Barn Raising, Bookshop Sitting, Oddball Friends, and All!

Jack’s weekly guest blog has a familiar musical refrain…..

i_get_by_with_a_little_help_from_my_friendsFriends and Neighbors –

We come from a region of the mountains known for its community spirit; think barn raising. And we have occasion to know that barn raisings are not dead, just mutated into other ways of helping each other. Our friend Witold, three blocks away, called Jack when he wanted to take down a tree. Elizabeth brought the baby goats over to be goatsitted for a weekend (and regular blog readers will remember the fun that produced).

Back when we started the bookstore we relied on our local oddball friends and champions to ‘mind the store’ on the odd times we had to be away. But that was usually only for a day or maybe two at any time.

That was also before ‘the Little Bookstore’ was published and turned our lives upside down. Almost immediately we had to find someone to look after the place for a month, and so the great ‘bookstore-sitter’ project began. To our great surprise it went viral – all over the internet as well as National newspapers, magazines and NPR. The wonderful Andrew Whalen was chosen out of nearly 200 applicants and was feted and fed by the aforementioned oddball friends and champions.

Since then we have continued to have occasions of being away for extended period, and continued numbers of equally wonderful and interesting folk staying in our guest room. They fall in love with our animals, our oddball friends and our town of Big Stone Gap. We look forward to Lisa Heins Vincent and her husband minding shop for a week in late April, and dissertation-writing Emily visiting this summer.

The trouble is that, amidst publicity and hoopla and longer visits from our much -appreciated longer shopsitters, the oddball friends and champions who live in town and give us a day here, a day there, tend to get overshadowed in their contribution to how this place runs.

Just yesterday our friend James spent a day looking after the bookstore, fielding phone calls, cash sales, credit card sales, book swaps for credit, inquiries about the cafe menu, etc., etc. In return he got lunch and the right to take any books he wanted off the shelf and go home with them. As I said to him “James – you know there’s no such thing as a – – – -”

So my day-late guest blog post this week (I couldn’t ask James to do that too) finishes with a belated toast: Please raise a glass to all our crazy, oddball, dedicated local friends and champions who have done even just one day’s duty in the bookstore – cheers, saludos, slainte etc. THANK YOU! When we talk about community spirit, we mean you.

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Filed under Big Stone Gap, bookstore management, home improvements, humor, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, reading, shopsitting, small town USA, Uncategorized, VA, Wendy Welch

The Monday Book: The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh

dogwoosI like flower language, and I’m deeply embroiled in a storytelling project involving fostered and adopted children in SW VA right now, so finding this book on clearance at a used books store in Knoxville, Tennessee, it was a no-brainer purchase.

It was easy to get into, but perhaps hard to stay with; this literary novel has a weird dichotomy running through its middle. On the one hand, it is about tough, stupid, needy, intelligent Victoria, a child who ages out of foster care and lands hard/soft/hard/soft as the book progresses. She’s hard to love, but everybody around her does. And the only way this tough, I-don’t-care girl can communicate well is by flowers. She uses their Victorian meanings to say what’s on her mind.

So does her 20-something suitor. And her foster mom and FM’s estranged sister. It’s kinda hard to buy. But what was it Isaac Asimov said – that every writer gets one free pass at an unbelievable premise built into his or her story? Diffenbaugh got hers in early on.

Still, as bad as the flowers strewn along this bed of thorns tale of dysfunction are, her characterization of Victoria is compelling. Just Victoria, though: the other characters all kind of serve her, appearing as extensions of what she needs.

This is not a character-driven novel. The flowers are running the show. And if you’re willing to believe that could happen, it’s a good read – compelling forward motion, an underdog to root (ha) for, and some very believable circumstances for the foster kid.

On the other hand, perhaps too much perfume, not enough manure, for the growth the characters show. A mixed review, but I can say that I enjoyed reading it, and only began to think “Hey wait a minute” afterward. It was good escapism, and a pretty good depiction of the inner chaos of a foster child who ages out. Just don’t confuse the elegant narration of this fiction with anything like journalism, and we’ll be okay. Ain’t no foster kids in SW VA giving each other flowers, jobs, or free passes.

(If you would like to see the blog on ADOPTION IN APPALACHIA, it is adoptioninappalachia.com. Go take a look at some real stories and advice on the subject.)

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Filed under Big Stone Gap, book reviews, crafting, folklore and ethnography, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, publishing, reading, Uncategorized, Wendy Welch, YA fiction

The Hamsters in my Brain

Jack and I are attending the Appalachian Studies Association Conference in Johnson City, TN this weekend, and it has been a busy couple of days. Saturday morning my colleagues Beth, Jody and I did a panel on combating Appalachian stereotypes in the media. Kind of an interesting row to hoe, and several people had stories to tell. On Sunday, I am heading a panel on adoption in Appalachia, after running a storytelling project with a local group that supports adoptive parents. (If you want to see the blog we just launched, visit ADOPTION IN APPALACHIA. (It’s also a wordpress blog.)

Between these were some fun meetings and some hard meetings, plus Jack and I joined Doug and Darcy Orr, President and First Lady Emeritus of Warren Wilson College, in presenting a panel on Doug and Fiona Ritchie’s book Wayfaring Strangers. The pictorial book chronicles the journey of songs and their singers from Scotland to Appalachia. It’s been really well received and is in its third printing. Jack is one of the source singers on the accompanying CD.

But that’s where things began to take a weird turn. The night before the panel, Doug and Darcy came to our hotel room to practice songs. We sat around the table working out dulcimer chords, guitar accompaniments, and harmonies. All very satisfactory and fun. We sang stuff just for the joy of the moment.

The instant we finished singing, we heard loud voices coming from the room next door, and Beth suggested the doors between the rooms might not be correctly closed; hence the volume. We checked our door: bolted and good to go.

But as Beth pushed against our door, voices from next door yelled “Are you trying to break into our room?” A second later the phone rang. Front desk had received a complaint: had we tried to break into the adjoining room?

When I stopped laughing, I said no and didn’t elaborate. A minute later, the phone rang again. A male voice demanded, “Who am I speaking with?”

Well, I was tired and I was sung out, but one brain cell still functioned, so I figured this was something to do with that mysterious crowd next door, and asked for his name instead. He said I had tried to break into his wife’s hotel room and demanded again to know my name.

I hung up, and the phone shrilled again immediately. I disconnected that call and rang the front desk, explaining the situation. They apologized profusely and said the phone call had not originated in the hotel, and they would ensure no further calls were transferred in.

Which really put a top hat on things, because if the guy who was calling in wasn’t in the room with his wife, whose was that male voice making very explicit suggestions quite loudly through the wall?

We gave up, and went to bed, but I don’t think we’ll be staying at the Carnegie again. Who in their right mind puts a phone call through to a room number if the caller can’t give a name? At least that couple didn’t batter the door down in the night, but I hope that poor husband figures a few things out.

sleeping hamsterMe, I can’t figure anything out. Six meetings, two panels and four hours of sleep have done for me. It was a good day today, and now the hamsters in my brain are asleep in their little exercise wheels.

Go by, mad world.

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Filed under Big Stone Gap, humor, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, publishing, Scotland, small town USA, VA

We’re Still Having Fun

Jack’s weekly guest blog

Wendy and I often have conversations on Facebook with other owners of small independent bookstores – usually about how to drive more customers through the door. The trouble is that every bookstore is unique in some way, be that the character of the owners, the geographical position of the shop, the demographic of the local population, etc, etc.

Our own strategies have been many and varied and some are detailed in ‘The Little Bookstore’. They have ranged from the early days of me handing out flyers outside the local Super-Wallie to running community events in the store. Flyers are good when you’re getting established. Community events are good for two reasons – publicity and bringing in new folk who might become regular customers.

This is where local circumstances come into play; Wendy and I live in the same building as the bookstore so it’s no biggie for us to run events. It might not be so easy for others.

We are currently running a ‘give-away’ competition for boxes of children’s and young adult books aimed at the local schools. This is partly because we simply have too many, but also to help raise awareness among school staff, parents and students that we are here and our children’s books are cheap even when you have to buy them.

We have also found that opening a cafe created spin-off business between the two. Of course that means finding the space, meeting health inspection rules (GOATS!), and identifying someone with the skills and personality with whom you can comfortably work, etc, etc. We were very lucky to find Our Good Chef Kelley as a partner!

Finally, it certainly helps to write and have published a best-selling memoir all about your bookstore. That has brought lots of people from around the country (and abroad) to visit us who generally don’t leave without buying books and eating lunch. As I write this a couple from Fairfax sit upstairs in the cafe; they drove all the way here because of the book. They have a book club who all read Wendy’s book and are talking about a group visit. That would certainly involve an overnight stay, so additional business for the town as well.

And after finally (well, a post-script then) it pays to have fun. Enjoy what you’re doing, and you’ll never work a day in your life. :]

 

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Filed under Big Stone Gap, bookstore management, crafting, home improvements, humor, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, publishing, reading, small town USA, VA, Wendy Welch

The Monday Book: THE GRACE THAT KEEPS THIS WORLD by Tom Bailey

It’s set in the mountains, it’s about a rural family living close to poverty, and it involves dysfunctional quiet love. What’s not to like about this novel (which came out in 2005)?

And yet, when I opened it and saw that the author used the first person narratives of several different people to tell the story, my first thought was Oh no. Most people can’t keep characterization well enough to pull that off successfully. The people don’t sound different, don’t want different things, don’t act as though they are, as Stephen King more or less put it, the stars of their own lives.

Bailey not only pulled off this technique, of all things, he did it by means of a weird kind of failure. His writing is pretty, ornate, descriptive to the point that I admit to sometimes skimming because I’m not that kind of reader. I don’t like long descriptions of wooded areas. (I accept this as a failing in me as a reader, and insert it here so you know whether to trust me as a reviewer.)

But I love, love, love when a writer gets inside the heads of others and makes the writing sound like them. And Bailey’s success at failing is that he did this not by changing the dialect or lexicon, but by changing what they want to talk about and how they want to talk about it intellectually. All Bailey’s characters – the father, the two sons, the mom, the girlfriends and the neighbors–have similar vocabulary. Yet they have very different points of aim to their lives and conversation. I liked this approach.

The building sense of tragedy, the inevitable moment that’s foreshadowed in the mom’s opening volley, lying in bed listening to her three men take off for their hunt, keeps the whole book’s plot humming with a kind of relentless bass thrum; you aren’t so much watching a train wreck as a ballet dancer fall. It’s a graceful tragedy, bittersweet in its one-step-removed sense of what it means for the family left behind.

In this novel, tragedy is masked in beauty and quietness. Even the hardcore parts about logging and shooting and men hitting each other are written in that once-removed elegance that must have frustrated the tar out of some readers. I like bittersweet, so I loved Grace. I’m now looking for Bailey’s other novel (Cotton Song, I think) to hit the bookshop at some point.

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Filed under Big Stone Gap, book reviews, bookstore management, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, out of things to read, publishing, reading, Uncategorized

Ye Fairly Get Ma Goat Jack!

Murder 2015 006Jack’s weekly guest blog tackles the Goat-Scape Scandal….. Alert readers will know that we have been finding new homes for orphaned kittens and abandoned cats for a couple of years or more, about 120 at the last count–kittens/cats, not years. Because we have a cafe upstairs we are very careful to make sure there is no contact between them, with elaborate security arrangements including secret passwords, handshakes and iris cameras. But, mainly, a very strongly sprung (and high) gate.

Despite this there have been Chinese whispers at certain lower echelons around our small town suggesting that we were really a ‘cat cafe’ – something viewed with approval in many developed Western Democracies, including parts of the US of A, but not Virginia. (Google the term if you want to read some fascinating strangeness.) Now you hear it straight from the goatkeeper’s mouth: No bodily fluids, far less cats or kittens, are exchanged between the bookstore and the cafe.

Having established that beyond doubt, I return to the fact that the bookstore rescues cats. So it’s not uncommon for me to see someone struggling up our front steps with a pulsating cardboard box and a hopeful expression. I refer to these people as “fur blackmailers” and tend to give them a swift and short answer. But it’s never been our friend Elizabeth before. Last Saturday morning, here she came. I opened the door for her and looked into the box – four baby goats!

“Didn’t Wendy tell you?” she said.

Back story – Wendy and Elizabeth jointly own goats that are accommodated at Elizabeth’s farm outside town and two of them (the goats, not Elizabeth and Wendy) had just had babies but weren’t letting them nurse. Elizabeth would be out of town over the weekend and Wendy had said that we would bottle feed them until she got back.

When Wendy posted a picture of the babies on FaceBook one of the small towners rubbed her/his hands with glee! On Monday morning our long-suffering Health Inspector arrived and said to me, in a world-weary voice, “Goats?” His boss had received the picture along with a diatribe about “why such things are allowed to go on”.

Poor Mr. Health Inspector’s expression mixed defeat with relief when I took him through to the back of the bookstore where the goats had been–nowhere near the cafe, which hadn’t been open when they were hereMurder 2015 003. He offered the observation that “this was a new one” and said someone in Northern Virginia was trying to start a cat cafe, so tensions about animals and eateries were at an all-time high in his world. We shook hands and he left. Laughing.

The publicity from Goat-Scape went six times ’round the Internet that day and the next, which I suspect was not what the Small Towner who sent the picture had in mind. Getting someone’s goat is now a catch phrase around here. And Elizabeth and Wendy’s goats have had four more babies between them – they are now grandmothers of eight.

Life goes on.

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Filed under animal rescue, Big Stone Gap, bookstore management, home improvements, humor, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, Scotland, small town USA, VA, Wendy Welch

How soon unaccountable

starsLast night Jack and I sang for the St. Patrick’s Day event at the Fox House, home of another author who lived in Big Stone Gap. I wandered into his study before the event, feeling for a vibe. Didn’t really get one, but the house was full of people drinking green beer, so contemplation might not have been a good goal at that moment. But it was a lovely gig, a strong community pulling together, singing harmonies to the choruses, all sweetness and Picardy Thirds.

Walking home afterward, I realized how clear the night sky was–no moon, no clouds, every star hanging as if 12 feet above our heads. Back at the bookstore I dropped off my harp and hopped into our car to make for the reservoir, where there are no city lights whatsoever.

It was a strange drive. That’s not a road I’m very familiar with and it is full of hairpin curves up a wooded mountain. In the headlights, trees, a passing deer, even the road itself, were all monochrome pale black against the dark. The headlights barely cut into the next curve, and every time I swung the car I saw another row of those ghostly grey trees, hedging me in. A bit eerie. One starts to think about motor trouble and men with knives and rabid things in the woods…..

It began to feel foolish, this solo drive up a mountain on a fool’s errand. I pulled into the reservoir, hoping for enough clear space to see the night sky, turned off the headlights, cut the motor–

–and the stars came flooding in, past the windscreen, right past my eyes as though they wanted inside of me. Thousands of them. Constellations I’ve known since a child and many more I didn’t, all dancing together the instant the lights went out. Just like that.

It’s amazing how quickly some things change. All the turns in the road, the guardians at the gate, the grey washed-out things, they disappear. And there you are with all that glorious hidden brilliance suddenly in front of you, so bold and bright and beautiful you’re amazed you didn’t see it before. That you doubted it was there.

I love watching the night sky. It gives that combined feeling of confidence in the hands of a God who knows you, and humility at being a very small part of a Big Thing. You’re not the center of the dance, but you get to be in it. And whether you see a thing–the night sky, a pattern, a plan–or not doesn’t change its being there.

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Filed under Big Stone Gap, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, Wendy Welch