Tag Archives: travel

Istanbul I

Wendy’s friends the GGGs (Grammar Guerrilla Girls) are handling the blog while we’re out of town, but on alternate days when scheduling permits, Jack and Wendy will post a few travelogues. Those looking for more Little Bookstore action should keep up with the GGGs on the blog’s regular days (M,W,F and Saturday) and those wanting to hear about the misadventures of bookslingers Jack and Wendy abroad, check in on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays.

Jack and I arrived at Charlotte airport and found first thing that our flight to Chicago, thence to Frankfurt, thence to Istanbul, had been delayed. “We’re never going to make it to Frankfurt. This trip is a disaster,” said my dour Scots husband, five minutes into our trip–and then couldn’t understand why I burst out laughing.

“Harumph,” he added for good measure, and I doubled over, honking and snorting as a security guard gave me a stern look and all the other people at the gate A16 edged away from the lady having a fit.

We were in fact so early to the airport (another husband thing) that we asked to get on the flight before our delayed one–also delayed. The nice lady at the counter did just that, and we found ourselves in the privileged position of being EARLY to Chicago. Which of course meant we had time for a pizza: what else would one do?

Fat and sassy we waddled onto our overnight flight, and woke the next morning, cranky, in Frankfurt. If one doesn’t arrive cranky, Frankfurt airport will take care of this for you; the place is joyless, soulless, and just plain nasty (although the city is nice).

Arriving in Istanbul at 2 pm local time – about 7 in the morning back in Virginia–a long line at passport control provided ample people-watching opps. Our favorite was a group of small children, probably from Malaysia, all wearing caps proclaiming they were part of an international children’s program designed to get people from very different places together to meet each other, and maybe reduce the urges some people have to attention-seek by blowing things up.

As we watched, this little flock of hat-wearing goslings sailed in and out of the security tapes intended to hold people tightly in queues, weaving among exhausted passengers of every persuasion–who smiled benignly at the kids and each other as the wee’uns flew over their feet and around their luggage. Even the guard was grinning.

I’m proud to be part of a world where little hat-wearing children can unite such disparate, tired people into a group.

Finding we had accidentally booked ourselves into an exquisite and comfortable hotel, we took a travelers’ nap, then set out in search of amusement. That is how we found out that we dress funny; while the shopkeepers and restaurateurs up and down the winding Old City streets of the Gulhane district greeted passersby with amazing accuracy in the targets’ languages, every time Jack and I passed one, they would ask, “Excuse me, where you from?”

I’m not wearing white tennis shoes, and Jack’s Scottish sweater is over a Walmart flannel shirt. Heh. This could be fun.

Tune in Sunday for a description of the Topkapi Palace Harem and other strange but wondrous people-watching moments.

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On the 1st day after Christmas, my true love said to me….

Christmas Day tucked into a quiet, well-appointed hotel can be very contemplative. We found the local Quaker gathering and joined them for meeting, celebrating Jesus’ birth and all it has meant for the rest of us. From contemplation to human bliss, an Indian restaurant near the hotel opened for the evening meal. Jack turned to me in the middle of his shrimp bhuna and said with a beatific smile, “It doesn’t get any better than this.”

It didn’t Dec. 26, anyway. The rain, sensing we would be returning to our car for what was marked as a scenic drive through the Ozarks, returned with vigor. Also, Monday is a day when many  bookshops are closed, and the day after Christmas a lot of small retailers pretty much think “forget it.” (We have never found this wise, knowing that Christmas money is burning a hole in many bibliophilic pockets.)

So here is the list of bookstores we did NOT get to visit: That Bookstore in Blytheville (yes, that’s the actual name, and I was looking forward to that one because it’s famous for being in the middle of nowhere yet attracting EVERYONE in the lit community); Xanadu Books in Memphis itself; and one each in Pocahontas, Mountain Home and Batesville, Arkansas.

The one we did get to surprised us. “Wolf Books” in Jonesboro, AR sounded like your basic second-hand store, but turned out to be a textbook buy-back. We’d been avoiding textbook traders and Christian bookstores on this trip because the former don’t usually deal in other forms, while the latter rarely focus on books; they’re more like Hallmark shops full of cards and trinkets. We wish both well, and bypass them with smiles.

Since we walked into Wolf (the local mascot) Books before we realized what it was, and since the guy behind the counter pounced on us as though we were the only humans he’d seen in days (which may have been true; no one came in during the half hour we spent with him) Jack just bit the bullet and explained that we ran a used bookstore, had misunderstood the name, we were very sorry and would be going now.

Not so fast. Bobby, the energetic and charismatic co-owner of the shop, hauled us over to his office, gave us  a card and a complimentary ink pen, grilled us about our shop, and explained that he bought used textbooks from across the States at pretty much the same prices as online dealers so he could resell them in his shop, and he’d love to sell ours for us.

“I make it against the online thing because I get customers all their stuff at once, conveniently bundled so they don’t have to think, and I do it fast. It’s all about service in this online world,” he said. We heartily agreed, having found that in the little shops sprinkled along the high- and byways, people survive the Amazon massacre because they are quirky, homely, sensitive HUMAN individuals who treat the people in their shops with respect AND make shopping convenient for them.

The funny thing was, though, for Bobby, service meant speed. For the rest of the used book world, it meant relaxation. We bliss our customers out whenever possible, giving them coffee, encouraging them to sit and read, meander the rooms, strike up conversations. And so do most of our cousins in the biz.

In fact, when we had to find an open Wal-Mart recently because we needed a piece of electronic equipment and didn’t know what small shop might sell it, we experienced culture shock. I forgot where we were and spoke to the cashier as though she and I were both humans with something in common. She stared at me, answered politely, and rang us up faster, as if in fear. We were out of there in two minutes, our purchase in a plastic bag bearing a corporate logo.

“Was that… weird?” I asked Jack as we walked through the crowded lot.

“Not for Wal-Mart; we’re just not used to it anymore. If you stay away awhile, what it really is shows up again.”

Not to stretch a point, but Jack’s observation has an echo in my love-hate affair with hotel TV. Jack and I don’t have a TV at our house, just Netflix. So when we land in a hotel room, I often do a channel surf for “good regular shows.” And there never are any. If you’re not hooked on a show from its inception, the paper thin nature of the characters, the amazing leaps of logic to resolve a crime in 42 minutes, the preachy attitudes of the heroes no matter how many sides a story could have in real life: they’re pretty easy to spot. Jack says, each time I pick up the remote, “Hope springs eternal, eh?” But I usually wind up spending 2o minutes watching one minute on each channel, then click off. It’s more or less a ritual by now. It’s not that I’m anti-TV; I just want a REAL story.

Points to ponder. Are we so inured to certain things in life that we don’t realize we’re not enjoying them until we forgo them awhile?

I did say that our Christmas turned out contemplative.

Enough pontificating: back to the road! Jonesboro seemed a likely place to find a mom-and-pop lunch counter slinging up all-day breakfast (Jack’s second favorite meal) but we drove in endless circles looking for anything unaffiliated with a chain before finding “The Country Lunch Buffet.”

Suckers, we were. A chain like the Steak and Sirloin places near 0ur home in VA, it was set up to look like an independent, the way coffeehouses often have individualistic names but are owned by a conglomerate.

Never mind; the food was good, plenty of green vegetables in evidence next to the beloved orange breaded foods of the South, AND we got a delightful surprise. My cell phone rang and Rachel Gholson, a friend from doctoral student days in Newfoundland, was calling from Springfield, MO. Were we headed that way?

Indeed we were, and we hastened our driving, since 1) Rachel was meeting us for supper; 2) the rain had become a deluge; and 3) Highway 60 is duller than red clay dirt. (Sorry, AR Tourism Board, but you should take those little scenic dotted lines off the map.)

We did stop in Hardy, AR, on advice from our friend Joyce Rowland. Most of it was shut, but we found two important things: cashews and a bathroom, both of which enhanced the pleasure of our onward drive. We also found that Sparrow’s Nest Books, which we had looked forward to, was closed {sigh}. In fact, the drive only became bearable because Jack kept his promise and hauled out the mini disc recorder to record the misadventures of his band Heritage (a Scottish folk supergroup in the 1980s). I’m going to work on writing them up this year. He had us laughing all the way.

Over supper with Rachel it was fairly easy to convince her to join us for a book invasion of Springfield tomorrow (possibly with our mutual friend Julie Henigan–three folklorist females and Jack in a car; friends please be prepared to stand bail).

For a very modest sum, we tucked up in a Days Inn close to the Cajun restaurant where we’d supped with Rachel, and OH BLISS it had an indoor pool. I’ve been trying to use hotel exercise rooms when available, but I really am a water baby, not a treadmill reader. (I keep dropping the book; I suppose the repeated negotiation of bending while walking is good for my tummy bulge. We got some very nice cheesecakes from our friend Elissa Powers back in Big Stone Gap, and we’ve kinda been nibbling those in the car….) Usually hotel pools are full of children emitting fluids (crying or…) but this one was gloriously empty. Jack sat with his book while I did cheesecake-negating laps.

Jack was right. It doesn’t get much better than this!

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Twenty Shades of Grey

Twenty shades of grey: that about sums up the four hours we spent driving the Natchez Trace Parkway this morning, from Franklin, TN to Tupelo, MS. That and the rain pounding its merry tattoo on our car’s roof…. if you’ve ever read Ray Bradbury’s stories about Venus, you’ll understand how we were beginning to feel.

It takes a strong marriage to survive four hours on the Parkway in December during a downpour. Jack and I are still speaking to one another, and we count this as good.

But it was all worth it for the bookstores we visited in Tupelo, two charming places of very different approaches and attitude. Greatest Hits is a bookstore-cum-used movies, CDs and games outlet run by Joe. He opened the place three and a half years ago and is going strong. His store is upbeat and messy, like himself. (Frankly, if Joe doesn’t drive a VW bus, he should.)

We bounced across the street to a local diner, then made a beeline for the Wise Old Owl, a messy little paperback bookstore that’s been in business more than fifteen years. Jennifer, the woman running it now bought out her parents about two years ago. The snakes-and-ladders shelving arrangement kept dumping me back in westerns, but Jennifer was a hoot (sorry) to talk to. As with Joe, discussion quickly turned to a favorite subject of used book shop keepers: how do you keep the swap credit within genres, so all the trade-ins aren’t romances and the take-outs sci fi and fantasy?

We spent over an hour each with Joe and Jennifer, talking shop. Joe had no idea what he was getting into when he opened his shop–and like Jack and me, he’d pulled a couple of stunts to keep himself open. Like taking a stack of his flyers down to the Barnes and Noble on the bypass, and putting one on the windshield of each car. Go, Joe!!! Jennifer, having practically grown up in her parents’ shop, knew more about the business when she started. But she told us something interesting: she has no advertising budget.

More and more, I’m convinced that the things business centers tell you are essential, are really just convenient to them. 14 years later, Jennifer is still there, sans marketing plan. Jack and I started with no marketing plan, and here we are, happy, healthy and still in business five years on.

So much for experts. Perhaps experts only want to make more people who look like themselves.

Tomorrow we conquer Oxford, MS and Memphis, TN. I wonder if they’ll notice….

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DASHING THROUGH THE RAIN…….

Jack got a nasty shock when he tried to turn on the heat at cheap motel #1.

The opera house-to-be in McMinnville, TN's downtown

Jack (my husband) and I decided to take a small portion of my book advance and see the world – or, specifically, see a bunch of secondhand bookstores and small towns on back roads stretching between Virginia and Kansas, then back again. So we’re headed down through Tennessee to Mississippi, then back up to Arkansas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri, across to Indiana and Illinois, then back down through Kentucky to home sweet home again.

We concocted this silly scheme because we wondered how many towns still have independent bookstores new or used. Looking them up on the Internet, we have plotted a course and set off in pursuit of little bookstores everywhere. And in the interest of being as local as possible, in our earnest Civic Hybrid that gets great gas mileage, we are only eating at restaurants that are not part of a chain. That’s been rather fun to keep up with; it’s amazing how challenging it is to plot one’s meals without a paper cup containing a straw…

But it can be done, and so it shall be! Stay tuned…..

DAY ONE: No sleep ’til Pikeville

We left my parents in Knoxville and headed down the way toward Athens, where our first bookstore was plotted. We found it with little difficulty; a giant “GOING OUT OF BUSINESS” banner helped. The store is giving up the ghost after a year under the new owners, who’d bought the place from someone who’d had it two years before them. Following more of a Hastings model, they also took games and DVDs et al, but it didn’t help when time came to pay the rent…. Family illness settled the matter for them, and we benefited from their 1/2 price closing sale and shared commiserations.

We’d intended to head down to Signal Mountain, but waning daylight sent us straight to Dayton, home of the infamous Scopes Trial. There Jack found a music store and disappeared for several hours, so I wandered the streets looking at the sidewalk timeline of the trial, and searching for a public restroom. I finally found a nice one in the General Store run by Tim and Janet Culver. Exiting the rest room, I was looking around the shop for something useful to purchase by way of a “thanks,” and Janet began chatting with me. Finding out we were bookstore owners on a casual mission of “know and be known,” she showed me the book she and her husband had self-published in 2000, documenting the trial. Their book quotes documents verbatim, with interpretation between to bridge the narrative gaps.

“We published this ourselves, then found out we couldn’t get distribution because we didn’t have enough clout. It would just about break even if we paid for distribution, so we’re sitting on cases of these,” Janet explained. The tourism draw they’d expected wasn’t a fast enough outlet to disseminate the books into a reading public, so she was interested in doing an event with our bookstore later. We exchanged cards and she slipped a complimentary copy of the book into my bag with my purchase.

This became a pattern we would see repeated in other towns; they might not have a bookstore, but they had a local author or authors who had self-published works specific to the area.

Although the Internet disavowed all knowledge of a bookstore in Dayton, Janet told us a new one had started up on the bypass, and we soon located The Book Barn, just three months old. The place was huge, and held few books for its size, but as the young lady working told us, its owner had finally fulfilled his lifelong dream of having a used bookstore, so what else mattered?

From Dayton we ambled across little grey map lines toward Pikeville, TN. Since the road from there to McMinnville was touted as a scenic wonderland, we pulled into a cheap motel – emphasis on cheap – and called it a night.

Here’s an observation on that whole “shop local” thing: it works great for everything except overnight lodging and gas stations. In fact, according to a book we (Jack and I) have been reading, the whole standardization movement in retail circles (The McDonaldization of Society) began with motels, in an effort to ensure uniform service and cleanliness. Well, I want to be a localvore, but I cop to liking my motels without dead things in the bathtub.

DAY TWO: Pikeville to Franklin

We snail crawled out of bed the next morning and realized we’d crossed a time border at some point the day before. Jack was up before 7 a.m. I treated him to a rousing chorus of “Oh the World Must be Coming to an End” before departing in search of coffees. (There was no machine in the room; did I mention the motel was cheap?)

I followed a shoal of pick-up trucks wallowing through town, and sure enough they led me to the only diner open at that hour. I parked my Civic Hybrid in their midst and walked through the soft morning rain into the diner, filled with men in billed caps blazoned with seed logos, all staring out the window at my poor little 52-mpg car, slouched between two huge Ford trucks.

The waitress walked past me to a local who came in behind me. I sat down at one of the red diner counter stools as if I owned the place and swung back and forth, smiling at the men in the caps, back to the counter at the waitress, back to the men in the caps. They grunted and returned to their coffee.

A second waitress appeared and did a double take at seeing me, then came over and–I am not making this up–whispered, “Do you need something?”

I whispered back, “If you do coffee to go, yes.”

“One?” she mouthed.

I held up two fingers. Oops. This looked like a peace sign. The men in the booth frowned, eyes hooded beneath their cap bills. I swiveled swiftly back to the waitress. She rolled her eyes toward heaven and poured coffee into two huge Styrofoam cups.

The coffee was cheap, piping hot, and really, really good. I departed, juggling two large cups, my wallet, and the key to my electric car. Outside, two men in seed caps stopped as they were entering the restaurant, and one stepped over.

“Here, honey, lemme get that,” he said, and held the coffees while I opened the door.

Fortified by human kindness and caffeine, we hit the road to The Book Rack in McMinnville – except that, like half of downtown McMinnville, it wasn’t there. Empty store fronts, closing down sales in two of the remaining places, and an abandoned theatre that a local told us they hoped to convert to an opera house and revitalize the downtown.

Driving in, we’d seen expensive houses, lots of healthy-looking landscape nurseries, horses grazing–plenty of evidence that McMinnville had some wealth in its citizens, if not its coffers, so its downtown dead zone puzzled me. On we drove to Murfreesboro.

I’ll always think of Murfreesboro as “the great paper chase.” We stopped at a Habitat for Humanity resale store and asked if there were any bookshops about. “Several,” the nice man working the counter said, and gave us directions to one. We misunderstood or misfollowed them, one or the other, because we wound up in the town square, where an upscale tobacco shop, a discount shoe place, and a bail bondsman sat side by disjointed side.

Okay, score one for not having planned communities. The nice man at the tobacco shop said there were no bookshops in Murf except “the ones at the mall, that Million Books place.”

Ah, thank you. But at another store, we got directions to “The Paperback Place,” which turned out to be where that sweet Habitat man had been trying to send us. It took three tries at going the right way on College Street, but we finally found “The Book Corner,” at the edge of an all-but-deserted strip mall. The owner, a thin man with three rings on one ear lobe, chatted amiably with us between keeping up with customers and escorting his young daughter from her special bookhouse room to the bathroom and back.

He’d bought the place,  a labyrinthian twist of romances, mysteries and celebrity biographies, back in May from a woman who’d been its owner 16 years. She had bought it from the original owner, who had started it some 42 years before. We told him his was the first place we’d seen where the owner was working the store, and he shared our surprise at this.

“How can they afford to do that?” we both wondered openly.

Between valuing drop-offs for credit, helping me find the rest room, reckoning up a swap deal for two customers, answering his phone and looking after his daughter, we chatted about subjects near and dear to bookstore owners’ hearts: how fast the romances piled up, whether swap deals should require 50% cash equivalency, how long it takes to break even on rent each month. Our bookstore doesn’t require rent, but his did, and this too was a pattern we would see repeated on our journey: people who have to pay rent have to paddle their little boats much faster.

We left that pleasant shop and hit the backroad highway again, headed to Franklin, which boasted the tenth largest income per household in the nation, and two independent book sellers. The Book Den, owned by Joyce, was a delight–and the most orderly book shop we’d ever seen. Her paperbacks lay sideways so the titles were easily readable, and since she only took hardbacks of current bestsellers, these rested comfortably between stacks. She’d thoughtfully tacked up series chronologies and families next to favorite authors (Lee Child, Nora Roberts, et al). She kept abreast of the latest publications, and one wall of her shop sported new books based on middle and high school reading lists and local tastes in Christian fiction.

It only took a few minutes chatting with Joyce and her employee to see how proud Joyce was of her shop, and rightly so. She radiated confidence and vitality as she explained how she’d bought it in 1995 from its previous owner, hired one of her best friends to help her, and settled in to a second career.

Joyce was the first of the shop owners to mention Kindles. She feared them. “I used to have people come in every two weeks, now they come in once every three months or so, and they tell me they’re reading on their Kindles now, so they’re just coming in for things they can’t get that way.” She shook her head. “I hope they leave me standing.” She shrugged, and showed me how she’d planned her store’s layout so men wouldn’t have to pass romances to reach westerns.

Charmed, we left Joyce’s Book Den and made a quick pop-in to Landmark Books, just a couple of miles down the road. This was more of a first edition and rare specialty books kind of place. Once we spotted Bill Frist’s Healing America on a shelf for $38 (signed first edition) we figured there wasn’t much more to see. This is one of the books the Christian Appalachian Project dumped by the boxful into Wise County some three years back. We’ve made purses, birdhouses, planters and other less useful things from them, but a couple hundred still circulate. Au revoir, Landmark Books.

Tucked into an inexpensive chain motel with a coffee machine, wireless, clean pillowcases and working heat, I luxuriated in the bathtub under the sun lamp and counted our many blessings.What a difference a $10 price differential makes…..

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