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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