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A Quiet and Human Place

Kelly Saderholm’s guest blog about her and her daughter’s recent stint as shopsitters in the Little Bookstore -

“Oh, wow, I just LOVE it here!” The customer said as she handed me money for her purchases. “I could LIVE in a bookstore!”

“I am living here,” I said, happily, as I gave her a receipt and explained how I was shop-sitting while Wendy and Jack were away in Scotland.

“That’s really COOL,” she said. And she was right.

My daughter Rachel and I agreed to shop-sit and look after the two dogs and ever-changing number of foster cats; in exchange, we could pick out whatever books we wanted, and have the experience of tending a bookstore. For so many of us hard-core reader types, this is a secret fantasy. In the age of disappearing brick and mortar stores (of any kind but especially bookstores) I had often wondered how that fantasy would stack up against the real thing. In this case, the reality fared pretty well!

I was fortunate not to have bad days, crank customers, or disasters. The worse thing that happened was that Bert, one of the dogs, got upset by the Fourth of July firecrackers and chewed up a basement step.

The best thing? There were so many “best things” it is hard to choose. Of course the books, surrounded by books, ahhhhh. I loved chatting with customers. With a high school class reunion and the holiday weekend, people from all over were visiting family and friends. Most had either read Wendy’s book or heard about the bookstore from friends and family. It was interesting talking to people from different regions, discovering their connection to the area.

Even more interesting were the people living here. Rachel and I fell in love with the place. I realized that our temporary home was not just a used bookstore, but Big Stone Gap’s Bookstore, catering to the needs and wants of the community. In the introduction to one of my favorite books, Laural’s Kitchen, one of the authors, Carol Flinders, talks about “a sense of place.” Jack and Wendy’s shop is very much a nurturing “Place” with capital letters, where people feel a connection to each other, to the town, the region, the culture.

Speaking of cooking and food and place- Kelley’s Second Story Cafe (on the bookstore’s second floor) is another very special place, with delicious food. She kept us well-fed during our stay!

Kelley’s food nurtured our bodies, the books nurtured our minds, but a third, intangible element of the bookstore nurtured our souls. A strong sense of Quiet pervades the bookstore. That feeling was re-enforced as Rachel and I took our leave last Sunday just as the Friends Meeting started upstairs. But the whole week there was a gentle, quiet feeling throughout the place. Several customers remarked on it. All week people came in just to browse and enjoy the quiet. One guy stayed for two hours.

If one is looking for a business to make fast, easy money, a used bookstore is not it. But, if one is a bibliophile interested in a satisfying, rewarding business–not in a profit sense but in a people sense– one could do worse than to run a used bookstore.

The first Foxfire book has a chapter titled, “A Quilt is Something Human.” It makes me happy that with so many chain retail stores selling mass-produced consumer goods, Jack and Wendy’s bookstore is indeed Some Place Human.

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Robo-Owen’s Guide to Reverse Culture Shock

We are pleased to present here the first of Andrew-the-shopsitter’s guest blogs post-shopsitting. He promises to send them now and again, and we look forward to them. For those unfamiliar with the term, Robo-Owen is a wee anamatronic kitten presented to Ali and Andrew on their departure.

It’s now been a few weeks since I left Big Stone Gap. And while I didn’t feel as if I had experienced any culture shock following my arrival in September, I must admit some reverse effects upon setting foot in New York again. My ability to maneuver in crowds is only now returning, after a number of shoulder bashes on busy avenues. I am very wary of cops, and have somehow convinced myself that there are a number of New York street laws I’ve somehow forgotten and am unconsciously violating. My ability to pick good pizza slices has atrophied.

There have also been positive side effects. I find myself itching to replicate some of the regular activities from the bookstore (although I don’t see many of my friends having the requisite skills for Needlework Night). I seek out company in ways I didn’t before… in small town ways. Instead of waiting to catch up at a party I’ve dropped in on friends to chat and drink tea. I cooked some recipes I learned at my family’s Thanksgiving. And I find myself back in the habit of reading.

There is a suspicious lack of animals in my apartment. Sure, there are the mice, roaches, and centipedes, but they’re not good company like cats and dogs. Speaking of, I introduced my brother’s cat Baxter to Robo-Owen. They seem to get along, but judge for yourself.

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Robo-Owen is a poor doppelgänger for the possibly-evil, possibly-dumb real thing. For one, he never interferes with my cooking. But now my food-defense instincts are so strong and ingrained I’d be ready if he somehow reprogrammed himself for human food. He also doesn’t have claws, so my skin is no longer a tapestry of angry red lines. This makes him a disappointing sparring partner. Sometimes I’ll try and goad him, but unlike the real thing Robo-Owen is unflappable. Robo-Owen never falls asleep on my stomach or leaps into my arms. All in all he’s good company, and even has a mechanical purr, but he’s no replacement for the real deal Owen Meany.

Just like Robo-Owen is no real cat, I’m no longer a real shopsitter. But old habits die hard, so I may just start loitering around my local used bookstore until they kick me out for aggressive re-alphabetizing. Whatever my future away from Big Stone Gap may hold, I know that book and bookstore culture will remain a part of my life. So I look forward to sharing more of my own experiences with the book life in the near future.

Happy Holidays to all of you and to all of my friends in Big Stone Gap!

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Construction Ballet

Construction workers have been busy installing a new sewage pipe in the streets around Tales of the Lonesome Pine. But the more they close off sections of street, first on one side of the house and then the other, the more it feels like they’re building a giant moat around the bookstore.

On Wednesday Jack moved the pickup to a parking lot across the street while men and women in hardhats tore a deep channel out of the road. They worked at a breakneck pace and had laid the pipe and covered it with a new layer of gravel by late afternoon.

The chaos and noise seemed to be over, so I moved Jack’s pickup back in front of the store. Big mistake.

The next morning saw the construction shifted down the block, with Jack’s truck now a key part of the roadblock cutting the street off to traffic. Cones lined up diagonally out from the back bumper. A new border was drawn.

“So what’s the problem?” you might ask.

With the pickup forming a new boundary for construction, it became the line inside which immense yellow machines roared and tore at the street. I sat and watched at the window as they spun out gravel with a backhoe, all within inches of the truck door. It became a kind of performance piece, with each terrible machine whizzing as close to the pickup as possible while other construction workers admired the precise daredevilry of the driver.

For several hours they played chicken with the parked truck. I got up every few seconds to look through the window, fully expecting to see a massive metal claw lodged in the truck’s roof. I began chewing every pencil in sight.

Finally I couldn’t take it anymore and went out with the keys. “Can I get that out of your way?” I said. One guy glanced over and insisted it wasn’t a problem, then turned back just in time to marvel at a bulldozer that had swung its blade up within two inches of the door while simultaneously spinning into a 180 turn. They were like guys watching skateboard stunts, except with a skateboard that weighed 8000 pounds and could crush a refrigerator. And with the pickup boxed in by a dump truck there was nothing I could do.

About an hour later a construction worker came in to the store. He took off his helmet, as if about to offer condolences. I tensed and latched on to the table with clawed hands.

“Can you flassdiscommoe?” he said.

It didn’t sound anything like “move your truck” or “we destroyed your truck” or “your truck is about to explode,” so I didn’t process it at all. My brain could only understand the word “truck,” and he had failed entirely to oblige this temporary insanity.

“You want me to move the truck?” I asked.

“No, no. Can you flush the commode?” he said. I breathed again. It had nothing to do with the truck. With that settled I moved on to the task of unlocking why he wanted me to flush the toilet. After some confused back and forth the truth came out: they needed to test the new pipe.

They were done for the day. And as the toilet water spun down the drain with my test flush I knew that Jack’s truck would be safe. The truck and I had survived the construction ballet.

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All The Stars

I knew there was a problem when I first brought the physicist out to the bookstore’s backyard. Lucian Undreiu, Associate Professor of Physics at UVA-Wise came to lead a bookstore stargazing night. But as he lugged his telescope tripod around the yard and looked more and more disappointed I could see that all my plans were falling apart.

I don’t know about the rest of you humans, but I am exquisitely sensitive to contaminants and pollution. The slightest whiff of scent and I’m crawling around my apartment, searching for gas leaks. Litter in parks makes me bonkers. Is that a plastic bag or a jellyfish drifting there? Either way, my day at the beach just got a little worse.

But despite all these sensitivities I rarely notice light pollution.

In New York the sky is a red haze all night long. If I see a star, any star, I usually point it out. A single star is a noteworthy event. So when I went into the backyard of the bookstore, looked up at the stars and then looked down to the two streetlights and the lighthouse beacon at the car dealership across the street I shrugged, this’ll do. But as Professor Undreiu’s frown deepened I knew that this would not do, it would not do one bit.

As people started arriving for the event Ali and I stalled. Wendy had driven Lucian out into the night, out to find a place suitable for his telescope. We passed out cups of hot cider and printed off stargazing sheets (sounds simple… but was its own saga, involving incorrect charts, poor contrasts, kitty interference, and a cartridge change). I started sweating on my upper lip, like Richard Nixon. This was turning into a disaster!

But then Lucian returned and began his talk. He started with basics, but soon expanded into cosmic ideas, covering vast distances and spans of time. Instead of asserting knowledge he walked the audience through the steps scientists took, sharing the process of discovery. By the end of his talk everyone was ready to see some stars… and had a decent idea of what they are, how they act and how humans know what we know about them.

After getting everyone situated in a vehicle, the convoy went a half-mile down the road to a dark field. Lucian’s telescope begins with manual searches for specific stars. After a few points of input have been fed to it, the telescope can then process where it’s pointing in the night-sky and find new objects on its own. A very cool gadget. Lucian also had a powerful green laser that shot a beam into the night sky, so he could point specific constellations, planets and star clusters. We took turns peering through the lens at Jupiter, the Andromeda galaxy, the Pleiades star cluster, and a binary star system with each a different color. People chatted, asked questions and kept an eye on the sky for shooting stars.

While everything felt like it was falling apart before it had even started, the night ended with a cup of hot cider and complete satisfaction. Thanks to Professor Lucian Undreiu I think everyone had a great night and learned a bit about our universe… I know I did.

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A Spy in the House of Books

by guest blogger Ali Fisher – read on to find out WHO she REALLY is….

The secret’s out. The jig is up. My alias has been compromised. It’s time for me to come clean: there’s a spy in the house of books and I AM THAT SPY. This is my story.

Full disclosure: I work in the Library Marketing Department of Wendy’s publisher. Even fuller disclosure-er: I’m shopsitter Andrew’s aforementioned special lady friend. Since this is a tell-all post I’ll give it to you straight; those connections gave me the in I needed to launch my top secret operation. My mission? To verify the bizarre and outlandish stories from Wendy’s memoir and to–ehem–test the claim that “Virginia is for lovers.”

Hereafter are the declassified findings of my undercover investigation…

Holy crap! Everyone is so welcoming here!

I don’t know how I managed to plan this trip for just the right weekend, but after a few relaxing days touring the countryside, breakfasting at the Mutual, browsing books, and warming my lap with pets of various temperaments, I wrangled an exclusive invite to a shopsitter-going-away/locals-double-birthday/cast-of-Wendy’s-memoir party at the very bookstore under my observation.

I was warned that the evening would be super casual, so I knew I needed to adjust my go-to spy entrance (normally I would parachute onto the roof, remove my gear mid-somersault, dive down the chimney, emerge in sequined evening wear and grab a glass of champagne off of a nearby platter). Therefore, I made a rare and oft-dangerous decision for me–to cook something. Fortunately I had an easy, no-bake ace up my sleeve: Smitten Kitchen’s salted brown butter crispy treats. I didn’t even have to lace them with truth serum to get people to tell me the REAL stories behind the stories.

Not to Be Combined With Salsa

My conclusion: Wendy told it like it is. The characters of Big Stone Gap are every bit as wonderful, welcoming, and slightly strange as she said. You should probably come see for yourself.

As for my field research on the claim that Virginia is for lovers… well now, that’s classified.

Editor’s note: No it isn’t; the earth moved while you were here. :]

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I Survived the 2012 Bookquake

The sirens went off at noon. I went to the window to find the police barricading the streets. The dogs began barking. They’re always barking, but maybe this was special barking. Things had gone awry.

Something rumbled. At 12:10 I turned to my visiting special lady friend and said, “Did you feel that?” She had.  Must just be something old houses do, we thought to ourselves before going back to our books.

Now the sirens were going crazy. I looked outside, expecting to see the complete breakdown of civilization. Would I need to run to the hunting store next door to buy a shotgun? Nope: Veteran’s Day Parade. Oh.

The Veteran’s Day Parade Must Go On

A woman sifting through general fiction got a phone call. “Oh yeah? I didn’t even feel it,” she said. She got off the phone and told me that her daughter had called to check up on her because there had been an earthquake.

The street adjacent to the bookstore split into a wide gash… three days ago when they dug the trench for the new sewer line. I want to say books fell off the shelf in the quake. But that didn’t happen.

So when you see me wearing my “I survived the 2012 Big Stone Gap earthquake” t-shirt, what I really mean is that I noticed the earthquake, then stuck my nose back in a book and took a long slurp from my cup of tea.

Epicenter of the Mild Distractionquake

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These Customers Look Awfully Familiar…

by Andrew Whalen, Shopsitter

It was approaching closing time. Jack and I had spent much of the afternoon doing what many Americans do in the afternoon: staring at computer screens and not exchanging a single word. We were liberated from our digital overlords when a friend stopped by and forced us to have actual human conversation.

Then the door chimed, signaling customers.

A woman walked in and stared right at me. I wound up to deliver a casual “let me know if there’s anything I can help you find.” But something made me pause. Why is this woman staring at me? Stop that! And then I panicked… I knew what was happening.  Crud, I thought, this must be a local that I’ve met sixteen times and I totally can’t remember her name.

All of these thoughts took about four seconds, but it seemed like much longer. The wheels in my head felt as if they were manned by the world’s laziest hamsters. And she was so familiar…..

It was my mother. My dad stepped in behind her. It all clicked into place. “What. The. Hell.” I said.

Their arrival seemed impossible, so it took a moment for my mind to believe it. Modern travel has conditioned us to ignore the actual space between our spaces. I fell asleep on a bus leaving New York and woke up in Big Stone Gap. The in-between didn’t really exist.

I think we all do this, segregating different zones, holding them separate in our memory and in the ways we think about them. So when my relations from the Ohio-Zone showed up in Big Stone Gap-Zone it took a full furniture rearrangement in my head before I could process it.

Or, at least, that’s my best excuse for swearing at my parents instead of leaping up to greet them with open arms.

They had taken the weekend to drive down from Columbus, Ohio, the back axle of their SUV sagging under the sheer tonnage of snacks and carefully Tupperwared dinners my mom assembled. When it comes to food my mom plans even day-trips like expeditions into the uncharted Congo.

She runs a cookie business (CookieGlass.com!) and is always mindful of food. So when she learned that the evening was to be a dinner with local friends and a visiting writer (Mary Hamilton, telling stories from her excellent book Kentucky Folktales), food was her first concern. We bolted over to the grocery store, my mother determined to supplement the spread. “Now, try not to eat everything,” she warned my Dad several times. It didn’t end up being a problem.

After my parents returned to their hotel in the evening, Jack gleefully relayed my initial shock to the remaining guests. But while the intro may have been a bit bumpy, I hope they had a good time. I showed them around the town and they picked up books for my younger brother and sister. Plus, they managed to get in a bit of every parent’s favorite recreational activity: embarrassing their children. I’m still not sure how it came up, but my Mom managed to share my recurring haunted mirror nightmare with a fair portion of the county. Thanks Mom!

Editor’s note: Andrew’s parents were delightful, and their food delicious; we sent Andrew on useless errands and ate most of it while he was out. And yes, we did egg them on for embarrassing stories to use against our favorite shopsitter. But as we told Andrew, his mother’s forgetting to pack childhood pictures for posting in the bookstore was a serious disappointment. Still, the cookies are so good that we forgive her.

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