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!



1 Comment

Filed under Big Stone Gap, bookstore management, publishing, reading, small town USA, Uncategorized, VA, writing

A HAZARDous Journey

cabinWendy and I took a trip on Saturday. We’d been invited by the wonderfully eccentric poet Jim Webb to visit his mountaintop campground “Wiley’s Last Resort,” just outside Whitesburg over the line in Kentucky.

Jim proved both interesting and indulgent, giving us a grand tour of his extensive facility – replete with a whole collection of Airstreams (for me, a real American icon). Every nook and cranny that didn’t have an Airstream had a cabin or a tent. Everywhere we looked there were quirky signs with jokey messages or directions, including “Walled-In Pond,” surrounded by a  dirt trail called the ‘Henri David Thoreau-fare’.

We enjoyed the visit and we will be back!

With the rest of the afternoon before us and no rush to get home, qe headed out very much like two parents who have a babysitter for the day, giddy and slightly frisky. We decided on a leisurely loop up to Hazard and eventually down over Black Mountain towards Big Stone, with numerous stops on the way for sightseeing and necking.

We had wrongly thought that Hazard KY was the setting for The Dukes of Hazard (we later found it was another Hazard in Georgia), so we wanted to find out how they had capitalized on the series and the movie spin-offs to benefit the town. I still think they could have gotten some benefit from ‘The Dukes’, and there was no doubt they needed to capitalize on something – anything! I have rarely seen a more depressing downtown in my life.

What I got out of the visit was a terrible picture of what Big Stone could become if we don’t start looking ahead and trying to broaden the local economy (and benefit from the movie that WAS made here).

But there was one amazing thing to be seen in Hazard. Leaving a particularly depressing second-hand store I looked across the parking lot to yet another closed-up storefront and glimpsed through the window a beautifully restored British MGA sports car in immaculate condition. If I remember correctly The Dukes had a car called ‘The General’ and that’s what I’d not have been surprised to see. But an MGA?! Wendy took several pictures of my astonished face.

Leaving Hazard we headed down to Cumberland (named for ‘The Butcher of Cumberland’ who slaughtered the Jacobite clansmen at Culloden Moor in 1746) and onward to Black Mountain. I have wanted to drive that road ever since we were visited by the sisters from Kansas who came to us got a little spooked on it; we’ve had other visitors since then, including a 40-seat bus out of Berea, who took that route, so we wanted to as well.

Coming over the highest point we arrived at an overlook and pulled in to admire the view. To our horror we were looking straight at a demolished mountain looking for all the world like a moonscape! I was stunned because I found I was looking at a mountain removal site that close to Big Stone Gap; I hadn’t realized how near it had come. The site looked abandoned, but I saw no evidence of any attempt to restore it in any way. There’s nothing inherently wrong with coal; it keeps our lights on and our neighbors employed. But there is something wrong with destroying a mountain to get it.

Shaken, we got back in our car. But the day was not yet done, and the last experience was much more uplifting. Careening around a corner (Wendy was driving) we saw a black shape at the side of the road and slowed to watch as it stood up and became a bear – the first I’d ever seen in the wild. He watched us and we watched him, until eventually he got bored and trotted off into the undergrowth.

Wise County, you never fail to surprise me!

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

The Monday Book(s): Moomintroll Adventures by Tove Jansson

moomintrollsMoomintroll isn’t the name of a book, but the character created by Jansson. Moomin, as the little white hippo-like troll with the tail is known, lives with Moominmamma and Moominpappa in a valley, but the little guy gets around.

The books are full of gentle illustrations of the trolls and their friends, particularly Snufkin and the Snork Maiden (Moomin’s love interest). Although a cheerful little guy, Moomin can be quite moody and wax philosophical over small events–like discovering seashells.moomin2

I loved these books because the trolls were adorable and nothing threatening ever really was allowed to get out of hand, despite the sometimes rather dark story lines and illustrations. As an adult, I go back and read them when times are tough. You just can’t have angst when you’re catching up with the Moominfamily.

If you want to start at the beginning, it’s Moomintroll and the Great Flood. Young Moomin does a fair bit of growing up throughout the series, so it does kinda make sense to start at the beginning.

The Moomins, despite the baby boy’s growing up, can be counted on for consistency in a world of chaos. That’s why I like the books – well, that and the adorable drawings. Moominpapa says things like, “I only want to live in peace and plant potatoes and dream!”

What’s not to love? Papa also likes his whiskey. Don’t get the idea that these little guys dance through fields of flowers never saying anything meaningful.  Here’s their take on the arts:

“A theatre is the most important sort of house in the world, because that’s where people are shown what they could be if they wanted, and what they’d like to be if they dared to and what they really are.”

They’re really quite advanced in their philosophy.

moominphilosophyCheck out a Moomintroll. Your library will have them in the children’s section.



1 Comment

Filed under book reviews, humor, Life reflections, out of things to read, YA fiction

Two Plus Two doesn’t always Equal Five

People often talk about this thing called Math. It follows a very specific set of rules and has the same answer to the same question (sometimes, even the same answer to more than one question) every time.

I don’t really believe it exists, though. How can the answer to a question be the same every time it’s asked? See, in Mathworld people tell you that 2+2=4.


That might work with simple stuff, like fingers, or stones, but try such accounting when it really counts. Take generosity with money. It’s been my observation that the people who wind up having the most money are the ones who spend it on other people. Their fistful of dollars lies in an open palm, and come the end of the month, their freezers are just as full as their neighbor’s, even though he’s been keeping a tight count on every last dime. And now he doesn’t have one, while the generous soul still has a pocket full of change he’s plunging his hand into and giving away.

Try it with relaxation. You sit down at 6 pm to wile away an hour playing a computer game. When you look up, it’s midnight. One plus “a little bit more” equals twelve. Where’s your Math now?

Writing time. I can’t tell you the ways in which this multiplies and divides. You sit down, bang out four pages, and nail a concept that’s been eluding you, that you’ve spend hour after hour trying to whittle out of that big block of wood your brain has turned into, using nothing but a keyboard. You figure you’ve spent a couple of hours at least on this pass-through, but when you look at the clock? Twenty minutes.

And vice versa. An hour stretches into five, and you don’t notice until you stand up and all those little spiny things in your back go “Owwww.”

A candle: today I took an old candle, added another old candle, and made a candle. 1+1 = 1?

Cats: 1+1= 5 easily

Dogs: 1+1=8

Neutering a feral dog or cat: $50 = priceless. You don’t have to put anything else into the equation

An Orchestra 1+2+1+4+2 = 1

Speaking of music, a 3 minute song so good that it makes you sit still, doing nothing but listening to it, turns into….. you tell me. Sometimes 3×0=infinity, but those Math people try to say nothing comes from nothing.

A divorce: 2 divided by 1 = 0

As Einstein said, “Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted, counts.”

Yeah, that. So don’t try and convince me that this thing called Math exists. I don’t believe in it.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

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

Leave a comment

Filed under animal rescue, Big Stone Gap, blue funks, bookstore management, crafting, humor, Life reflections, small town USA, Uncategorized, VA

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….



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.


1 Comment

Filed under book reviews, bookstore management, crafting, folklore and ethnography, home improvements, publishing, reading, Scotland, small town USA, Uncategorized, VA