We’re Still Having Fun

Jack’s weekly guest blog

Wendy and I often have conversations on Facebook with other owners of small independent bookstores – usually about how to drive more customers through the door. The trouble is that every bookstore is unique in some way, be that the character of the owners, the geographical position of the shop, the demographic of the local population, etc, etc.

Our own strategies have been many and varied and some are detailed in ‘The Little Bookstore’. They have ranged from the early days of me handing out flyers outside the local Super-Wallie to running community events in the store. Flyers are good when you’re getting established. Community events are good for two reasons – publicity and bringing in new folk who might become regular customers.

This is where local circumstances come into play; Wendy and I live in the same building as the bookstore so it’s no biggie for us to run events. It might not be so easy for others.

We are currently running a ‘give-away’ competition for boxes of children’s and young adult books aimed at the local schools. This is partly because we simply have too many, but also to help raise awareness among school staff, parents and students that we are here and our children’s books are cheap even when you have to buy them.

We have also found that opening a cafe created spin-off business between the two. Of course that means finding the space, meeting health inspection rules (GOATS!), and identifying someone with the skills and personality with whom you can comfortably work, etc, etc. We were very lucky to find Our Good Chef Kelley as a partner!

Finally, it certainly helps to write and have published a best-selling memoir all about your bookstore. That has brought lots of people from around the country (and abroad) to visit us who generally don’t leave without buying books and eating lunch. As I write this a couple from Fairfax sit upstairs in the cafe; they drove all the way here because of the book. They have a book club who all read Wendy’s book and are talking about a group visit. That would certainly involve an overnight stay, so additional business for the town as well.

And after finally (well, a post-script then) it pays to have fun. Enjoy what you’re doing, and you’ll never work a day in your life. :]

 

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The Monday Book: THE GRACE THAT KEEPS THIS WORLD by Tom Bailey

It’s set in the mountains, it’s about a rural family living close to poverty, and it involves dysfunctional quiet love. What’s not to like about this novel (which came out in 2005)?

And yet, when I opened it and saw that the author used the first person narratives of several different people to tell the story, my first thought was Oh no. Most people can’t keep characterization well enough to pull that off successfully. The people don’t sound different, don’t want different things, don’t act as though they are, as Stephen King more or less put it, the stars of their own lives.

Bailey not only pulled off this technique, of all things, he did it by means of a weird kind of failure. His writing is pretty, ornate, descriptive to the point that I admit to sometimes skimming because I’m not that kind of reader. I don’t like long descriptions of wooded areas. (I accept this as a failing in me as a reader, and insert it here so you know whether to trust me as a reviewer.)

But I love, love, love when a writer gets inside the heads of others and makes the writing sound like them. And Bailey’s success at failing is that he did this not by changing the dialect or lexicon, but by changing what they want to talk about and how they want to talk about it intellectually. All Bailey’s characters – the father, the two sons, the mom, the girlfriends and the neighbors–have similar vocabulary. Yet they have very different points of aim to their lives and conversation. I liked this approach.

The building sense of tragedy, the inevitable moment that’s foreshadowed in the mom’s opening volley, lying in bed listening to her three men take off for their hunt, keeps the whole book’s plot humming with a kind of relentless bass thrum; you aren’t so much watching a train wreck as a ballet dancer fall. It’s a graceful tragedy, bittersweet in its one-step-removed sense of what it means for the family left behind.

In this novel, tragedy is masked in beauty and quietness. Even the hardcore parts about logging and shooting and men hitting each other are written in that once-removed elegance that must have frustrated the tar out of some readers. I like bittersweet, so I loved Grace. I’m now looking for Bailey’s other novel (Cotton Song, I think) to hit the bookshop at some point.

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Ye Fairly Get Ma Goat Jack!

Murder 2015 006Jack’s weekly guest blog tackles the Goat-Scape Scandal….. Alert readers will know that we have been finding new homes for orphaned kittens and abandoned cats for a couple of years or more, about 120 at the last count–kittens/cats, not years. Because we have a cafe upstairs we are very careful to make sure there is no contact between them, with elaborate security arrangements including secret passwords, handshakes and iris cameras. But, mainly, a very strongly sprung (and high) gate.

Despite this there have been Chinese whispers at certain lower echelons around our small town suggesting that we were really a ‘cat cafe’ – something viewed with approval in many developed Western Democracies, including parts of the US of A, but not Virginia. (Google the term if you want to read some fascinating strangeness.) Now you hear it straight from the goatkeeper’s mouth: No bodily fluids, far less cats or kittens, are exchanged between the bookstore and the cafe.

Having established that beyond doubt, I return to the fact that the bookstore rescues cats. So it’s not uncommon for me to see someone struggling up our front steps with a pulsating cardboard box and a hopeful expression. I refer to these people as “fur blackmailers” and tend to give them a swift and short answer. But it’s never been our friend Elizabeth before. Last Saturday morning, here she came. I opened the door for her and looked into the box – four baby goats!

“Didn’t Wendy tell you?” she said.

Back story – Wendy and Elizabeth jointly own goats that are accommodated at Elizabeth’s farm outside town and two of them (the goats, not Elizabeth and Wendy) had just had babies but weren’t letting them nurse. Elizabeth would be out of town over the weekend and Wendy had said that we would bottle feed them until she got back.

When Wendy posted a picture of the babies on FaceBook one of the small towners rubbed her/his hands with glee! On Monday morning our long-suffering Health Inspector arrived and said to me, in a world-weary voice, “Goats?” His boss had received the picture along with a diatribe about “why such things are allowed to go on”.

Poor Mr. Health Inspector’s expression mixed defeat with relief when I took him through to the back of the bookstore where the goats had been–nowhere near the cafe, which hadn’t been open when they were hereMurder 2015 003. He offered the observation that “this was a new one” and said someone in Northern Virginia was trying to start a cat cafe, so tensions about animals and eateries were at an all-time high in his world. We shook hands and he left. Laughing.

The publicity from Goat-Scape went six times ’round the Internet that day and the next, which I suspect was not what the Small Towner who sent the picture had in mind. Getting someone’s goat is now a catch phrase around here. And Elizabeth and Wendy’s goats have had four more babies between them – they are now grandmothers of eight.

Life goes on.

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How soon unaccountable

starsLast night Jack and I sang for the St. Patrick’s Day event at the Fox House, home of another author who lived in Big Stone Gap. I wandered into his study before the event, feeling for a vibe. Didn’t really get one, but the house was full of people drinking green beer, so contemplation might not have been a good goal at that moment. But it was a lovely gig, a strong community pulling together, singing harmonies to the choruses, all sweetness and Picardy Thirds.

Walking home afterward, I realized how clear the night sky was–no moon, no clouds, every star hanging as if 12 feet above our heads. Back at the bookstore I dropped off my harp and hopped into our car to make for the reservoir, where there are no city lights whatsoever.

It was a strange drive. That’s not a road I’m very familiar with and it is full of hairpin curves up a wooded mountain. In the headlights, trees, a passing deer, even the road itself, were all monochrome pale black against the dark. The headlights barely cut into the next curve, and every time I swung the car I saw another row of those ghostly grey trees, hedging me in. A bit eerie. One starts to think about motor trouble and men with knives and rabid things in the woods…..

It began to feel foolish, this solo drive up a mountain on a fool’s errand. I pulled into the reservoir, hoping for enough clear space to see the night sky, turned off the headlights, cut the motor–

–and the stars came flooding in, past the windscreen, right past my eyes as though they wanted inside of me. Thousands of them. Constellations I’ve known since a child and many more I didn’t, all dancing together the instant the lights went out. Just like that.

It’s amazing how quickly some things change. All the turns in the road, the guardians at the gate, the grey washed-out things, they disappear. And there you are with all that glorious hidden brilliance suddenly in front of you, so bold and bright and beautiful you’re amazed you didn’t see it before. That you doubted it was there.

I love watching the night sky. It gives that combined feeling of confidence in the hands of a God who knows you, and humility at being a very small part of a Big Thing. You’re not the center of the dance, but you get to be in it. And whether you see a thing–the night sky, a pattern, a plan–or not doesn’t change its being there.

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The Monday Book: The Art of the Epigraph: How Great Books Begin

I love quotations because it is a joy to find thoughts one might have, beautifully expressed with much authority by someone recognized wiser than oneself. ~Marlene Dietrich

epigraphPicked this book up when Jack and I visited Williamsburg on holiday in January. I love quotes, have kept a notebook of them forever, and sometimes, just for fun, I troll quote sites.

So now you know.

Rosemary Ahern’s editing of this book has them organized by loose subjects, but she also wrote a nice contextualizing essay about epigraphs (the quotes that open a book chapter or book by being a kind of sideways poetic move into what the text will deal with). She refers to them as ‘mental furniture’ and a way of understanding not only what the chapter will be about, but how the author thinks about life–a little peek inside the study, if you will.

I figured this was  a “dipping” book, the kind one picked up at bedtime and browsed amiably until sleep fogged the brain and the words danced away from your eyes. (That’s usually the last thing that happens before the book falls on my face and wakes me up.) But in reality, this is a bad book to read before bed. You kinda have to think about the quotes, because they’re set on the page above the title of the book they open. Which is like a game of Dixit, or Apples to Apples, with words and somebody else’s brain waves. Cool, fun, but not really sleep-inducing. More of a wake-up call for.

Insights are glorious things, but as Elizabeth Gilbert said in her TED talk, sometimes you don’t want to be inspired because you’re trying to drive a car or get some sleep.

Ain’t no plot to this book, but if you’ve read the books that are under the epigraphs, you totally spend a few minutes moving the letters around inside the square to see if you can form the mystery key word. Thought Boggle?

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this book, and it is one of the few, the proud, that I will keep rather than Frisbee-flick into the shop for someone else to find. Getcher own copy, and I highly recommend purchasing rather than the library. You’re going to want to write notes in the margins. :]

 

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A Deep Dive

Writing about writing is kind of dangerous, because if you were really writing, you wouldn’t be writing about writing, so therefore whatever you write is pretentious git dribble about how much fun you would be having if you were really doing it.

But it’s still so alluring to do……

When you’re getting back into the groove, it’s like taking a deep dive back down into dark water. You know what you’re doing and you can’t wait to jump, you’ve been practicing your form and technique, but you have no idea what’s down there. You just know you want to get into it, feel it close around you, and forget the rest.

So you set aside all the housecleaning jobs that have to get done “someday” and you set a time limit for Facebook, morning and evening and no lunch peeking, and you clear all the crochet patterns from your laptop and block Ravelry for a couple of months.

diveAnd then you dive.

Ohhhhh, that dive…….. :]

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Cooking the Books

 

Jack’s weekly guest post continues the Indian theme and re-visits the problem of which books he puts in the store

 

Regular readers probably know, by now, that I’m a devotee of Indian food – curries, papadums, somosas and badjhies (we don’t need no stinking badjhies, as Bogart’s Mexican adversary famously said in ‘Treasure of the Sierra Madre’).

 

So when Wendy produced my five Indian cookbooks yesterday and asked me innocently if it was time for them to go into the shop I was momentarily flummoxed. Should they? They have been my pride and joy for years!

 

But had I ever actually used them in a practical way? Had I propped them open and followed their every word?

 

Well, actually, no! What I had done is gathered a lot of experience over many years and ended up making two or three regular things.

 

1) Fry finely chopped onions in vegetable oil until just browned; push them aside and fry three tablespoons of Mike Ward’s famous curry powder mix in the same oil; dump in a jar of plain tomato pasta sauce and all the vegetables (peppers, golden raisins and mushrooms, usually); add a similar amount of plain yoghurt bit by bit; simmer for a few hours.

 

2) Exactly the same as 1) except miss out Mike’s FCP and add three tablespoons of Patak’s hot curry paste at the end.

 

I also sometimes do a prawn/shrimp or chicken tikka. Make up a mix of onion, yoghurt and tandoori spice mix and marinade the shrimp or chicken overnight in the fridge. Next day remove the shrimp or chicken and clean most of the marinade off. Grill until crisp, then serve with the heated marinade on the side.

 

I shouldn’t forget Wendy’s home-made chutney made from our own fruit and vegetables – but that’s her closely guarded personal recipe!

 

I’m delighted to say that our local supermarket now carries a very good selection of Indian spices, sauces, papadums and naan breads, so it’s now easier to come up with the goods.

 

The five books? You’ll find them in the cook-books section, proudly displayed together.

 

(But I did enjoy reading them and imagining all the dishes – every one of them!).

 

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