The Sweetest Shop

Ruth, who owns BOOK PEOPLE in Richmond, VA, called the Flatiron Building in NYC about three months ago, and said more or less verbatim “ThisisthesweetestbookaboutlifeandmostaptdescriptionofthewholeprocessofrrunningabookshopI’veeverreadcouldIpleasecontacttheauthor?”
At least, that’s how Laura and Nichole described it to me later. So we set up an event with this lovely secondhand book shop – something publishers don’t do much of, second-hand being somewhat anathema to the idea of selling a new book – and I got to meet Ruth face to face.

I’d had a telephone conversation with her, so the words “cool character” had already formed in the back of my mind, but Ruth is an absolute hoot. She gets things done. She embodies common sense, has a wicked sense of humor, and sports a “don’t let my white hair fool you; I can cut you at the knees if warranted” demeanor.

Two examples: When an accident in downtown Richmond meant we would be breezing in five minutes before the signing was to start, Jack phoned to explain, and she said, “OH! Are you hurt? Are you okay?” Solicitous, maternal.

When we arrived with three minutes to spare and I asked where the rest room was, she said with deadpan demeanor, “This is a small store. We use the bushes out back.”

I like Ruth a whole, whole lot.

And she proves the point of my constant saying that a bookstore is the owner’s heart turned inside out for public display. Ruth’s shop was perfectly alphabetized, the shelves tacked with white cards with haphazard printing of the genres contained thereon. And those shelves went every place, like this season’s corn mazes. Boxes of books in front of them, and a card tacked to the shelf they blocked, suggesting “Reach; it’s worth it!” Boxes of books under the front display table. Boxes of books outside the bathroom door (yeah, in case you were wondering; they did have one). Piles of books stacked spines out at the sides of shelves, neatly continuing the alphabetization.

Like Ruth, the shop was a mixture of practical solutions, a well-mannered chaos, and crafty humor. Ruth had two women working with her, and I regret that I never heard their names. By the time we made the store, about 15 people had gathered. Again, a couple of ex-pat Big Stone Gappers had heard the radio spots on 98 FM (thank you, DJ Kat Martin, a character herself!) and come out to say hi. Two storytelling pals, Linda and Jane, appeared. And Jodi and Tyler came with their spouses-to-be. (For those of you who don’t remember these two, scroll back into September and read the blog about the night the film crew was in our bookshop. Tyler is the kitten wrangler with the cute butt, Jodi the anchorwoman in the Shades of Grey spoof we put on YouTube.)

We chatted with the assembly; now that the book’s been out a week, some people have read it, besides the booksellers. It’s intriguing (and happi-fying) to me that the feud between Val-Kyttie and Beulah–which is a thin cover story for how small towns can act–is one of the first things people ask about. Hunh. Fur covers a multitude of metaphors, but of course the cats will just take the accolades as their due, when we get back to the shop and tell them they’re famous.

In short, last night was sweet. Ruth’s shop felt like home. It felt like our place. And one of the nicest things in the whole evening was my friends who had come out saying, “Wow! I had no idea this was here, but now I’m going to tell people.” Ruth’s shop is not downtown, but oh glory, it’s worth the drive.

And isn’t this the point? Little bookshops everywhere, thriving because people find them, and like them, and bring friends to them. Hallelujah. Or more appropriately, Kum Ba Yah. Often and repeatedly. Because Ruth and her rabbit maze of books are so very, very worth the trip. And there are more Ruths out there, holding civilization together with thumbtacks and white card signs and wicked senses of humor.

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

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