Category Archives: small town USA

The Monday Book: PEACE MEALS by Anna Badkhen

This book drifted into our shop and I read it on and off throughout our recent Chilean travels. It was a great choice for travel reading because it is easy to dip into, chapter by chapter. Badkhen writes in newspaper articles, each chapter complete in itself and pretty self-contained. People looking for a start-to-finish story may not enjoy that so much.

I liked that it was basically a series of short stories themed around food: how hard it can be to get it in war zones; how different getting it is depending on your nationality, ethnicity, and place of eating at the time; how differently mindful of food people are in different countries; how good or bad it tastes depending on why you’re eating it, with whom. Psychology meets food in her thoughtful writing, but she is rarely sentimental. There’s a chapter in which she fights with herself after lambasting her son for wasting food growing in their garden, trying to decide how much of the world she wants him to understand at a young age, trying to figure out whether other people’s food needs influencing her behavior really makes a difference, or is just a feel-good sop.

Recipes accompany each chapter, but I’m not a cook and skipped them. If you enjoy trying to make different types of food, the recipes include where in the US you can get hard-to-find ingredients, or good substitutes for them, which I imagine real cooks would appreciate. Me, I stick to devouring words and ideas, and this book is replete with both. It’s not just that she wrote about her pizza in Iraq, or the hospitality of those with nothing handing out half of it to guests (her favorite meal of all time was a handful of dusty green raisins shared with a man who poured half of his supper into her palm). It’s that between those descriptions she does some thoughtful investigation of her own mind and comparison to other experiences.

In other words, this is an insightful and often analytical book about the emotions and experiences that surround food, in places ranging from overstocked to seriously shortaged. If that sounds interesting to you, you’ll love this book.

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The Monday Book: TIME WAS SOFT THERE by Jeremy Mercer

“In a place like Paris, the air is so thick with dreams they clog the streets and take all the good tables at the cafés. Poets and writers, models and designers, painters and sculptors, actors and directors, lovers and escapists, they flock to the City of Lights. That night at Polly’s, the table spilled over with the rapture of pilgrims who have found their temple. That night, among new friends and safe at Shakespeare and Company, I felt it too. Hope is a most beautiful drug.”

mercerJack and I got the idea for using shopsitters at our place – people who receive free room and board in return for living there – from Shakespeare and Co. This is a famous bookstore across from Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.

On a listserv of bookshop owners, talk turned to books about bookstores. (I received ego strokes, and then we went on.) Mercer stayed at the shop for some time, watching the ebb and flow of people who ranged from down and outs to up and comings. He also spent significant time with George, the shop owner (although not its founder – Sylvia Beach did that) and some of the regulars.

Mercer’s book is in many ways journalistic, showing his roots as a true crime writer. Yet he portrays the under humanity so simply with his “this is what happened” prose. One of the blurbs on the back calls the book a romanticized version of the bum’s life, but I don’t agree. The book is far less romantic than wistful.

Among the things Mercer does is get George’s daughter to visit, and ultimately secure the shop’s future. It has a fascinating history: closed during the Nazi Era, considered a hothouse of sedition in the 1960s student riots, monitored by the CIA in the 1990s if George is to be believed.

There are a couple of startling moments: an ethnic hate crime results in murder and Mercer is less concerned about the murder than the police sniffing around a bookstore full of people with improper visas to be in France. He seems more concerned when the 84-year-old George gets engaged to 20-year-old shop worker Eva. That kind of thing. It all just sails past, along with the adorable moments of scorn for “30 minute tourists” who just want to stick their head in the door because the place is famous, having no understanding of or interest in its true ethos.

And there’s a very funny cynicism to the scheme three residents come up with, to sit and write in front of the tourists and sell the pages, story by short story. The description of this was, quite frankly, laugh out loud funny.

This isn’t a story about books, but about the bookstore itself, its inhabitants, and its purpose. Mercer’s final paragraph is a good summation: “In the end, yes, it is a famous bookstore and, yes, it is of no small literary importance. But more than anything, Shakespeare and Company is a refuge, like the church across the river. A place where the owner allows everyone to take what they need and give what they can.”  

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Filed under Big Stone Gap, book repair, book reviews, bookstore management, folklore and ethnography, humor, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, publishing, reading, shopsitting, small town USA, Uncategorized, Wendy Welch, what's on your bedside table, writing

Jack’s Travels

chileI count myself very fortunate to have had the opportunity to travel widely during my life, and mostly at little cost for various reasons. When I was a part of the folk band ‘Heritage’ from the late ’70s through the early ’90s we toured in France, Germany, Italy and Switzerland. Then just before and after my retirement from the college in Scotland where I worked for twenty years, I visited Romania and Vietnam on business. Of course I came over here to the US every year from the late ’80s until I moved here permanently, and visited Newfoundland when Wendy was studying there.
I really enjoyed all of that, made some good friends, and experienced wonderful cultures that I would never have known much about otherwise.
Every year, of course, I get to go back to Scotland at the end of June when I lead a small group tour of my homeland. So I get around. But next Wednesday I’ll be going to a part of the world I’ve never been to – South America!
Our good friends Cami and Bill are coming to the end of an extended stay in Chile, thanks to a Fulbright Scholarship, we will be joining them for their last few days and then staying on for a few more on our own. I know very little about this part of the world, other than something of the troubled politics of the 20th Century.
If I can I’ll blog about my impressions while we’re there. Who knows, perhaps the Chilean tourism industry will employ me to lead tours there! (A guy can dream….)

 

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Filed under between books, Big Stone Gap, bookstore management, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, Scotland, small town USA, Uncategorized, Wendy Welch

Shopsitter Jennifer says Hi

jenniferDear Tales of the Lonesome Pine,

I hope you’re doing well. I’ve heard so much about you. I read Wendy’s book, and I look at all the kitty pictures that you post to Facebook. I love cats, and you seem to be full of them, so we should get along fine.

I just wanted say hello, because I’m going to be staying with you for a while. I know you might be feeling a bit of apprehension about Jack and Wendy leaving for a whole month. I understand. I would be feeling a little apprehensive too if I was a bookstore and I was going to be left in the who-knows-if-they’re-capable-or-not hands of a complete stranger. You might be thinking, does this individual know anything at all about running a bookstore? Can she tell the difference between a trade paperback and a mass market? Can she alphabetize? What’s her favorite book? Does she have a favorite book!? DOES SHE EVEN READ!?!? Well, I’m writing to assure you that I know what I’m doing. Really.

I’ve worked in two bookstores over the years, and not a single book has been harmed or mangled under my watch. Because of my excellent customer service skills, I’ve never had to tackle a single shoplifter, and every book signing I’ve ever planned has been well attended. Well, there have technically been attendees present at every book signing I’ve ever planned. Two count, right?

As for animal care, no problems there. I’ve had the same cat since I was thirteen. His official name is Picasso, but we just call him Kitty. Whenever I sit on the sofa, he sits next to me, and stares intently at my neck. I get the feeling he’s thinking about the last bath I gave him, but I’m hoping it’s just because he likes me a whole lot. We do have a special bond. He let’s me brush him each day for a whole minute and a half before he bites me with his only remaining tooth. I’m pretty sure it’s a love bite.

See? Everything’s going to be just fine.

Your Humble Shopsitter,
Jennifer

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Hedley and Hemingway Explain Things Clearly

DSCN1468Hi – I’m Hemingway and this is my sister Hedley–

I can speak for myself!

An’ we’re waitin’ ta get adopted from the Little Bookstore.

Tell ‘em it’s in Big Stone Gap!

They know that, Hed. Anyway, me ‘n Hedley–

Hedley an’ I

No, you’re Hedley, an’ I’m–

(clamps paw over mouth) OK folks, lemme ‘splain this. Hemingway and I need a home, see. We need one pretty soon, ’cause there’s five of us foster cats here at the bookstore an’ there’s five more waitin’ up at the vet’s for a space to open. An’ Wendy and Jack are leavin’ the country in December, so we gotta get everybody where they’re going. So, come visit and see how adorable we are!

Hdlymcntmll– (bats paw away) Hedley, you can’t tell everybody we’re adorable like that! You gotta be humble! Who’s gonna adopt us if we’re not humble?

Humble? Be serious! We’re the cutest cats here! An’ the youngest an’ the fastest!

(sighs) Anyway, folks, come visit us. We might wanna be adopted together (glances at sister, whispers) although that’s not really essential

Wha’d you say?

That we have to be adopted together. An’ that we both like to be cuddled, an’ that we don’t eat wet food, an’ we’ve had our wormer an’ our flea baths.

(shudders) Baths. That wasn’t fun. But yes, we have. An’ we LOVE to climb in your lap, an’ we like to sleep in your arms an’ be carried around like babies.

Speak for yourself; I ain’t a baby.

(pinching him) Play along, eejit; I’m tryin’ ta get us ‘dopted here.

(rubs bruise) SO as I was sayin’ folks, we wanna be adopted together….

Why are you looking at me like that?
DSCN1420
 

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Remember Customer Service? We do.

Little Bookstore is one of several on a list of second-hand bookslingers who trade ideas and share knowledge–including that there’s such a thing as being TOO local. People can take the approach that you must be in this small town because you couldn’t make it in the big city; I’ve just come back from an economic summit where rural town managers discussed this problem.

Being too local is a problem anytime of year, but at Christmas, people can also eschew specialty businesses because they believe making a mad dash through the discount warehouses will be “cheaper and more convenient.”

(Yeah, and the shortcut is always faster….)

Small Business Saturday and the Christmas season tend to be a special challenge for bookstores because much of our unique charm lies in our handselling technique; a proprietor knows his or her customers, and has developed a relationship of trust, of not trying to just sell, sell, sell but to match. We take pride in matching the correct book to the right person. Trust is the foundation of customer service, trying to help the customer rather than meet an imposed quota.

Everybody sells books at Christmas, but who can greet you by name, ask how your niece liked Divergent, suggest a new detective series because they know you like mysteries themed around food? Or, who can meet you for the first time, listen to a list of the last five books your dad read and what he thought of them, and then suggest the perfect present based on that information? How much time will you save with that kind of service?

That’s what we do, and what our friends in the bookselling business do. Because we are our businesses; we don’t just work for them. We believe in selling you what you want, not what you’ve been told you need. And we believe you are your own person.

Visit your local bookseller this holiday season–be it Paperback Book Exhange in Neenah, Wisconsin; Al’s Books out in Kansas; maybe that sweet little Country Bookshop in North Carolina; or one of the other 2,500-or-so used book shops across America. The coffee will be hot, the chairs comfy, the kittens purring, and the proprietors ready to listen, serve, and smile.

 

 

 

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The Monday Book: FREE GIFT WITH PURCHASE by Jean Godfrey-June

godfreyPublished in 2006, Free Gift with Purchase: my improbable career in magazines and makeup sat on our shelves in the shop awhile. One day I picked it up, realized it was a memoir that had been misfiled in fiction, and headed across the shop floor. But I opened it and read a random section–

–and started laughing. I don’t wear make-up, or move in fashionista circles, but the book drew me in. The fun of reading is living someone else’s life for awhile.

Godfrey has a wicked sense of humor, balanced by a strong grounding in the fact that her life is about something halfway between silly and essential. I loved her opening explanation establishing why beauty is important–war zones doing a roaring trade in black market cosmetics, e.g.–and that everyone has some sort of beauty regime, whether it involves “product” or not. She seems to have a healthy respect for the the American consumer, pointing out that about half of “advice” is really “sales pitch” and it’s up to the purchaser to discern the difference.

Then she just starts telling stories, interspersed with advice. Most of the advice sailed over my head, but I devoured her funny, wise stories, like how networks (and careers) are formed and lost by a single ill-timed giggle. How those glam parties full of celebs are really the trading floor, everyone working hard without daring to sweat into silk OR admit they’re working. (If you look like you’re networking, you’re doing it wrong.) How you need to know yourself before you let anyone at a makeup counter touch you, or you wind up looking like a man in drag, and the woman behind the counter may revel in this because you didn’t buy anything.

This isn’t a cohesive story with a narrative arc, and I liked it for that reason, dipping in of an evening to relax before bed. This is a sweet, alluring book, with a little more depth than expected, if one comes to it with a healthy disrespect for the lines between which Godfrey-June colors. Underneath her writing runs a sense of “we’re not curing cancer, but we’ve made women with cancer feel better by giving them prettiness.”

Spots of name-dropping and elbow-rubbing with the insider crowd decorate her prose (like glitter in eye shadow? teehee) but aren’t the focus. Those with journalism backgrounds might particularly like the “vapid meets intensity” moments when people who write for a living have to come up with something meaningful to say about perfume that doesn’t involve “sweet” or “fruity.”

Not setting the world on fire, but adding a bit of color, this fun, cheerful book.

 

 

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