Tag Archives: Andrew Whalen

Dirty Little Secrets of the Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap

“I smell pee in Self-help.” Cryptic messages like this come to my inbox from Wendy’s outbox each Sunday. I clean the store on Mondays when it’s closed to customers. Cat pee intel is a necessary part of the job.
Dirty secret #1: Wendy smells cat pee everywhere. I have caught her, ponytail undone and glasses askew, on the floor sniffing books. “Is this pee?” We attempt various methods of ‘scent improvement’ from time to time. There was the recipe for all-natural deodorizer: orange peels marinated for two weeks in vinegar. After much anticipation, it was just vinegar with slimy orange peels. Fail.

Dirty secret #2: There is usually at least one pair of underwear draped over a stack of books. Wendy and Jack don’t use an electric clothes dryer. It’s a perfectly acceptable way to reduce one’s carbon footprint, but when customers start asking the price of the pink panty-shaped book covers in the Christian Fiction section, you have an issue.

Dirty secret #3: The last shop sitter was a vampire. The Grammar Girls suspected it right away. Andrew was a little too perfect. His second Monday in-shop, I got no answer at the front door or on the telephone. He later explained he had “slept in.” We knew he was in his coffin waiting for sunset. On another visit, we discovered a second -story window in the guest room wide open, no screen. Was it an excessive need of fresh air, or Count Von Whalen’s launch pad? Then there was the giant bottle of red “hot sauce” he kept on the table. Andrew never sparkled; obviously he was old-school. He also never admitted to OR denied our suspicions.

Dirty secret #4: I cuss the bookstore cats. Once I receive the weekly pee report from Wendy, I arrive ready for battle, steam mop as my trusty lance.  Should I come across a smelly but previously un-targeted area, I cuss the cats by name and in chronological order by age. They hear me. It’s why they  pee in hard-to-clean places. I hear them laughing. Damn cats.

Dirty secret #5: I sometimes accidentally knock books off shelves while vacuuming. I will apologize if there is an author staring up from the back cover. “Oops! I’m sorry, Ms. Cornwell!” Upon returning the books, I do not… always… alphabetize… them. Somewhere in Turkey, an American bookshop owner just fainted.

Dirty secret #6: One Friday, Jack prepared curry in the counter-top grill that serves as stovetop and pot in the downstairs kitchen. Did I mention Monday is cleaning day? The next week was business-as-usual, until I walked into the kitchen and found a gang of wasted fruit flies hanging out at the grill. As I lifted the lid, there came an odd sucking noise. There, in all its horrifying glory, was… “Eeee!”  I called Wendy at work to apologize for disturbing what was obviously a successful trial of how to grow a Sasquatch from scratch.


Filed under bookstore management, humor

Robo-Owen’s Guide to Reverse Culture Shock

We are pleased to present here the first of Andrew-the-shopsitter’s guest blogs post-shopsitting. He promises to send them now and again, and we look forward to them. For those unfamiliar with the term, Robo-Owen is a wee anamatronic kitten presented to Ali and Andrew on their departure.

It’s now been a few weeks since I left Big Stone Gap. And while I didn’t feel as if I had experienced any culture shock following my arrival in September, I must admit some reverse effects upon setting foot in New York again. My ability to maneuver in crowds is only now returning, after a number of shoulder bashes on busy avenues. I am very wary of cops, and have somehow convinced myself that there are a number of New York street laws I’ve somehow forgotten and am unconsciously violating. My ability to pick good pizza slices has atrophied.

There have also been positive side effects. I find myself itching to replicate some of the regular activities from the bookstore (although I don’t see many of my friends having the requisite skills for Needlework Night). I seek out company in ways I didn’t before… in small town ways. Instead of waiting to catch up at a party I’ve dropped in on friends to chat and drink tea. I cooked some recipes I learned at my family’s Thanksgiving. And I find myself back in the habit of reading.

There is a suspicious lack of animals in my apartment. Sure, there are the mice, roaches, and centipedes, but they’re not good company like cats and dogs. Speaking of, I introduced my brother’s cat Baxter to Robo-Owen. They seem to get along, but judge for yourself.


Robo-Owen is a poor doppelgänger for the possibly-evil, possibly-dumb real thing. For one, he never interferes with my cooking. But now my food-defense instincts are so strong and ingrained I’d be ready if he somehow reprogrammed himself for human food. He also doesn’t have claws, so my skin is no longer a tapestry of angry red lines. This makes him a disappointing sparring partner. Sometimes I’ll try and goad him, but unlike the real thing Robo-Owen is unflappable. Robo-Owen never falls asleep on my stomach or leaps into my arms. All in all he’s good company, and even has a mechanical purr, but he’s no replacement for the real deal Owen Meany.

Just like Robo-Owen is no real cat, I’m no longer a real shopsitter. But old habits die hard, so I may just start loitering around my local used bookstore until they kick me out for aggressive re-alphabetizing. Whatever my future away from Big Stone Gap may hold, I know that book and bookstore culture will remain a part of my life. So I look forward to sharing more of my own experiences with the book life in the near future.

Happy Holidays to all of you and to all of my friends in Big Stone Gap!

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Don’t go Riding on that Long Santa Train

Before Andrew, our shopsitter, returned to the sophistication of the big city, Wendy’s all-girl support group (the Grammar Guerrilla Girls) decided he must experience the ultimate Appalachian tradition: The Santa Train. Since I had never seen it, I tagged along as Shelley—who drew the short straw and had to take us—trundled Andrew to one of its nearby stops, the tiny town of St. Paul.

We arrived an hour early to find the classic small-town specialties of any festivity: a car show, street food, and craft vendors. Already, people lined the track; Andrew and I goggled at the massing crowd of parents and children (many in red-and-green Christmas garb) held back with flimsy hazard tape, railroad workers patrolling with bright grins and brighter yellow uniforms.

As we had very little idea what to expect, the appearance of a juvenile clogging team in full regalia didn’t throw us off—until their teacher screamed “SHELLEY!” and grabbed our guide, introducing her through the loudspeakers as “Our Special Star Guest.” Bluegrass music then blared as feet began to fly.

Apparently, they went to school together.

A sudden electricity buzzed through the crowd, and the dancing stopped; the train was coming. Anonymous faces appeared at its windows; we later learned that it’s considered a great honor to ride the Santa Train, mostly for politicians, sponsors and country music wannabes. Invitation angling starts in February.

None of those fortunate few ever did come out to greet the locals, but as the last carriage drew level, the real celebrity emerged. The crowd surged forward, train brakes squealed, and Santa and his helpers began chucking toys, candies, wrapping paper, and clothing (mostly hats and scarves) to people who scrambled and sometimes fought over the bounty.

Children on parents’ shoulders caught soft toys mid-arc while nearby a rescue squad team had arrived, following the train. The rescue workers began flinging board games into the crowd. I glanced at Andrew; his face went white and deadpan as he watched a woman catch one side-on just inches from her face. She squealed—in delight or relief?

So, what did I make of it all?

The Santa Train is a 70 year old tradition that seems to have started as a genuine philanthropic act (you can google it) designed to give people of limited finances a leg up at Christmas. Coming as I do from a country that—like Appalachia—is often characterized as poor, unsophisticated and deserving of charity rather than investment, I found the whole thing a bit embarrassing.

Who is this train for: the people getting largesse flung at them, or those sitting inside, warm and smug at getting to ride it? And which tradition is older: giving to one’s fellow humans in a spirit of generosity, or feeling good about being better off than those poor weirdoes over the hills and far away?

And what about those lining the tracks, grinning as young’uns grabbed goods from the air—or even snatching things before kids could? While for the most part adults were protective of all the attending children, we saw some displays of poor sportsmanship.

The Santa Train reminded me of a story my academic wife tells in her guest lectures on “cultural competency” toward Appalachia:

A woman visiting family was downtown and saw some teens teasing a special needs boy their own age. One held out his palm, a nickel and dime evident.

“Which do you want, Bubba?” he asked, and Bubba replied, “The Nickel, ‘cause it’s bigger.” The boys laughed and handed it over.

The woman waited until they’d gone, then approached the victim. “Son, those boys were making fun of you. A dime is worth more than a nickel, even though it’s smaller to look at.”

The boy grinned. “Lady, I know that. But if I take the dime, they’ll stop doin’ it.”

I thought of this “joke” as Andrew and I watched adults with two and three Hefty sacks full of goods walk away, joined by children clutching their stuffed animals and mothers holding rolls of wrapping paper. All grinning.

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

Cookie Extortion

Jack returned shopsitter Andrew Whalen to his ancestral home on Sunday; Andrew’s mom drove down US 23, and Jack drove up it. It was a painless and swift swap.

Except now we have this hole in the bookstore. . .

The dogs lie about with doleful expressions. “Where’s that guy who rubbed our ears and plied us with chewy sticks?” their eyes ask.

Owen Meany, staff kitten, has never been the sharpest pencil in the pack, but even he has figured out that someone’s missing. This morning he stood on my face with an alarmed expression and informed me that the guest bedroom was empty. Then he bit my nose.

Meanwhile, without our steady, sensible shopsitter, Jack and I have braced ourselves for the boxes of books that come in during Christmas clean-outs. Lots of people trade over the holidays, in large measure because we have a “Boxing Day” tradition of giving out little boxes of shortbread as part of the deal, Dec. 26-31.

Which brings me to the mean thing I did to Andrew’s mom….

Tammy Whalen runs a company, COOKIE GLASS, that makes the most exquisite baked goods. Little flat ones with butterscotch chips, big thick ones with oatmeal, melty chocolate chunks . . . these babies are GOOOOOOOOOD.

When Andrew’s parents showed up unexpectedly about a month into his sojourn with us, she brought a dozen or so with her. My friend Elizabeth and I promptly sent Andrew to fetch a bucket of steam, and ate our way through the bag, moaning in pleasure. I think the poor kid got two.

That’s how we knew any amount of subterfuge was worth it to get more of these beauts. (They’re not expensive. And she ships. Check out COOKIE GLASS on FB, but make sure you get the company; there’s a couple of people by that name. Heh.)

Shamelessly, I composed a ransom note to Andrew’s mom, explaining that for one dozen cookies, her son would be returned unharmed. For two dozen, he would be returned without any rescue kittens stuffed in his hoodie pockets. (The bookstore fosters shelter cats.)

She bit; Jack and I are now guilty yet proud possessors of two dozen cookies in a beautiful green box with a gold mesh bow. We will be taking them to our friends Ashia and Witold’s house for Thanksgiving dinner, and the Whalens will be remembered fondly amid eye-rolling estatic bites.

In all honesty, I suspect anything this family does is done right. The cookies are brilliant. Andrew was brilliant. Having spent his early career in children’s television production and independent film-making, he will return to Brooklyn after Thanksgiving–during which, he informed us, the family gets to eat all the broken cookies during holiday production, so he didn’t begrudge our ill-gotten loot–to seek new employment, having packed in his Asst. Producer job in search of more challenges.

Jack and I have no doubt he will be snapped up by someone who recognizes that a sensible mind able to isolate and solve problems, keep order, create community and offer excellent customer service is rare and valuable. Wherever they go, Andrew and his equally steadfast female friend Ali will come right in the world–and do good in it.

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Filed under Big Stone Gap, publishing, shopsitting, small town USA

Construction Ballet

Construction workers have been busy installing a new sewage pipe in the streets around Tales of the Lonesome Pine. But the more they close off sections of street, first on one side of the house and then the other, the more it feels like they’re building a giant moat around the bookstore.

On Wednesday Jack moved the pickup to a parking lot across the street while men and women in hardhats tore a deep channel out of the road. They worked at a breakneck pace and had laid the pipe and covered it with a new layer of gravel by late afternoon.

The chaos and noise seemed to be over, so I moved Jack’s pickup back in front of the store. Big mistake.

The next morning saw the construction shifted down the block, with Jack’s truck now a key part of the roadblock cutting the street off to traffic. Cones lined up diagonally out from the back bumper. A new border was drawn.

“So what’s the problem?” you might ask.

With the pickup forming a new boundary for construction, it became the line inside which immense yellow machines roared and tore at the street. I sat and watched at the window as they spun out gravel with a backhoe, all within inches of the truck door. It became a kind of performance piece, with each terrible machine whizzing as close to the pickup as possible while other construction workers admired the precise daredevilry of the driver.

For several hours they played chicken with the parked truck. I got up every few seconds to look through the window, fully expecting to see a massive metal claw lodged in the truck’s roof. I began chewing every pencil in sight.

Finally I couldn’t take it anymore and went out with the keys. “Can I get that out of your way?” I said. One guy glanced over and insisted it wasn’t a problem, then turned back just in time to marvel at a bulldozer that had swung its blade up within two inches of the door while simultaneously spinning into a 180 turn. They were like guys watching skateboard stunts, except with a skateboard that weighed 8000 pounds and could crush a refrigerator. And with the pickup boxed in by a dump truck there was nothing I could do.

About an hour later a construction worker came in to the store. He took off his helmet, as if about to offer condolences. I tensed and latched on to the table with clawed hands.

“Can you flassdiscommoe?” he said.

It didn’t sound anything like “move your truck” or “we destroyed your truck” or “your truck is about to explode,” so I didn’t process it at all. My brain could only understand the word “truck,” and he had failed entirely to oblige this temporary insanity.

“You want me to move the truck?” I asked.

“No, no. Can you flush the commode?” he said. I breathed again. It had nothing to do with the truck. With that settled I moved on to the task of unlocking why he wanted me to flush the toilet. After some confused back and forth the truth came out: they needed to test the new pipe.

They were done for the day. And as the toilet water spun down the drain with my test flush I knew that Jack’s truck would be safe. The truck and I had survived the construction ballet.


Filed under Big Stone Gap, shopsitting, small town USA, VA

All The Stars

I knew there was a problem when I first brought the physicist out to the bookstore’s backyard. Lucian Undreiu, Associate Professor of Physics at UVA-Wise came to lead a bookstore stargazing night. But as he lugged his telescope tripod around the yard and looked more and more disappointed I could see that all my plans were falling apart.

I don’t know about the rest of you humans, but I am exquisitely sensitive to contaminants and pollution. The slightest whiff of scent and I’m crawling around my apartment, searching for gas leaks. Litter in parks makes me bonkers. Is that a plastic bag or a jellyfish drifting there? Either way, my day at the beach just got a little worse.

But despite all these sensitivities I rarely notice light pollution.

In New York the sky is a red haze all night long. If I see a star, any star, I usually point it out. A single star is a noteworthy event. So when I went into the backyard of the bookstore, looked up at the stars and then looked down to the two streetlights and the lighthouse beacon at the car dealership across the street I shrugged, this’ll do. But as Professor Undreiu’s frown deepened I knew that this would not do, it would not do one bit.

As people started arriving for the event Ali and I stalled. Wendy had driven Lucian out into the night, out to find a place suitable for his telescope. We passed out cups of hot cider and printed off stargazing sheets (sounds simple… but was its own saga, involving incorrect charts, poor contrasts, kitty interference, and a cartridge change). I started sweating on my upper lip, like Richard Nixon. This was turning into a disaster!

But then Lucian returned and began his talk. He started with basics, but soon expanded into cosmic ideas, covering vast distances and spans of time. Instead of asserting knowledge he walked the audience through the steps scientists took, sharing the process of discovery. By the end of his talk everyone was ready to see some stars… and had a decent idea of what they are, how they act and how humans know what we know about them.

After getting everyone situated in a vehicle, the convoy went a half-mile down the road to a dark field. Lucian’s telescope begins with manual searches for specific stars. After a few points of input have been fed to it, the telescope can then process where it’s pointing in the night-sky and find new objects on its own. A very cool gadget. Lucian also had a powerful green laser that shot a beam into the night sky, so he could point specific constellations, planets and star clusters. We took turns peering through the lens at Jupiter, the Andromeda galaxy, the Pleiades star cluster, and a binary star system with each a different color. People chatted, asked questions and kept an eye on the sky for shooting stars.

While everything felt like it was falling apart before it had even started, the night ended with a cup of hot cider and complete satisfaction. Thanks to Professor Lucian Undreiu I think everyone had a great night and learned a bit about our universe… I know I did.

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Filed under Big Stone Gap, shopsitting, small town USA

A Spy in the House of Books

by guest blogger Ali Fisher – read on to find out WHO she REALLY is….

The secret’s out. The jig is up. My alias has been compromised. It’s time for me to come clean: there’s a spy in the house of books and I AM THAT SPY. This is my story.

Full disclosure: I work in the Library Marketing Department of Wendy’s publisher. Even fuller disclosure-er: I’m shopsitter Andrew’s aforementioned special lady friend. Since this is a tell-all post I’ll give it to you straight; those connections gave me the in I needed to launch my top secret operation. My mission? To verify the bizarre and outlandish stories from Wendy’s memoir and to–ehem–test the claim that “Virginia is for lovers.”

Hereafter are the declassified findings of my undercover investigation…

Holy crap! Everyone is so welcoming here!

I don’t know how I managed to plan this trip for just the right weekend, but after a few relaxing days touring the countryside, breakfasting at the Mutual, browsing books, and warming my lap with pets of various temperaments, I wrangled an exclusive invite to a shopsitter-going-away/locals-double-birthday/cast-of-Wendy’s-memoir party at the very bookstore under my observation.

I was warned that the evening would be super casual, so I knew I needed to adjust my go-to spy entrance (normally I would parachute onto the roof, remove my gear mid-somersault, dive down the chimney, emerge in sequined evening wear and grab a glass of champagne off of a nearby platter). Therefore, I made a rare and oft-dangerous decision for me–to cook something. Fortunately I had an easy, no-bake ace up my sleeve: Smitten Kitchen’s salted brown butter crispy treats. I didn’t even have to lace them with truth serum to get people to tell me the REAL stories behind the stories.

Not to Be Combined With Salsa

My conclusion: Wendy told it like it is. The characters of Big Stone Gap are every bit as wonderful, welcoming, and slightly strange as she said. You should probably come see for yourself.

As for my field research on the claim that Virginia is for lovers… well now, that’s classified.

Editor’s note: No it isn’t; the earth moved while you were here. :]

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