I’m here to write about Tales of the Lonesome Pine, a bookstore that has drawn me to Big Stone Gap, Virginia from Brooklyn, New York, but I’d like to start by writing about an entirely different bookstore. Sorry Wendy.
My grandparents lived in Michigan, in a small town that once had features I wouldn’t realize were treasures until I was much older: a classic overhanging movie theater marquee, weeping willows sagging into brown lake water, and a used bookstore.
I didn’t know it at the time, but it wasn’t exactly a good bookstore, more a bizarre New Age repository. Half “holistic health”, half used books, I’m pretty sure that all the mysterious vials and bottles were little more than snake oil. The books and the pills were divided by a DMZ of occult tomes that both bridged and barricaded the two from each other. I only investigated this shelf in furtive passes, never lingering. The ability to channel my chi, contact gods, unleash the power of my mind and harness my transdimensional submatrix to pick stocks… it was all just too dangerous and mystifying.
The rest of the book section was just three short shelves: one action, one sci-fi, and one western. My grandfather picked over the western, so I never touched it. But the sci-fi and the action, that was my introduction to the cheap page turner. And while I still love to pick up something that burns up under my fingertips as I blast through, there’s only so much Mack Bolan one summer can take. I mean, the guy must kill 300 people per book. My parents tore A Clockwork Orange out of my hands in absolute horror, but little did they know that their sweet 13-year old was rampaging through twelve Die Hard trilogy equivalents a night.
I tried to go back this summer and found it shuttered. I read it as a sign of the end for bookstores. But now here I am, sitting at the main table in Tales of the Lonesome Pine, and I know it will endure, and I know it’s something special. I’ll tell you why.
As you may have heard, Wendy has a book coming out. I cheated and read an early copy on my long Greyhound ride down here. One concept in the book that I was quite taken with is the idea of a “third space.” It’s not work, full of in-fighting and politics. It’s not home, with chores and all those children, pets and relatives who really would like to be fed and sheltered, thank you very much (whiners!). It’s a place to be both who you are and who you would like to be. It’s escapist and comforting. I felt it like a blast of hot air when I first set foot in Tales of the Lonesome Pine. My first day working here only confirmed it. It was a feeling I knew, because I had felt it in that holistic shop when I was young.
But there’s one crucial difference: Tales of the Lonesome Pine is also a fantastic book store. There are actually books here! Books that people might actually want to read! This is where the rubber meets the road. It’s not just a feeling, but the actual tangible presence. Where the Michigan bookstore was a rattling table in a Victorian con-artist’s seance, this place is full on Poltergeist (I really hope this is just a metaphor, but Wendy did allude to a haunted bathtub). Just glancing over the shelves has me impatient to finish my current read (Vernor Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep), even though I’m really into it. There’s just more, more, more. More than even Mack Bolan’s machine gun could chew through.
In the coming weeks I hope to write more about the store, but also about Big Stone Gap itself. But for now I’ll leave you with an early anecdote. Jack took me to the local diner and introduced me to one of his friends, saying, “This is Andrew… from New York City.” The man replied, “Well, that’s his problem.” As a midwesterner long skeptical of New York it was the right thing to say. I’ll be back at the diner for breakfast tomorrow. Maybe with some luck I’ll have a suitable rejoinder. And I’ll definitely be trying the biscuits with white gravy, which came highly recommended.