Small Town Secrets: an oxymoron

If you want to know what’s going on in a small town, visit the laundromat, the hairdresser, or the bookstore.

Actually, skip the hairdresser; they’re too smart to tell all they know. But in the bookstore, nobody has to speak a word for some cats to slip out of the bag and into the mainstream gossip currents.

The other day someone was trolling our Religion section, and picked up a book by Elaine Pagels. The customer frowned; since Pagels is a scholar first, Christian apologist not at all, we’re used to people in the Bible belt’s buckle sometimes finding fault with her theological standpoints. But this guy was frowning at the inside cover.

“Price not marked?” I smiled, reaching for the volume.

The customer glared at me. “Where’d you get this book?”

“Uhhh, we get most of our books in trade. People bring in books they’re done reading, and swap them for others.”

He turned the glare on the book in his hand. “Hmmph. I gave this to my pastor as a Christmas present three years ago.” His finger traced the inscription inside the book. “To Pastor X, in hopes this will spark some lively sermon topics.”

One could see why the good reverend might have parted with it….

Such “oops” conversations are infrequent, but memorable. The worst “small town bookstore” moment is actually in my book coming out in October, so I’ll leave that one for later; running a close second was the time an older woman came in and browsed–again–religion. (There’s just something about churches and secrets….)

On the “family” shelf sat several books on raising Christian kids, keeping love alive in marriages, etc. The woman’s eyes scanned the shelf, then her hand darted in and plucked out a volume. Opening it, she heaved a sigh, and placed it back on the shelf, opened another nearby, repeated the sigh and replacement.

I was about to offer to help her find whatever she was looking for, but she turned to where I sat at the laptop and said, as if we were continuing a conversation, “I knew they were having trouble. He wouldn’t tell me–my son, I mean–but they’re getting divorced. He’s brought in all their marriage books from when they went to counseling.”

Her face was tight with tears she wouldn’t let out. I put the kettle on.

The funniest secret slip was a few years ago, when a woman browsing cookbooks got excited and called her mother. “There’s a soup cookbook in here that used to belong to Paxton Allgyer,” she said into the cell phone. “What was that stuff she always brought to the church social that everybody liked so much, but she never would give out the recipe? …Seafood bisque?” She turned to the index in the back, searching, then shouted into the phone, “It’s here! Yes! ‘Bye.”

She bought the cookbook with a smirk. I have no idea what happened at the next church social, and I like it that way.

People sometimes ask Jack and me, “What do you need to run a bookstore?”

A sense of humor, a functioning tea kettle, and a large supply of whiteout.



Filed under Big Stone Gap, folklore and ethnography, humor, small town USA, VA

7 responses to “Small Town Secrets: an oxymoron

  1. I got all my books from a used bookstore when I was a kid. I read all the classics, and every issue of Mad Magazine.

  2. I would have to say yes to all those happenings. Some extremely sad for the ones that find those books. I so feel for that poor woman. I would have to say even more though is as you are going through them to file them away you get caught up in the comments posted in them. Sighhhhh

  3. Cathie Collins

    This was wonderful Wendy! Thanks for the laugh and the insightful observations about small town life.

  4. Paula

    North , South ,East or West , small towns are so smilar . Stony Gap is lucky to have wonderful people behind their book counter.

  5. i like your articles so much. please try to post them more frequently.

  6. you know, your blog is very well written, very close to life

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