The Parade of Characters

On Wednesday of our great book extravaganza, we made our way to Winchester. The sum total of my knowledge about Winchester, VA prior to this was its historic architecture, cool pedestrian mall, and sweet little bookshop in the corner: Winchester Book Gallery.

I wandered into the Book Gallery last year during a break in some very fun ethnographic interviewing I did as a subcontractor. Sometimes I serve as a hired gun for conducting interviews about rural living in Appalachia for various universities. It’s great work if you can get it, bopping across the state staying in small motels, seeing stuff you’d never otherwise see, meeting the most incredible people and getting them to tell you interesting things about how they do business.

That’s how I discovered Winchester. And in its Book Gallery, already utterly charmed by the downtown district, I found shop owner Christine to be charming in and of herself. Such a put-you-at-your-ease type was she, when she asked, “What brings you to the bookstore?” I blurted out, “I wrote a book about bookstores and I love to visit them” while continuing my wide-eyed stare at her carefully curated collection.

“What’s your name?” she asked. When I told her, she astounded me by saying, “Oh, The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap.” It turns out that Christine is not only vivacious and charming, but on the ball. She has a google search feed that keeps up with news items about small bookshops in the States. We decided to have a book signing there once the book was launched, and that day came Wednesday past.

At 5 pm I was ensconced at a big desk covered—absolutely covered—with copies of Little Bookstore, while Jack sat beside me strumming guitar. This wasn’t a planned event, but a “come by and meet the author” kind of night. Thus began what Jack and I now call The Parade of Characters:

An older man who was—of course—an ex-pat Big Stone Gapper. He regaled us with stories of what had been done in the judge’s hunting cabin in their youth, and other tales of Old Family laundry, not laundered. We were splitting our sides laughing—and you note that I’m not using names here. This guy knows a lot. I’m surprised he’s still alive, and delighted that he comes back every August for a big ol’ party—to which we have now been invited. That will be a hoot. But I probably won’t be allowed to write about it.

Two round women, slow of speech, soft of voice. “Special needs” is a label that imposes assumptions, so let’s just say they were hoping to open a bookstore up in Maryland. They had, in fact, traveled down expressely to talk to me about this. Oh dear sweet lambs, do not go gently to the slaughter. I wanted to bundle them up in warm coats (the day was cold and they were wearing only sweatshirts) and warn them off their intended trajectory. But I also didn’t want to crush anything that was making them happy, so we chatted amiably about start-up costs and how to shelve books until their driver came to collect them. Be well, dear children, and don’t let anyone lead you astray. I still feel protective of those two.

An Alec Baldwin look-alike entered with his wife, she making a bee-line for the upstairs mystery section, he clearly killing time. When he realized an author was sitting there hawking her book, he tried politely to avoid eye contact with me. But my husband had a copy of the People Magazine article (Oct. 22 issue!) that included Little Bookstore as a “great read.” Alec saw that, picked up a book, and said, “My sister is hard to buy for. But she likes these things.” (I think he meant books.) Whatever; I sold him one.

A man walking three Labradors. (Winchester Book Gallery is dog-friendly.) “I saw the sign,” he said. “Big Stone Gap, in SW VA?” I assured him yes, and he said, “We were just there, at the June Tolliver house and the open air theatre.” A few moments more of conversation, dogs straining at the leash–apparently they had decided en masse they wanted to buy the latest J.K. Rowling–and we realized that not only had this man and his wife visited our street last month, they had parked outside the bookstore–but not come in.

“Hmmph,” I said, and the man, probably out of guilt, bought one of my books. The dogs never got their Rowling.

A lady with dreadlocks. She fell into the shop, towed by a dog that looked like a cross between a Newfoundlander and an Irish wolfhound, in a word: big. The dog came straight for Christine, who bent and wrapped her arms around it. I hoped it was a hug rather than a last resort.

“This is XNVOUFER,” she said, her head buried in his fur. “He comes in every day to get socialized to become a service dog.” XNVOUFER (I swear that’s what it sounded like) licked Christine on the head, then trotted over to browse the history section.

Last through the door came a woman wearing a puffy green jacket, followed by a man wearing a puffy black jacket and a small child of indeterminate gender wearing a puffy pink jacket (social norms suggest but do not verify, and by this point in the evening I was taking nothing for granted). They wandered around, avoiding me, until the woman accidentally bumped the table.

“Oh,” she said, finding herself cheek to cheek with an author. “What’s your book about?”

I launched into my elevator speech description: my husband and I opened a used books store and the book described that in particular but life in general, discussing how to rebuild dreams and live to the fullest without letting anyone else dictate what will work and what won’t.

“Mmm.” She stared at me a moment, then asked, “So your bookstore, it’s still operating?”

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2 Comments

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

2 responses to “The Parade of Characters

  1. Deborah Kelley

    I get the same questions from people . ” So is your book store still open “. Ummm, Yes
    it is .

    • wendywelch

      I think they’re hoping for a going out of business sale. I’m tempted to run a “we’re staying in business” sale…..

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