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Friends or strangers?

Jack’s Wednesday guest blog returns -

Now that there is some time and distance between us and our Istanbul jaunt, we’re beginning to analyze our experiences. Although we greatly enjoyed many things there were a few bumps along the road as well and that’s what I’ve been thinking about.

Coming from a very small town to spend 12 days in one of the biggest cities in the world was always going to be a bit of a shock to the system and there’s no doubt that was a contributory factor, however there’s something else at play, I think. As tourists staying in a busy up-market hotel in the middle of a historic part of Istanbul surrounded by tourist oriented shops we were very conscious of being just part of a ‘passing trade’ and easily categorized as ‘rich pickings’. However we didn’t consider ourselves so easily pigeon-holed. We are ourselves shop-keepers who deal daily with customers (some of whom are tourists) and we like to think we treat them all as individuals and interesting people in their own right.

All of this got me thinking about the times we felt most comfortable during our Turkish adventure. Not surprisingly it was when we felt we were interacting with people as fellow human beings, talking about shared concerns. Mustafa the carpet seller in his shop across the street from our hotel; Okay and Samet who worked in our hotel; the manager of the tour office at Ephesus; the yarn shop owner who invited us in for tea after we’d bought from him and it didn’t matter anymore. Mustafa chatted happily with us about his family, hometown and world travels; Okay laughed when we named the local cats we’d photographed after hotel employees and took our concerns on board when we were fleeced by a restaurant; Samet talked of his ambition to study Sociology in the US; the office manager went from bland indifference when we arrived in the morning to real genuine concern when Wendy arrived back in the afternoon feeling unwell. It must be very hard to relate to strangers who cross your path fleetingly as customers when you are so dependent on them and very tempting to see them as ‘cash-cows’ to be milked and then forgotten about.

Maybe it’s because we live above the shop and the line between our personal lives and our business lives is fairly blurred, or maybe it’s because in a small town many of our customers are also personal friends, but we really appreciated those times when we seemed to emerge from the masses and be recognized as ourselves in the frenetic surroundings of Istanbul.

In the end these are the memories that will outweigh the blips – the counterfeit 100 Lira bill, the wayward hand in Wendy’s pocket in the Grand Bazaar, the heaving crowds and bizarre fashion show at Ephesus and the missed briefing when we arrived at the hotel – they will recede while the good bits remain.

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The Stories between the Shelves

Jack is away leading his annual tour to Scotland and Ireland. Every year he takes 10 people (max) to the Isles for a guided tour with ceilidhs and creekside walks and other not-seen-by-bus activities. He loves it, the people who go love it, and …. well, I love it.

Because while Jack is away, I hold minor revolutions in the bookstore. The first year he went, I demolished our downstairs kitchen so we could use it for books. (We live in a 1903 house, and it had an upstairs kitchen too. Since we live upstairs and the books live downstairs, it made sense. It’s not like the books cook for themselves.) Another year I moved our bedroom. A third year, I gave away some furniture.

Jack doesn’t mind. He gets two weeks conducting people around his homeland, telling stories and singing songs, and I get to organize, regroup, rethink how we do things and where we put stuff. It plays to both our strengths. It is An Arrangement.

So far this year nothing major has occurred to me. The walls are the same color. No furniture is missing–if you don’t count those ugly old end tables that have really needed to go for ages. And the changes I’ve made in where the shelves are located, and which genres are on them, well, trust me, they’re for the best.

As I’ve been cleaning and pushing and thinking and measuring, I keep encountering little items that have fallen amongst cracks and crevices,  into corners where only dust goes. In our bathroom, I found a plush frog from my friend Anne, pushed back against the Danielle Steel shelf and surrounded by books. (The fact that we keep Ms. Steel in the bathroom is not so much an editorial comment as a necessity born of space limitation.)

On the side of a shelf that other shelves had encroached against, I discovered the pewter angel my friend Cami gave me the year both our books were accepted for publication. She hung there, ignored and overlooked, still cheerfully blessing the house. I gave her a good shining before suspending her above “paranormal romances.”

Behind a classics shelf that we finally had to let cover a window, I discovered on the long-lost ledge a small resin cat, black with an elongated neck and a curious smile, that Teri brought me from a trip to Ireland some time back. It was during a troubled time for our shop, and the figure came with a small card which explained that, according to folklore, this little grinning cat had escaped many troubles and retained her lives through her own wit and ingenuity–and she would elude many more troubles yet.

On the card, Teri wrote, “Like someone else I know.”

It’s amazing, the stories we find buried between the shelves, forgotten bits of our own lives, when we stir up a little dust. And it’s lovely, absolutely, to have friends who marked those moments with artifacts, trinkets, little pieces of memory that tell the stories, not in the books, but of the humans who run the shop.

Thanks Teri. Thanks Cami. Thanks Paxton for the dancing lady and Heather for the feather thing and Jane for the ivy teapot and all the other people whose artifacts have brightened my cleaning. You make life sweeter.

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This Town Ain’t Big Enough for two Single Malts….

Okay, so yesterday was an angst-wallow. Today, we are back on the happy upbeat track–not least because my husband and I are caught up in yet another “only happens in small towns” funny story.

Most of you know that Jack recently became an American citizen. And of course a lot of people wanted to congratulate him. He’s one of those charismatic individuals.

And he’s pretty easy to buy for: just get him whiskey.

But here’s where the small town bit comes in. We have one liquor store in Big Stone Gap–conveniently located across the street from our bookstore. On sunny afternoons we amuse ourselves by sitting on the porch with a tally sheet, marking down Baptist, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Baptist, Catholic, Baptist, Baptist….

Jack and the ABC store manager are on a first-name, how’s-the-family, dude basis. They exchange Christmas and birthday cards. Jeff calls to see if Jack’s okay should he miss that weekly visit.

And Jeff orders a particular favorite for Jack, not a blend, but a single malt that is Scottish in make, expensive in price. I don’t complain; my husband doesn’t chase other women, like televised sports, or expect me to do all the laundry.

It’s an unusual whiskey, and Jeff had never even heard of it before Jack introduced him to its finer qualities. So it’s the only single malt in town–not to mention the only ABC store. Jeff started ordering one case per year, 12 bottles which Jack purchases once a month, interspersed between his cheaper weekly stock-ups.

Jack hauls out the single malt for special occasions–like rainy Monday evenings when a friend drops by unexpectedly, or Saturday jam sessions,  or days ending in “y”–and he’s introduced several people about town to his favorite.In fact, he became quite the evangelist for this particular brew.

Which means he now has competition.

Jack discovered what a good salesman he was about three months ago, when he went across for his monthly treat and Jeff said, “Oh, sorry, Jack! Your friend Bill was in here and bought four bottles. Said he loved it at your house. The case is empty. I’ll order more. Be here in about a week.”

Galumphing home, Jack thought dark thoughts about Bill.

But when that case came in,  Jack got only three bottles. (He figured maybe it was time to stock up.) The other nine had already been purchased by friends and bookstore customers who had heard Jack, over the course of his single-malt-less week, extol its virtues and lament its rarity.

Again, Jeff ordered more–and suggested Jack write the company explaining the circumstances and requesting a commission.

This time the whole case was empty before Jack even darkened the ABC store’s door. But the funniest part was yet to come. That was about the time that people knew Jack would soon become an American citizen. Over the next two weeks, friends dropped by, bearing gifts. Tall, thin gifts that sloshed. Jack racked up eight bottles of his favorite elixir, none of which he bought for himself, because his friends had beaten him to it.

We don’t know who’s got the other four bottles.

Jack figures, the next time he heads over to see Jeff, there will be less competition for the water of life. But then, you never know. We have an anniversary coming up.

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THE DAY AFTER

So the blog was quiet this week because it was the Final Push. St. Martin’s Press wanted the manuscript “as close to finished as possible” by the Friday just past. My friend Cami Ostman (author of the running memoir Second Wind) comes out from Seattle every year for a writing retreat, and this visit coincided with the big editing job.

Just so we’re clear, this isn’t the last time I’ll see the ms. before it’s published, just the last time any big edits can be done. From here on out, it’s tweaking, typos and punctuation debates. The galleys will arrive soon.

Knowing it was the last time to make anything creative in a big way,  Cami and I disappeared to my cabin in the woods (it’s where I lived while in graduate school, and I managed to buy it once I graduated) and wrote our little asses off, our hearts out, and our fingers to numb stumps. (Insert additional cliches here.) Cami, my friend since high school, was working on a novel, and very kindly told me, “Stop me at any point you need a reader.” I wrote two additional chapters and edited one that was a dog’s breakfast, plus read the entire work through again for flow, continuity, timeline, and–yes–the dreaded Narrative Arc.

It’s funny to read something for the last time before you can’t change it. I’ve enjoyed every minute of the editing process–well, okay, except for that horrible week with chapter five that my friends had to basically haul me out of. (Thanks, Elissa, Pamela, Nichole, Jodi, Cami, Kathy, Heather and anyone else I am momentarily forgetting.) I’m not the kind of writer who gets writer’s block so much as writer’s box.

In my attempt to explain everything clearly but in a pithy way and without pissing anyone off, I create walls of words that climb ever higher; ignoring every writer’s good advice about brevity and simplicity, I keep trundling down the canyon until I reach the death-trap end, have to admit the whole thing is a wash, and call in the ‘dozers to tear down the walls and dig me out. I wind up ripping the whole thing out. It wastes time in terms of actual production, but even those blind canyons are kind of fun–and useful–in the writing process.

If you have time.

But that’s what we no longer had, that week in the cabin. Instead, a deadline loomed. A dead line. A marker in the chronological pattern after which “this” could no longer be “that.” What was written would stay written. No more “I could just revamp Chapter 12 a little…”

And for the first time in my writing life, I panicked. After this, nothing could change! After this, it HAD to be perfect! After this, the sky would turn green and the grass would grow purple and fish would carry hand guns ….

Not. After this, life would go on as normal. I would need to do the dishes and catch up on the week of work waiting at my day job while I was on “holiday.” After this, friends would call and we would go out to eat, or keep each other company doing household chores.

Life doesn’t change that much, the day after “this” becomes “that” permanently. As Anne Lamott says (paraphrased here) whatever you’re expecting after you write what you meant to say and turn it in, don’t. Just move on.

We write what we mean to say, as well as we can, with sincerity and adjectives and perhaps a sense of humor, and then we go on living. I’ve got a bookstore to run, and a bunch of friends to hang with, and some laundry that is long overdue. My husband is still a sweetheart and our upstairs kitchen is still overrun with foster kittens waiting to be adopted. I can go back to practicing my harp, which I’ve missed.

79,116 words and two loads of towels later, life still looks sweet.

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FIVE THINGS I LEARNED FROM PARTICIPATING IN A CASH MOB

Last week some friends and I organized a cash mob in our tiny town. We got 40 people to swarm a local gift shop in the two-block downtown shopping district. It was fun: fun to set up, fun to execute, fun to hear about afterward. In the immediate aftermath, I got asked to do a radio program on independent bookstores because of my upcoming book. So when I sat down to organize my thoughts for the interview, here’s what I could unpack from the whole cash mob experience:

1)      The way we live now is not the way I want to live.

My husband and I made a pact about six months ago: we would stay out of Wal-Mart as much as possible, buying there only what we absolutely couldn’t find from any independent retailers in our area.

Four days. We lasted four days, and then I needed a picture frame, and guess what? In the whole two blocks of downtown, nobody sold one except Wallyworld.

Is this how we want to live? I didn’t want to give $6 to a corporation in return for that frame; I wanted a neighbor to have it, so she could spend it at the diner and the diner owner could put it in her church offering plate, and the church could use it to stock the food pantry with day-old produce from Bob’s Pantry and Grocery, and Bob could buy his kid some books at our shop. But I sent it zipping out of state, out of reach. I would have paid $10 to a local shop to buy the same thing.

Remember when box stores were weird, not the norm? I want to live with my neighbors, trading books from my shop for haircuts, or getting my bicycle chain repaired. I want to put tomatoes in a basket at the front of the bookstore next to a set of scales and a note that says, “$1 per pound: Make your own change from the honor box.” That’s still possible in Big Stone, and I don’t want to lose that camaraderie. I’ll pay more to stay out of a box store and keep my neighborhood functioning as a cohesive unit. Happily.

Sure, some of us have to be more careful with money than others. But that “hidden cost” thing, that unexamined consequence of big box stores taking over downtown places, making someone back in another state rich and leaving a lot of former business owners poorer, that’s a real cost. And it makes us, the community members, poorer as well.

2)      “Just plain ordinary people” are powerful—very powerful.

There was a lot of inquisitiveness as soon as the cash mob was over on how it had come to be organized, “who” had done it. The cash mob came from a group of friends getting together. We wanted to have some fun, and we were kicking around the idea of a flash mob. But that was a lot of work for one—pardon the expression—flash in the pan that didn’t do much good in the world. My friends and I are cynical altruists, the kind of people who do the right thing with sarcastic comments about how it won’t make any difference. But we keep doing the right thing. And when we googled flash mobs and saw a reference to cash mobs, well,  we knew what to do.

This bothered some people, because it was just us, not an organization, not even people who were connected by blood or marriage to the store we chose, just “a bunch of girls.” And that bunch of girls made good stuff go, just because it was good stuff.

To get it going, Jessica and Elissa, the tech-savvy members of our gang, used Facebook to create a secret list, then the eight of us added everyone we knew who lived within about 20 miles of downtown. The list went up and down in size as people who’d been added decided to stay or not, and added their own friends. (Not many people left.)

That was it. An hour to get the mob list set up, a month of gathering names, and one day to swamp the store. It was lovely, and it was low investment in time and money. And it was just people. Not a chamber of commerce, not a government scheme, not a political wrangle: just eight friends, a Facebook page, and 200 people who signed each other onto the list. And about 40 who went shopping, and made a local store owner feel like a million bucks.

Governments—big or little—don’t help us; organizations, business centers, the big grinding wheels of expertise don’t help us. We help each other. And we are very good at it. People are powerful, more powerful than we care to admit, because we don’t like to be harnessed without good reason. But the cash mob, an entirely voluntary activity that asked people to spend money, had 40 people and 200 supporters and sent a store’s revenues sky-rocketing. No mess, no fuss, no voting.

3)      Money is not that expensive.

I spent $17 in the gift shop we cash mobbed. Had I gone to Wal-Mart, I probably would have spent $12 for the same goods. But the owners of that gift shop are now one thousand percent behind us doing another cash mob for a different business, and so happy to know that people appreciate their contributions to our town, and want them to stay there. For my extra fiver, I got a day I will remember fondly in my senior years, full of laughs with friends, a feeling of empowerment. I got more than $5 extra can buy anyplace else, by investing it within my own heart.

Again, I understand that some people must be frugal: students, senior citizens on fixed pensions, the unemployed. But the rest of us, so artful about what we value and how much we’ll pay for it, can we see what our savings cost? How much are we giving up by holding out?

4)      Being part of a community has both hidden costs and hidden values.

The day of the cash mob, Miss Bean, a shop owner across the street and one of Big Stone’s most beloved colorful local characters, appeared in the designated store first thing that morning, clutching a twenty-dollar bill. She asked the shop keeper, “Is this the day we’re supposed to spend ten bucks each in here?”

It kinda went uphill from there. By about two in the afternoon the owners knew something was up, but thought it might be the sun; that Saturday’s weather could not have been more pleasant. But by 3:30 they knew they’d been, as my friend Cyndi put it, “the victim of an uphold.” By the end of the day the place had done four times its normal trade—and every single shopper had asked the husband-and-wife cashiers, with a sly wink or tone, “Been busy today?”

Afterward, the shop owners told me, “It was exciting to do that much business in a single day, but what was special was seeing people we’d never seen before, or people who hadn’t shopped with us in a long time, coming through the door, looking around at what we had. And they talked to us. It wasn’t just the money; it was community. We started that downtown store so we could be a part of community; I’d always wanted to be that little downtown proprietor we all remember from childhood. I can truly tell you that we had a wonderful day.”

Thing is, the people participating had a wonderful day too. They posted back on the Facebook page about how much fun it was just to buy some trinkets from a local—and have a conversation with her.

Remember when downtown was the place to be on Saturday? Walk down the sidewalk nodding and smiling—and depending on the size of your place, knowing the names of half the people you saw; stop in the pharmacy for a soda; hold a conversation on the corner and talk through two “Walk” signs. Remember when customer service was normal, not special? Remember when you knew the shopkeeper by name—and she knew yours?

I taped a public radio program recently on independent bookstores, and what they do for our communities. Jack and I, as owners of a used book shop, see it happen often: people come in to “kill” fifteen minutes, wander ‘round the shelves, and their breathing changes. They breathe in that used bookstore smell, dust and ideas co-mingling, and they just slow down. They strike up a conversation, tell you whatever’s on their mind. They have a cup of coffee. And they leave smiling.

Of course, it’s not just bookshops. Greenhouses (little cheerful independent ones run by families or the like) family restaurants, craft supply places with a retired schoolteacher at the helm—all these sweet places serve more than their wares. They keep us grounded, connected, sane. The yarn store lady doesn’t just want to sell you her most expensive stuff; she looks at your hair and asks about your pattern and suggests a color and a wool style: chunky, angora, sportweight. She knows these things, and she knows what she has in her store, and she holds them up against your skin and says, “This makes your eyes stand out; this looks great with your hair; this is 100% wool and last time you were in here you said you were allergic, so not this one.”

In short, she knows you a little better each time you walk in, and you feel a little better each time you walk out. Is that too much to ask from a shopping experience? Because that sure as hell doesn’t happen in big box stores.

5)      Hanging with friends can lead us down some very lovely alleyways of life.

The cash mob came about because a group of girls-turned-women got together and said, “You know what we should do?” My friends are the greatest: smart, kind, and savvy. We all get by with a little help from our friends, don’t we? In retail and in life. Up the rebels, peeps!

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