read about employees not getting to make their own decisions, about the disincentive to provide customer service via disincentive to think for oneself at all, came flooding forward. She couldn’t make this decision; it was no skin off her nose. Red hot rage flooded me.

“Fine,” I said. “Thank you and goodbye.” I didn’t hang up on her, but I didn’t wait for her to say anything else, either.

The poor child working the Vincennes Super 8 looked something between frightened and sympathetic. She made us a Mapquest printout to the other hotel, and we drove back the way we’d come, me rehearsing a careful yet thorough speech about customer service, decision making and the ability of consumers to reciprocate via feedback sites and blogs and other free speech venues.

“We are the Beck reservation,” I said to the woman behind the counter, a petite redhead whose eyes barely saw over the top. Those eyes narrowed.

“I thought you weren’t coming.”

“We had no choice.” I narrowed my eyes back at her. “We can’t afford to throw away a night’s fee if you wouldn’t cancel us.”

“I did cancel you,” she said. “I called my manager, and he agreed that if this wasn’t where you’d intended, you shouldn’t have to stay. Do you still want to stay here? We have room, but you’d said this wasn’t where you wanted to be.”

That ‘wah-wah-wah-wah’ noise the sitcom of life sometimes produces when God wants to teach us a little humility began to play in my head.

“Why didn’t you do that while I was on the phone?” I asked.

She shrugged. “I had to call him back. And…” her eyes narrowed even more. “You didn’t give me a chance to say anything about your calling me back. I didn’t have your number to call.”

Jack and I looked at one another, me teetering between rage and laughter. Jack’s mustache twitched.

“Where are you headed, anyway?” Nikki (as her badge announced) asked.

We burst into laughter. “Anywhere we want,” Jack said. “We run a bookstore, and we’re visiting independent bookstores and secondhand ones. My wife’s just written a book, so we’re seeing how other people run theirs plus meeting places where she might do publicity later.”

Nikki looked at me. “What’s the book about?”

I couldn’t help it. “Customer service.”

Nikki laughed. I was starting to like her. She launched into a very careful play by play of the many fine features of this particular Super 8, including the free breakfast and where the ironing board was located in the room closet. Apparently the hotel had just been vacated by a very large church group that came every year right after Christmas, and used up most of the staff’s internal reserves of diplomacy, so our call had been rather the icing on her “The Customer is always right” cake. Or perhaps the butcher knife slicing through it.

Either way, all’s well that ends in a belly laugh, and next time I want someone in a customer service position to help me, I may believe a little more in their self-efficacy and general goodwill.

Look closely at the name in this star (from the streets of St Louis) – so close!!!
999 AND COUNTING DOWN (Dec. 30)
First, let me say THANK YOU! 999 views have been made of my blog.

Second, if you want to follow it, rest assured that I’m going back to posting once a week, or even fortnightly, after this trip. There will be three more days of “Booking Down the Road,” and then we resume the slower pace of a happy life in 2012. Best wishes for your New Year when it comes; some of you are in time zones where it already is, so hope you are off to a great start!

Okay, now let me tell you about our very strange yesterday.

We left Mt Carmel and Nikki, who as part of the “We really do have great customer service” fun told us about a bookstore in a house about 30 minutes away. This turned out to be run by one Bill E. Taylor, a character and a half. He and his wife had inherited “Book Daddy” from his father-in-law 12 years ago, when it had already been running 35 years. The store was tiny, not more than 10,000 books, and badly organized.

None of which mattered, because Bill was just so gosh darn much fun to talk to. He charmed us up one side and down the other, and we left loaded with (very inexpensive) books of every description, and his home address and phone in our pocket. For his part, he had our details and the title of my book, which he promised “to buy ten copies of and give as Christmas presents next year.”

So OF COURSE we liked him! But we also loved swapping small town stories of silly politics, smarmy inside deals, and sweet summers. The more you travel, the more things sound a lot like home.

We left Bill, charmed and cheered, and drove to Evansville, Indiana, which boasted five bookstores, two of them new. We had some trouble locating Fulton Avenue Books, and when we pulled in, a man getting out of  a large pick-up gave us a funny–okay, unfriendly–look, as we folded up our travel atlas and hunted the camera before vacating our little hybrid.

“What’s his problem?” I asked Jack as we walked toward the door our GPS said was the place.

“Urk,” said Jack.

“Urk” is a not a sound I associate with Jack. “What, honey?”

Jack pointed, wordless, at a sign: “Gentlemen only. Must be 18 to enter.”

Fulton Ave Books – look closely (but not too!)

Well, who knew? This bookstore was a porn shop. Wow! That hadn’t happened the whole trip. Okay, back in the car (quickly!) and on to the next address.

It got funnier as we drove. “When you think about it, we’ve visited 30 bookstores, so one of them had to be a duffer,” Jack said, as we pontificated and rationalized and drove faster away from Fulton Avenue Books to “Bookmart.”

Which was also a porn shop.

“No way,” Jack said, staring at the sign.

(Please note: my beloved is usually far more articulate than “urk” and “no way.” His speechlessness is a sure sign of how deeply startled, indeed gobsmacked, we were.)

“Let’s get the hell out of Evansville,” I said, and we floored it, leaving behind two more shops that shall never be explored by the Beck Welch team. Probably at least one was run by a sweet little old lady with a resident cat, who would have been knitting a sweater (the lady, not the cat).

Anyway, we left Pornsville at 70 mph and drove to an outlying burg: Newburgh. The funniest part of this bit was driving out of Evansville past some incredibly large and beautiful newly-built houses. In any economy, they would have stood out, but in these recession times?

“This will be the porn king family and his children,” Jack said, and at that precise moment, an ornate sign overhead announced, “Fucquay Avenue.”

I can’t remember the last time Jack and I laughed that loud. The windows in our car caved and convexed with it.

In Newburgh we met the retired librarian running “Book Nook,” a basement shop complete with an old bank vault. The messiest shop we’d seen yet, dimly lit and stuffed to the gills, it was a welcome respite from the morning’s non-bookstores.

A bit of serendipity also cheered us. Our route took us through a town called New Harmony, and since we drove right along the downtown square, it became evident that this was another utopian village attempt, like New Lanark, Scotland. We pulled in and wandered the street, stopping at an antique store (complete with resident puppy “Lucky”) so Jack could ask about the town’s origins. During the shop owner’s explanation, Jack mentioned the Lanark village and its founder, Robert Owen.

“Yeah,” said the shopkeeper. “That’s the guy.”

Turns out the Owen family had exported their philosophy and its backing money to the Quaker area of Indiana/Kentucky, and created this little piece of social engineering. A recent grant had brought it back to life–although, the man said regretfully, the bookshop had closed about five years before. A coffeeshop was selling used books, another pattern we saw often in towns that had lost their bookstores but weren’t big enough to attract Barnes and Noble.

The best “you can use our toilet but” moments of the whole trip. New Harmony didn’t miss a trick. If the print is too small, this is asking for donations to a local girl’s upcoming mission trip to Kenya to provide clean water, “something we’re giving you for free here!” The jar was stuffed.

Charmed, we drove to Owensboro, KY, where “Tales and Tunes” would be the last bookshop of the day before heading full steam toward Frankfort, KY, where our friends Charles and Mary waited. Mary Hamilton, a storyteller, is publishing her first book this May, with University Press of Kentucky. (It is called Kentucky Folktales: revealing stories, truths and outright lies.)

Jack and I chatted about the unusual nature of the morning’s discovery’s, how Billy’s place had looked so unpromising and turned out to be such fun, as we drove, and we pulled up to the address for “Tales and Tunes” almost before we expected it.

It was a porn shop.

We stared in disbelief, then burst out laughing. And drove away, still laughing, toward friends we knew in a happier place.

CALM AFTER THE STORM (Dec. 31)

Jack and I arrived last night at Charles and Mary’s house, plopping down in their living room to catch up on the last ten years or so. We also plotted our gleeful invasion of Frankfort and Lexington’s bookstores the next morning.

A nice touch: when we went downstairs to their kitchen in search of coffee, fellow UVA Wise prof Brian McKnight’s book was lying on the table! He’d been at the KY Book Fair this year, which Mary and I will be doing 2012. Life is a glorious circle.

Charles and Mary are the kind of people who live simply but not slightly. They pay attention to the details in their calm, fulfilled lives. He’s a retired geologist, she still active as a storyteller (plus just finishing her new book of KY Folktales). They’re the kind of people who, making eggs for breakfast, picked out the dark Fiestaware plates so the yellow eggs (dotted with red peppers) would look nice on the blues and greens. Simple, but aware. Charles and Mary fully occupy their own lives.

So we looked forward to a great day with Charles as our guide. First up: Poor Richard’s Books, hooked in parternship but not ownership with Coffee Tree and Completely Kentucky. Now this, ladies and gentlemen, is cooperation; the businesses on either end (Richard’s and Kentucky) bought the shop between them and put in the coffee house, then sold it as a going concern some six years later. THAT’s planning and foresight and cooperation and I wish with all my being that we could foster them in our hometown.

Poor Richard’s, Frankfort, KY

These three shops also knocked door holes in their shared walls so you could walk between them. Since each has different opening hours, they have signs that announce, “If this door is closed, the shop you’re trying to get to through it is not open.”

So simple. So elegant. So cooperative. We tried to get a business down the street to do a joint event with us, and they wouldn’t return our phone calls. (Good thing we’re not bitter, eh?)

Poor Richard’s reminded one of the old law libraries with movable ladders and recessed wooden shelves. New books downstairs, used bestsellers in the Coffee Tree (but you pay for them in PR’s) and other used books upstairs. A nice arrangement.

A yuppie coffee and an Internet connection later, we headed to Georgetown, and the one bookshop Charles had not visited before. Of course, it had gone out of business last year. That makes seven we’ve found (or not, to be precise) that closed in the last year. Support your local bookseller, if you’re lucky enough to have one!!!

On to the next place, a new book retailer called Morris Books, this was a charming location with one of the nicest deco schemes we’d seen, huge signs on the wall showing where things are. Mary and I will each be working with them this coming year on book signings, and the women staffing the place were cheerful, laugh-a-minute types. It also turns out that the owner of Morris is good friends with the manager of Parnassus (that might be spelled wrong) in Nashville, the shop Ann Patchett recently backed. Partnerships are wonderful things when they’re equal. My agent’s assistant, Michelle, has already been in contact with Karen at Parnassus, so we’re looking forward to reconnecting with Morris as well.

Thea, the love muffin staff dog at Glover’s

From Morris we ambled to Glover’s, a rare and used book dealership with a resident Irish Setter. “Thea” was the size of a small pony and gentler than a sleepy Quaker. She shared her toys with me and invited me to lower my blood pressure by petting her repeatedly as I browsed the shop. The owner, John Glover, said Half Price Books – cursed be they, the Wal-mart of used bookstores, based out of Texas–had cut his revenue so much that he was getting out of the used business to concentrate on rare: first editions, specialty titles, and the like. His shop sported several antique Bibles and other ancient editions of familiar titles. I only saw some of them because Thea had taken a real shine to me and required a lot of concentration.Thea enjoyed our visit at Glover’s Books, and an offering of unconditional love is rare enough in this world, so we both got what we needed from the relationship.

John owned his building and had been in business for some 30 years; his shop was dusty and covered in books–stacked along the stairs, sliding out of boxes, everywhere. Yet he, himself, reminded me of Larry, from the beautiful Reader’s Corner in Rolla, Missouri. Their shops could not have looked more different, and the books they stocked were wildly diverse, but their philosophies resembled one another: nobody, particularly not the town where you live, not the people who purport to be its biggest boosters, and certainly not the “commerce team” is going to help small entrepreneurs. But by golly, we know how to help ourselves, and to get on with our plans and create what we love, that other people will come to love, and that’s enough for a gracious, blessed life.

Up the localvores, kids, the real ones, not the politicos. And here’s to all of us who do what’s in front of us because it’s good, and makes us happy.

So I finally tore myself away from Thea, we said goodbye to John, and on to the next shop. We stopped briefly at Sqecial Media (no, that’s really how it’s spelled) but it was more gifts than books, so we moved on soon. (Nice place, just not what we were after.)

The last shop of the day held a pleasant surprise. We met our first African American bookseller. He owned Wild Fig Books, which until May of this year had been Morgan Adams Books, owned by the same woman who ran Squecial Media. Mr. Wilkinson had worked for her a few years, and when she decided to close up, he bought  her inventory, closed for a month, and reopened as Wild Fig.

“It’s named after a metaphor Gail Johnson, an author here in town, uses a lot. My wife, Crystal Wilkinson, is a writer, and she really admires Gail, so that’s how the store got its name.”

Crystal Wilkinson’s name was familiar to Charles and me, and it turns out she was one of the founding Afrilachian poets, along with Nikki Giovanni and Frank X. Walker. I promptly asked for and bought one of her books of short stories.

Again, turn a bookshop owner’s heart inside out, and that’s what the shelves will show. The shop, as he explained, stocked new books but was primarily used, and he’d only brought in the new books because most of the best books had left the shop in the closing out sale. He had  a cracking art history section, and a lot of the used books featuring African American experiences or writers were displayed sideways on the shelves.

I explained about our bookshop, adding how we’d put our own inventory into it to get started.

He grinned. “Yep. All my beautiful art books, the things that really mattered to me, that I’d bought with my discount while working here, they all went back in. It hurt, but I did what had to be done.”

We shared the smile of Those Who Sacrifice To Make It Happen.

He got the details of my upcoming book and we wished each other well. Jack had offered to make his world famous vegetable curry for Charles and Mary, so we headed back to the house for a little down time before he started cooking.

We met several old friends this round, including Jane Yolen. I also found Carolyn Jourdan’s fun memoir “Heart in the Right Place,” but the light was too poor to photograph it.

There’s some old proverb that says a simple meal with friends is better than a feast in the palace of a king. And that is true, especially when it ends with the famous Charlesian Chocolate Brownies. Restful evenings are lovely things, and tomorrow, New Year’s Day, is the finale of our bookshop extravaganza, for we head back down the road toward home. I suppose I should pontificate here about New Years, New Plans, New Resolves. But I’m full of brownies and the living room is peaceful with friendship and music, so let that be a fitting end to this year.

Happy New Year and God Bless Us, Every One!

NOW, THEN (Jan. 1, 2012)

A typical day at our shop

So the “Booking Down the Road” tour ends back at our own dear little bookstore in Big Stone Gap (Tales of the Lonesome Pine Used Books, and yes, like the rest of the planet, we can be liked on Facebook). And what did we see, learn, enjoy?

Mileage: 2,690

Gas tank fill-ups: 4 (God bless the Honda Hybrid and all who sail with her!)

Hotels: 11

Nice Hotels: 10

Nice hotels with indoor pools: 3

Friends we got to see along the road: 4

Friends we missed seeing along the road because our overlaps didn’t: 3 (sorry Gayle, Dan/Tandy and Linda)

Books we bought: 42

Bookstores we visited: 42 (but it wasn’t 1:1!)

States visited: 9 (VA, TN, AL, MS, AR, MO, IL, IN, KY)

Number of times we said, “Oh, we should do that in our store!”: about 12

Number of bookstores we intended to visit that had gone out of business: 7

Number of vibrant small-town downtowns we saw: 18

Number of dead downtowns we saw: 22

Number of people who spent Christmas in the Memphis Crowne Plaza: 6, plus one lonely little desk clerk who kept jumping up any time someone came through the lobby, asking, in a hopeful voice, “D’ya need anything? Can I help you with something?” We finally asked for ice just to give her some human contact.

Our glorious new porch awaits the first Spring day of 2012

Number of times we had to go to Wal-Mart to get an item we couldn’t find anywhere else: 1

Number of times we visited a chain restaurant because we couldn’t find a mom-n-pop: 2

Favorite bookstore of all we visited: Oh be serious

Biggest laugh of trip:  “Fucquay Avenue.” (If this doesn’t make sense to you, read the entry “999 and counting down.” But not while your mother is around.)

Number of total laughs on trip: about a thousand

Our own little shop, complete with lovely new porch paid for by the town’s redevelopment grant

So there it is, in simple numbers, our backroad bookstore excursion. What did we learn?  That people who do what’s in front of them – build, paint, renovate, stock, defy, buy, sell and smile–are still standing, while those who wait for permission, or guarantees, or help from someone else disappear fairly quietly into that good night. That a lot of very sweet, funny people are living in the States, doing their day to day in a happy way and enjoying what life brings. That Springfield, MO is an odd place (Hi, Rachel!). That east or west, home is looking much better than we thought.

Big Stone Gap, among all the towns we saw, is pretty; it rates perhaps 7/10 in upkeep and upscale factor. We’re not Oxford, but we’re not Como, either. And we have the people, the resources, the possibility to make ourselves a cohesive community downtown. Do we have the will? Maybe, and if we don’t we have the individual curmudgeons, which from what we’ve seen will work almost as well. If you can’t join ‘em, beat ‘em. 2012 should prove an interesting year.

Jack and I are settling back into the store, planning implementations of some of the cool things we saw other shops doing, starting a network with many of the people we met to help ourselves along. Yeah, we learned a lot, and as every college professor knows, it will stick with us longer because we had a good time doing it.

St Martin’s Press sent the first draft of their intended cover just before we left. It lent a certain gravitas to the trip.

_

3 responses to “BOOKING DOWN THE ROAD TRIP

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  2. Kate Wilson

    I just finished reading your book which is going to go in the church library now. I really enjoyed it.
    On another road trip come farther north in Illinois to Springfield. We have three used book stores all very different from one another. Prairie Archives is on the square downtown. It is quite large and does email business. I have found some very hard to find books there. They know their stock and are well organized. There is a smaller shop of mostly paperbacks off the square about a block west of Prairie Archives. It isn’t all that well organized. He doesn’t really know his stock. There are good lunch places downtown.
    The third bookshop is out in the mall area on the southwest side of town (shopping mecca for those so inclined). They have everything in their computer and so can tell you whether they have the book and where it is. One time I was in there looking for a certain book that wasn’t showing up on the computer. One of the employees who had just been sorting things in the back room happened to overhear me. He remembered seeing the book in one of the boxes they had just opened, so they processed it and I bought it.

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