Category Archives: VA

Michael Reno Harrell on Bookstores

Today’s guest blog is from Michael Reno Harrell, storyteller, on Why I’m a Big Fan of Independent Bookstores. Michael will be with us for a concert August 29th, and is storytelling in residence in Jonesboro that week.harrell

 

I’m a storyteller. I write songs and tell stories, mostly about the Southern experience, which I perform all across the United States and the British Isles. I have written for magazines and newsletters and blogs, have had my work published in books and recorded fifteen CD’s. I’m lucky that I have an agent that likes for me to be working. I don’t have to pay her 20% or even15%. She gets it all. She’s my wife, Joan.

I find that most of the folks who are interested in folk music and storytelling tend to be avid readers as well, so I look at everything I do as one in the same, storytelling. I remember as a teenaged Woody Guthrie want-to-be going into record stores and coming out two hours later, having perused minutely every folk album cover in the store. What a wonderful way to spend some Saturday afternoon time.

 

A good bookstore is the same. We each have our own personal analogies, for me it’s, like entering a favorite restaurant where the staff knows what you like and only suggest things that they know you will enjoy. And I know that I will leave an hour later sated. There really is something so right about sliding a finger along the spines of a row of books until it stops on an intriguing title. There is that moment of ponder, then the volume is slid from its place in line, opened and the first page is scanned. This process is repeated until one finds oneself on page three. A small voice in the head says “Yes” and the book is tucked under an arm and a new friendship has begun. Or maybe you simply want to stop in and thumb through a periodical about a new field of interest.

In the last few years Joan has become a gardener. Now the gardening section in bookstores and the magazines on the subject are where she heads first, then to cycling and health stuff. For me it’s motorcycle magazines, fiction, autobiographies, DYI, a good chair, coffee and a blueberry scone. It is the experience, the colors and the smells and the lighting and all that information and entertainment just waiting for me to hold in my hands. Try that on a laptop.

 

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WRITE COMES TO THE CUMBERLANDS

The Write Whisperer
(guest post by workshop attendee Lizbeth Phillips)

kizbethAccording to Flannery O’Connor, an epiphany is not permanent. After spending a day with Wendy Welch at WRITE COMES TO THE CUMBERLANDS, I have a new understanding of what O’Connor meant. Being an educator, I can come up with a hundred reasons a day to not make or take the time to write. For years, I have used it as an excuse to abandon essays, short stories, poems, and my first novel. No more!

Why? Because epiphanies are not permanent. Either you let them go or you do something so that whatever enlightening moment flashed before your eyes becomes intrinsically absorbed in what defines you. I am many things, especially a writer.

What did I learn at WRITE COMES TO THE CUMBERLANDS? First, excellent writing has strands of universal themes so that writers can connect to readers. We have to evaluate how words appear to the reader—just in case our notions are a bit alien.

But even before that, just get it down! Write the first draft without revision. Whether we start at the beginning or the middle, we have to write to the very end before we go back and restart. A first draft is not the final draft. After writing the first draft, evaluate the work and clarify. Add details to make the narrative and dialogue credible in the eyes of the reader. In other words, ask if my imagination transfers to the page so the reader sees the same movie I saw.

Becoming aware of the narrative arc and anticipating how to string a story along so that characters grow has released me from the big writer’s pit that equipped me with excuses not to finish my novel. I can now write straight dialogue without any narrative (and visa versa) and communicate to a reader.

I used to flounder on strong narrative and ruin dialogue or write dialogue at the expense of the narrative. Until today, I am not sure I had a handle on blending the two. If I am to move my novel along and not write myself into a corner, I have to create the proper mix! Writing is unforgiving. So are readers.

I came to the table with all kinds of reasons and excuses for not committing. When I left at the end of the day, I was an empowered writer.

If inspiration gleaned from attending WRITE COMES TO THE CUMBERLANDS were bit-coin currency, I would be the richest person on the planet right now. And since epiphany is not permanent, I’m going to spend my time cashing in on all that inspiration so it counts.

 

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Filed under bad writing, Big Stone Gap, bookstore management, Life reflections, publishing, reading, Sarah Nelson, small town USA, Uncategorized, VA, writing, YA fiction

WRITE COMES TO THE CUMBERLANDS!

write houseDear friends – Tomorrow is WRITE COMES TO THE CUMBERLANDS, our annual workshop out here in scenic Southwest Virginia. So I’m not blogging until Sunday, when I can tell you all about it. Meanwhile, enjoy this picture of the resident goat at the farmhouse where WCttC is held. And if you’re so inclined, you can plan to attend next year, when the workshop moves to July to accommodate more people whose schedule follows the academic calendar of public schools. Also pictured are the contemplation pond on the property, and the flowers in bloom just now. (The house behind them is the farmhouse where WCttC is held.)

See you Sunday!

goat

pond

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Of Hookers, Husbands, and Wives

I like to crochet while minding the bookstore, and joined an online crochet forum a couple of months ago. It turned out not to be much fun. A few days in, people were fussing about announcements of imminent grandchildren “disguised as crochet posts with plans to make a stupid hat or something.”

jack hat afghanWhen I posted a pic of Jack wearing a needleworker’s bag on his head after a crochet-and-knit meeting at the bookstore, the message came from a list administrator that the pic had been removed and I should review the rules.

Everybody knows it’s hard to work with wool that’s too tightly wound—stuff stretches out of shape—so I got off the list. But a few days later someone (I don’t know who or how) joined me to a much bigger group, and over time they seem to be less apt to felt their fibers into itchy knicker twists.

What’s really fun about the list I’m on is how much husband-wife adorability comes up. A few weeks ago a woman went into false labor and was sent home from the hospital to “absolute and complete” bedrest. At seven months, she figured she’d be bored out of her mind, but when she reached the bed, her hubby had stacked on it several skeins of yarn, a five-pack of assorted hooks, and a boxed set of DVDs of her favorite TV show, seasons 1-5.

Now that’ s manning up, ladies and gentlemen.

Another lady’s husband got hurt on the job and has a six months recovery to endure. Depression set in and she despaired. His second week at home, he picked up one of her hooks and some yarn (which she needed for a work in progress). She kept her mouth shut and watched him produce the world’s most lopsided dishcloth, which she told him was perfect; she then photographed it and slammed the thing up on the list with a brief backstory. List members cheered his bad edgings and suggested projects, and several posted pictures of manly men crocheting. He’s about halfway through a very nice granny square afghan, after asking his wife a few days ago, “Hey, how do you change colors?”

A woman’s husband woke her Saturday past with a “get your crap out of the living room today; I’m tired of looking at it.” She gave him a baleful stare and went to see what on earth he was talking about, since she considered the living room “his mancave”—and found he’d paid $230 at an estate sale for about a ton of yarn and several boxes of hooks.

Husbands can be very sweet. So can crochet lists, if you find one where a little humanity keeps the edges in line.chickens

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Plus ca change, plus ca meme chose – -

janelle basketIn which Jack looks back with a nostalgic smile, and forward with a sardonic grin

It’s amazing how the bookstore has changed and evolved over the last few years–particularly since Little Bookstore was published and SECOND STORY CAFE opened.

While many of our long-term customers continue to support us, others have moved away for job opportunities. New arrivals have discovered the bookstore. Passers-through have made sometimes lengthy journeys just to see the place and swathes of non-readers from the community have become regulars in the cafe.
In other words, the bookstore is flourishing, and trying to give back as well.

Meanwhile Big Stone Gap continues to be exasperating and charming in equal quantities – the eternal push-pull between reactionaries and progressives of small towns everywhere. But one very good thing that has happened is the work the Town Council has done to seriously tidy up the downtown streets and the greenbelt walking trail. Wendy and I walked the trail recently for the first time in a few months–don’t judge; we’ve been busy–and were amazed and impressed by it. The river that runs alongside has been stocked with trout and families of ducks paddle up and down serenely. Some of the surfaces are redone, the lighting improved, and rails put up alongside roads.

It’s nice to have something so lovely to point out to visitors. Wendy delights in taking them for walks up the Greenbelt to the campground, where colorful local character Johnny Cubine has carved faces into six of the trees. In the last week shop visitors have included a forty strong group from Berea College, as well as some couples and a few of what Wendy calls ‘girlfriend posses.’
Now, if we could just find a way to pull together as a town and support some more specialist shops through their difficult first year….

 

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Filed under Big Stone Gap, bookstore management, home improvements, Life reflections, small town USA, Uncategorized, VA

The Monday Book: OFF THE GRID by Nick Rosen

Sorry about not getting a blog up over the weekend. We had a massive group from Berea College visiting because of my new (academic) book Public Health in Appalachia. We had a great time with the team and will be blogging about it later this week. And we’re more or less back on schedule now, and proud of the fact that we fed 42 people in our bookstore all at the same time – a triumph of logistics over space. :]

off the gridUsually I only do Monday Books that I’ve loved, and I admit that this one is kind of a “like.” Rosen’s book is interesting, but suffers from that thing that often happens to researchers who turn their work into a popular narrative style of writing: repetition and lack of a story line.

(Oh, did I just hear my agent giggling? Believe me, the words “narrative arc” come out of that wise woman’s mouth 12 times a day. And gosh darn it, she’s right. We want a beginning, middle, and end that look different from each other, strung together with smaller stories that flow toward a conclusion.)

Rosen writes about people who get off the power grid in the United States, for reasons ranging from dropping off one end after running out of money, to buying their way off the other end as rich, powerful, and/or famous citizens. (A lot of TV and film stars have off-the-grid hideouts.)

In between he covers off-gridders one might not think about, like truck drivers. And of course he includes survivalists and hippies and that controversial Mike Reynolds guy who “invented” earthships. I helped build an earthship in Scotland at a local sustainable farming community; that’s when I learned to make walls from bottles and shoes from tires. Neither of these have served me much in my present career as a bookseller, but I figure if A***on finally does us in one day, I can get great mileage out of my eclectic knowledge base and homemade sandals.

Thing is, Off the Grid, published in 2010, doesn’t so much talk about how to go off-grid as describe how it has turned out for a bunch of people who did, which gets repetitive after awhile, and also starts to skim across surfaces, hinting at conflicts and conspiracies and confusions that don’t get fully explored. (He did write, in 2008, a book that appears to be more how to.)

If you like storytelling in your stories, you may not like Off the Grid very much. I like reading about off-grid lifestyles, so I enjoyed this book. If you’re looking for how-to, try his 2008 book. If you’re looking for how-it-went-for-us, this is a good read. And if you’re into psychology-driven narrative, you’ll have a field day with what Rosen isn’t saying between the lines of what he is.

As a side note for those who have heard me talk about discovering St. Martin’s wanted to publish LITTLE BOOKSTORE on the same day that the last BORDERS bookstores announced their imminent closure, this is one of the two books I bought from BORDERS that day.

 

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Fifteen Adults Laughing very hard Together

We’d been plotting the Cards Against Humanity game for a long time. Susan and David Hamrick, some of our favorite people on Earth, had recently lost Hazel, the beloved eldercat who sparked public outrage in Southwest Virginia when her owner surrendered her to the shelter at the age of 20; Hazel’s plight birthed a webpage for eldercat advocacy.

David and Susan also adopted Mal, the high-expense, high-care kitten with the cleft palate who crossed the bookstore lawn about a month before. So planning the CaH game was a chance for Hazel’s ashes to return to her hometown, Mal to see his adoring public now his feeding tube was out, and us to see David and Susan.

The participant list grew. Local doctors looking for a fun weekend (I work with regional medical recruitment); our sainted vet Beth, who diagnosed both Mal and Hazel free of charge; her husband TNB (we call Brandon That Nice Boy Beth Married, TNB for short); and a plethora of others, most of whom have adopted a cat from us. Being adult professionals, we had salad and vegetarian curry, black bean chili, and – in honor of Beth’s recent birthday – Peanut Butter Chocolate Reese Butterfingers Eight-Layer Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting.

Health care professionals know how to party.

And then the CaH came out, with the expander pack. Beth put bottles of her homemade Merlot on the table, and David set out his carefully hoarded Ben Nevis single malt.

But the fun started before the drinking, because the first card out of the gate was something like “How do you get laid?”

After Brandon won with a card that suggested certain specific activities in very precise anatomical locations, I turned to him and said, “I’m never calling you ‘That Nice Boy’ again.”

It all kinda took off from there.

There is something wonderfully healing about 15 adults sitting around a table acting like adolescents who have a deep background in politics. People literally snorted whisky out their noses, we laughed so hard.

And about every 15 minutes, someone shouted “Kid!” and the room went silent as the four young boys hanging out downstairs in the children’s room, playing with kittens under the supervision of a teen, came up and helped themselves to soda.

(Susan and I sent David and Jack to the store for children’s drinks before the party. They returned with a bottle of Mountain Dew. We sent them back for ginger ale.)

In the silence of an early “not in front of the children” moment, David said, “Did everyone enjoy the lovely weather today?” and we all died laughing again.

And again a minute later, when the winning response to “What are Jack and Leroy doing in the basement?” (there are blank cards for making up your own question) turned out to be “Her Royal Highness, Queen Elizabeth II.”

Jack’s praying for Scottish Independence, come September. He and Leroy were downstairs sorting a quick plumbing problem before joining the game.

Yeah, it’s raucous and raunchy and irreverent, but CaH is such good steam-valve-release fun. We play by the “everybody gets one veto” rule. Donald refused to play a Holocaust card; I put back “The Blood of Christ”; Kelley doesn’t allow the one about a pool of children’s tears. Everybody has limits.

But few and far between, for the most part, and sitting there watching 15 adults return to high school in their brains while eating vegetables and drinking responsibly, laughing themselves silly in good company, I couldn’t help thinking, “This is why Jack and I started a bookstore.”

Sitting around that table: two cancer patients, the mother of another, a cancer survivor, three medical professionals who make life-and-death decisions every day, a government employee, two professors, a couple trying to get pregnant, four people who lost parents this year, and two newly-fledged adults launching into the world. This world.

To have these moments, this place, where you can stop being the Responsible Adult, cut loose, and enjoy life is a rare and wonderful thing. We’re so lucky to be able to do this.

 

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