Oliver Speaks his Mind

oliver chillin Yo, girls; I’m Oliver. I’m hangin’ at the bookstore until my adoption comes through. Been a little longer than I expected, what with me bein’ so adorable an’ all. I mean, look at me. I’m cuter than barley sugar and twice as sweet.

Well, sweet, I mean, I’m a tough guy but I’ve got a tender side too, y’know? I’m not afraid to let my feelings show. Like, I love breakfast. Every morning we have wet breakfast here. The rest of the day we get your basic dry hard crap, but for breakfast we get Friskies shreds. Oh maaaaaan, them things’re good. I never hesitate to declare my love for them. I stand in the middle of the dish an’ paw the stuff. There might be some squealin’ involved.

‘Cause I grew up in a rough neighborhood, y’know? The street right outside the bookstore, that’s where some lady found me an’ took me to their door. It was nice of ’em to take me in, y’know, ’cause I was kinda little then. Six weeks old, too young to be on my own. So I got used to scrappin’ for scraps. Here, I don’t have to; always plenty. Plus I can nap anywhere, anytime. That’s great, man! oliver

Now that I can have all the food I want, my fur looks great. I’m a tuxedo dude. Even though I like to run an’ play, I keep my feet bright white. I have great whiskers, so I keep ’em clean an’ shiny too. Fact is, I’m drop dead gorgeous. All you have to do is look at me to see that.

But hey, I’ve got an erudite side, too. I ain’t your basic street tough, y’know, after spendin’ a month in a bookstore. I used erudite correctly in a sentence, didn’t I? Yeah, ya pick up things, livin’ in a bookstore, if ya keep your ears clean an’ open. I do my ears every day.

DSCN0704Oh yeah, there’s a couple of other cats here, too. Fun to play with, nice guys. Gonna miss me when I’m gone. I’m way cuter than them so I’ll get adopted first. Chicks can’t resist a guy in a tuxedo.

C’mon down an’ visit. I’m healthy, an’ ready for a good time, if you know what I mean. Let’s get Friskies! Mrrrrrow.

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In which Bookseller Wendy revitalizes her inner Chair Nerd

asheville river artAsheville, NC has been our go-to getaway since moving to Virginia nine years ago. It’s the Paris of the South, Bohemia of the Bible Belt, and home to a lot of really good artisans.

As often as we’d been there, we’d never managed to explore wider than downtown, so this time we snagged a clean, cheap hotel at its edge (DOWNTOWN INN, highly recommended, gorgeous pool!) and hopped a asheville pooltourist trolley. It is a good deal, taking you to things you’d not realize were unique without their stories– like the amazing Asheville McDonald’s, sixth wonder of the Fast Food World; or the site where Zelda Fitzgerald met her untimely, unnecessary end. As an added bonus, the woman staffing the site whence we hopped on was just lovely, teaching herself to knit, had an anthropology background, a long-time resident of Asheville talking about its history and future.

We enjoyed the trolley, particularly our driver Storyteller Michael (who loved being Storyteller Michael) but it was the River Arts District we really wanted to explore, our first day. Off we hopped, and spent the next three hours running around conversing with artists and gallery owners. The woman at the glass shop talked about downtown Asheville’s gentrification pushing out the locals. The lady who made animal portraits out of fabric pieces had escaped the mall attack in Mogadishu. A guy doing binary code paintings discussed asheville doorstopraising artistic children in a city that ate money.

It’s one of the many cool things about Asheville. They’re not just raking in tourists; almost everyone is quite happy to converse with you about what they’re doing, and why, and how long they’ve been doing it. Artists, wait staff (who are often artists, too) hotel clerks. People have not lost the art of conversation here, at least not in the off-season.

Even at lunch, when we sat down outside at White Duck Taco, conversations kept rolling. As we had the only table with spare seating, a man asked if he and his son could join us. Turns out his son was at university in Edinburgh, so we had a grand old time.

Then we walked – and let me tell you, if you really want to explore all the River Asheville chain manArts District, you need to bring a car – down to another section, and randomly up to a building that sported the sign, “Chair caning to the left.”

Oh?

For those who don’t know, I am a chair caning nerd. I LOVE caning chairs – don’t get to do it that often, what with bookstore operations and writing and cat rescue and the college, but it has some serious zen. And scope for artistry. And when you’re done, a lasting effect on the comfort and vibe of your home.

So around the corner I raced, and entered heaven. A whole loft dedicated to the artistic building, repair, and enhancement of chairs. Chairs with paper rush, chairs with sea grass, chairs with Shaker tape, oak splints…. *blissful sigh.*

asheville chair display(Sorry, nerd moment.)

And the best part? Well, two best parts. The woman who owns the place said hi, I asked her a question about a caning pattern, and her eyes lit.

“You cane?” she asked, and I was off, talking about the garage Jack enclosed for me, the rockers, the checkerboard seats, the 3-5 chevrons…..

You could see it on her forehead: I got a live one here!asheville chairs

She left the work she’d been doing and showed me a display of all the types of seat pattern and common materials used in America. We talked about which designs, though beautiful, would be less functional than the ol’ stalwarts, discussed lace weaves versus sturdy rush doubles. We talked the kind of talk that would make non-nerds’ eyes roll back into their heads. Some time later – was it ten minutes or thirty – I realized Jack had disappeared.

Brandy, the owner, showed me the antique chairs, the unusual caning someone had done to a ladder back rocker, and a few other things that set my heart racing, before we shook hands and said goodbye. She’s going to try and make a trip to the bookstore sometime next year, and if she does we’ll try to set up a special event, something along the lines of “Intro to chair caning for normal people.”

Not nerds like us. Brandy gifted me a “chair nerd” sticker which is now proudly displayed on the bookshop door. And that was how I found a little piece of heaven in Asheville.

Click to visit Silver River Chairs and meet Dave, Brandy, and Rosie the chair dog.

Silver-River-Staff-thumbnail-Brandy(And if you want to get a trolley next time you’re Asheville way, it’s www.GrayLineAsheville.com)

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The Monday Book: DESERT QUEEN by Janet Wallach

Jack’s guest Monday book review – Desert Queen by Janet Wallach

queen-of-the-desertThis fascinating account, set during the height of British imperialism, follows the life of the remarkable Gertrude Bell. Little remembered until the recent Iraq wars, it was she who sat down in 1919 and quite literally invented the country. She drew its borders, foresaw the difficulties, recommended how it should be governed, and negotiated and politicked until she got her way. That included choosing Iraq’s first King – Faisal – and making sure he was put on the throne.

The book covers her life from the late 1800s through the late 1920s. A strong willed and intelligent youngster, she was one of the first women in England to be allowed to attend a university. She went on to become a noted mountaineer and traveled throughout the Middle-East as an explorer and antiquarian. Oddly for such an ambitious and atypical woman, she was staunchly anti-suffragist, seemingly thinking of herself as an exception. She did expect to get married, have children and play second fiddle to a husband, but never did. (She had two great loves – the first was deemed to have insufficient prospects by her father and the second was a married man who was killed at Gallipoli).

Just prior to the outbreak of the First World War she began to spend most of her time in Mesopotamia and became a kind of amateur spy and agent feeding information to the colonial offices in India and Egypt as well as the UK Government back in London. She operated very much as a lone-wolf, looked down on by the all-male officials and not fitting in with their wives. As a result she spent a great deal of time with the Sheiks and other local leaders, accepted by them as almost an honorary man.

The book was doubly fascinating for me in the way that it portrays the casual arrogance of imperial powers and the patronizing way that they (particularly France and the UK) divided up the region after the end of the war. Most of the Middle East had been part of the Ottoman Empire, but with Turkey defeated and oil now seen to be so important, an undignified series of negotiations took place and the whole vast area split into brand new countries with puppet leaders. Iraq, Persia, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia were conjured up but poor Kurdistan (that had been promised its own state) is still waiting. Then there was Palestine – –

Finally you may wonder why the subject of this book isn’t as well known as the famous ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, who was a friend and contemporary of hers. I think the answer is simply that T. E. Lawrence was a man and she was a woman. He was the acceptable dashing young adventurer who fitted the stereotype and she wasn’t. In fact it was because she was a woman and had to operate ‘under the radar’ that she was so successful.

I just wish Messrs Bush and Blair had read this book – they might have done things differently!

Two enthusiastic thumbs up from this Scottish reviewer. And I’m waiting for the movie starring Nicole Kidman andvJames Franco, directed by Werner Herzog, due out next month on general release.

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Rewrite a Classic Title Game

DSCN0018Some friends and I on a bookstore owner list were playing with classic titles, rewriting them to reflect the realities of running a bookshop. Here are a few we came up with:

Oh the Places You’ll Dust

Farewell my Harlequins (please!)

The Old Man and the C Shelf

Bonfire of the Vanity Presses

The Optimist’s Slaughter

Go Set a Watch (for those unfamiliar, timing the moment your front door can close so you can go to a party/go to bed early is one of the big joys of small business ownership)

How to Make Friends and Influence People’s Reading Habits

And we actually found a few titles that needed no alteration:

The Hunger Games

The Friendly Persuasion

Odd Hours

Yeah, you kind of have to be a literary snob, or worked retail, to get some of them. Please add your titles in comments. It’s kind of addictive once you get started….

Think and Grow Poor

The Thorn Books (those by authors whose star has faded; think about it)

The Cuckoo Flew Over One’s Nest (because you do kinda have to be crazy to do this)

To Kill a Mocking Teen

The Devil Wears Too Much Perfume (for all who’ve ever been choked by a customer)

Along Came a Spiderweb

Two Years before I went Bankrupt

The Battle of the Bookshelf Labyrinth

A Farewell to Free Time

A Prayer for All the Meanies (if you’ve ever worked retail….)

Come on, you know you want to make up a few…

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Food for Thought

Jack’s weekly guest post homes in on gastronomic reminders –

It’s sometimes surprising the connections that can be made in our local supermarket, and I don’t mean the people you bump into.

Our Good Chef Kelley, owner of The Second Story Cafe here above the bookstore, often shops for us when she’s getting in her cafe provisions, and sometimes surprises us with something she thought we’d specially like. Imagine our astonishment when she triumphantly ploncked down two packs of Mull of Kintyre mature cheese in front of us a few weeks ago. – Mull of Kintyre, for goodness sake!

The Mull of Kintyre is a hard-to-get-to promontory in the Southwest of Scotland, within sight of the North of Ireland. It’s most famous for two things: it was part of the ancient Kingdom of Dalriada, which composed the SW of Scotland and Antrim in Ireland as well as the sea between; and Paul McCartney (remember him?) who owns a house there and wrote what is probably his worst ever song about the place!

Paul’s song is affectionately known as ‘Mulligan’s Tire’ in Scotland, so the label on the cheese is rather clever and subtle (do you get it?)

DSCN0726

And then there’s the San Daniele Prosciutto Wendy came home with from a business trip to Abingdon (a wealthy town about an hour away) last week, which immediately took me back to Friuli in NE Italy where my old group Heritage had such great times playing at FolkEst back in the eighties. We were based in San Daniele and looked after royally by the lovely guy who’s family owned the most respected prosciutto place in town. I love the stuff and was gob smacked when Wendy handed me the packet.

There’s our long-running search for Romanian Pinot Noir, which we fell in love with when we were both working there temporarily, way back in 2002. We were delighted to find when we got back to Scotland that the local Tesco supermarket not only stocked it but it was the very same brand – Prahova Valley. Since moving to Virginia we’ve spent years trying to persuade the local supermarket – – –

I didn’t mention Patak’s hot curry paste, or elderflower presse, or McVittie’s plain chocolate digestives, or, or, – – –

Something about food just transports us back to special places and times, doesn’t it? The good news is, with the exception of the Romanian Pinot, our sweet little local Food City (owned by KVAT) has mostly managed to get in these items. They also try to buy produce from local farmers, regionally specific to each of their stores.

Here’s to supporting the local guys! We really need to send them a bottle of the Prahova Valley next time we find it online…..

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The Monday Book: SEE NO EVIL by Robert Baer

spiesWhen I teach Cultural Geography, I sometimes assign the film Syriana as an extra credit option. Inevitably, all but the brightest students turn in something along the lines of “I couldn’t figure out who the good guys and the bad guys were in this movie because everything was so twisted up.”

Yeah. Welcome to the Middle East spy network.

Baer is the “Bob” who inspired the film, and who (spoiler alert) dies in the airstrike he tries to prevent. And if you think Syriana is convulted, try reading this memoir of Baer’s life in the CIA. On the one hand, it is chronological of the guy’s life experiences. On the other, it describes in bland prose some of the most amazing twists and turns. It would be a great spy novel if you didn’t know people had died because of it.

As an example of how Baer lays out the frustration and confusion, he goes to a small Kurdish-held village on the Iranian border to see what the Iraqi official he’s working with has done: one person says he attacked the village; he swears he didn’t. After a four-hour trip in a Toyota truck mounted with gun turrets (which means he pretty much looked like the Taliban, this American CIA operative) they arrive to find the village has been shelled. He calls his Iraqi contact and says “I know what you did.”

As Baer writes, ” ‘You betrayed me,’ was his only response….. only in the Middle East could you betray someone by refusing to accept the lie he had told you in the first place.”

The book is dated as current history, but as a story of why systems continue to fail because of human personality, it’s pretty much timeless. If you’ve ever read The Prince of the Marshes, by British author Rory Stewart, Baer’s is pretty much the American equivalent.

The funny thing is, Baer makes things very clear even though he really can’t write for beans. His prose is flat, sometimes his verbs are suspect, and he never waxes poetic or gets on a soapbox. Perhaps that helps, in a memoir delivering so many mixed messages while trying to hold onto its own main theme: We’re screwed.

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We Won the Inaugural International Cat Day at Bookstores Award!

In case anyone missed it, Robert Gray of Shelf Awareness did his column on us this past week. Here’s the article and the link. And we LOVED seeing Valkyttie’s picture going national. :]

 

Robert Gray: International Cat Day Bookstore Prize

In case you missed it, last Saturday was International Cat Day, during which “felines take over the internet (even more than usual),” the Telegraph noted. As news-gathering organizations go, our bookstore cat coverage is pretty comprehensive, so we can testify to the clickbait potential inherent in any hyperlink that includes the words “Bookstore Cats.”

See, you just went there instinctively, didn’t you? Welcome back.

Today, I have the honor of both inventing and announcing the inaugural International Cat Day Bookstore Prize winner. From a long list of worthy contenders, the judges (well, me) unanimously selected Tales of the Lonesome Pine, Big Stone Gap, Va., which is currently hosting a Bookstore Cat Adoption Reunion on Facebook to celebrate all of the “forever homes” they have found for their temporary bookstore kitty interns.

“We started in June 2009, and in May of this year we adopted out our 200th cat (named Reepicheep),” said co-owner Wendy Welch. “The bookstore is a great place to get adoptions going because it acts kind of like a pet store window; people interact with the cats, pick them up and carry them, have fun with them. The tactile experience of being around them has increased adoptions, I think. We still have ‘impulse’ adoptions, although we are careful of those. More often now that we’re established we have people contact us after viewing our Facebook photos.”

Tales of the Lonesome Pine has three cat adoption rules, Welch noted: “Let the cat choose the person–they never miss; give the cats timely literary names (we named a group Harper Lee, Scout, and Boo Radley when Go Set a Watchman came out); and write about their purrsonailities on Facebook. After a cat’s been with us long enough to know them, I usually do a ‘if this cat were a woman/girl’ post and for some reason everybody loves these. I also write a lot of ‘cat voice‘ blogs as if the cat were writing it about his experiences at the shop. These get lots of hits and comments.”

Visitors to the bookstore occasionally donate money (“a kitty for the kitties,” as her husband, Jack, describes it), but Welch said, “We don’t have a jar out and in our troubled economic region I would flat not ask people for money; there are people struggling to feed their families here, literally. We’re not interested in taking their cash. In fact, that’s who we rescue for. Some families would love a pet, be good to it, have enough to feed and care for it, if they didn’t have to pay for spaying and neutering. I have friends who can sometimes be called on to ‘sponsor’ a family if they need it, and we let those ‘kitty’ donations add up to spays as well.”

She also crochets for the cause: “It’s a hobby I’ve had since childhood; I’m fast, and if I do say so myself, I’m really good at it. I can make all sorts of fun stuff; in 2013 it was the Spay & Neuter Afghan–a free online pattern called ‘Rows of Cats.’ I put it online with a note that said ‘This is what you get if you don’t spay and neuter: rows and rows of cats.’ And those things sold like hotcakes; I sold them for the price of a neuter. In 2014 I must have sold 400 of these cool little trivets shaped like penguins and chicks and roosters. This year it is animal scarves and hoodies, and mermaid tail lap blankets. People buy these a lot, and they donate yarn so I can sell them at prices everyone can afford, and still make money for the kitties’ kitty.”

Since the 2012 publication of her book The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, Welch said many readers “from outside the area have been quick to assist us, or to assist their local cat shelters in our honor. That’s very cool. The farthest away we have adopted cats is Kansas and Massachusetts. Someone agreed to meet the adopter halfway, and off our babies went to life in the big city–or the American plains. Whichever. We adopted a girl recently to a family in Arlington who came to see the shop because they’d read my book and wanted to see it for themselves. And they came with the idea of getting a cat in mind. We love it when this happens.”

Tales of The Lonesome Pine’s official bookshop cat philosophy is summed up nicely in her book: “The whole establishment catered in design and policy to every whim of the two permanent staff cats and the myriad fosters who have found forever homes via the bookstore.”

Sometimes people ask why they do all this. “We do it for the same reason we run a bookstore: because it’s fun, because it’s important, and because it’s compassionate,” Welch observed. “Animals can’t speak for themselves, tell their own story. They need advocates, and when they get them, they reciprocate by being way more fun to watch than Netflix–plus more engaging.” —Robert Gray, contributing editor (column archives available at Fresh Eyes Now)

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