Tag Archives: Appalachia

The Monday Book: OUT OF THE WOODS by Chris Offutt

I like Offutt’s writing. He was “discovered” by doing the Charlaine Harris teleplays for her vampire series going onto TV, but he wrote several “educated backwoods guy/fish out of water” memoirs before that, and some fiction.

Out of the Woods is some of his early work, and while you can see how his use of language has improved since, these stories are still tight, terse, compact and hard. Sorta like that series on TV, “Hell on Wheels” – no mercy, just character driving plot.

Except in Offutt’s stories here, the mountain backwoods communities of Appalachia may be the driving character in many cases. In the title story of the collection, a man travels out to Nebraska to pick up his brother-in-law, and the whole narrative is pretty much read between the lines of what people are saying and doing. I love writing like that, where the story is told as much as by what’s not said as by what is.

My favorite is “Barred Owl,” which smacks of autobiography, and is a character sketch. As we all know I’m a sucker for well-drawn characters. With amazing economy of words, Offutt depicts a guy who’s half in, half out of the world he lives in, so finely-drawn he could be one of the owl feathers that decorates his cabin. Every little point and feathery piece is there.

Offut might not be for everyone. Frankly, not much happens in these stories. They’re slow, lazy, calm, and all the action is underneath the words. Kind of like a mountain brook – you have no idea how fast or deep the water is until you step into it, and by then it might be too late. Offut’s writing sneaks up on you.



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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, small town USA, VA, Wendy Welch, writing

Don’t Look a Gift Potato in the Eye

I was gardening out front of the shop when one of our favorite customers pulled up. IMG_4190

“H’lo, dear!” Ms. X waved a hank of fuzzy cloth. “I was yard sale-ing and found this jacket and said, ‘This looks like Wendy.'”

Hence the favorite thing. Not only does she do nice stuff like this all the time, she’s always right. I liked the pretty jacket instantly. Cost her 50 cents, which she did not want back.

Ms. X is one of many people around here who takes life by the horns that tried to gore her, and headbutts it. She and her son, both chronically ill, have no insurance; he has a crappy job. They live carefully in a house that labels them legally homeless, frugal to a fault with secondhand sales, day old baked goods, and the daily, considered creativity of what’s for supper. They don’t fish or garden for fun. But they have fun fishing and gardening.

“They’s sweet potatoes in Appalachia,” Ms. X winked as she departed, a couple of value paperbacks under one arm.

That’s not some mysterious Southern code. About every six months, in a little town two miles over, some person or persons unknown dumps produce under an abandoned gas station’s awning. Word of mouth goes out, and those as want it, go get it. Often it’s sweet potatoes, sometimes bananas. (When that happens, banana bread becomes currency and Huddle House runs a month-long “banana breakfast biscuit” special.) Rumor says once “the dump” was Hershey bars.

quick get in!I’d never availed myself of “the dump” before but my friend Elissa’s dogs LOVE sweet potato treats. Knowing she was busy helping another friend run a yard sale, in a fit of mischievous humor I grabbed a tea cozy, the back scratcher we use to turn off the kitchen light, and a role of tp. Racing to the sale field, I leaped from my car and shouted to Elissa, “QUICK, GET IN! I’LL EXPLAIN AS WE DRIVE!”

I probably should have remembered that Elissa is a news photographer. While everyone else stared, dumbfounded, with a swift flick of the wrist she held up her cell phone and snapped. And now I’m a meme on the Internet.

At the dump we got two bags for Elissa’s rescue dachshunds–who will waddle through this week in plump yam repleteness–and a bag each for friends we knew were busy. I asked Elissa, born and raised here, about the dump’s origins and she said rumor suggested some wealthy individual who’d made good elsewhere did it for his hometown. No one knows who, or why. And no one really questions. Why look a gift potato in the eye?

I imagine sweet Ms. X and her son sitting down to buttered baked yams, she saying, “…and for breakfast tomorrow there’ll be fresh sweet potato muffins.” On the counter sits a steaming potato casserole she’ll be taking to the church social.

Go by, mad world.


Filed under animal rescue, Big Stone Gap, folklore and ethnography, humor, Life reflections, small town USA, Uncategorized, VA

Why Us?

The one, the only, Elissa-the-photographer guest blogs today. And while Elissa is too shy to tell you this, her photography is on elp6n (that’s the name) on Facebook, if you want to see some of it. This is what comes of a 7-hour time difference whence Wendy, in Turkey, realized she could put up Elissa’s guest blog before Elissa ever got up.

Wendy is not a “native.” Jack is not a “native.” Oh yes they’re native to somewhere, but they’re not “from here” as we SWVA natives tend to say. You can’t tell just from looking at them; Wendy has a non-local accent that belies her.

In Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap they barely touch on the subject of why Southwest Virginia is their chosen settlement. Have you ever thought about it? Of all the places in this great big world to settle down, why Wise County/Big Stone Gap?

Is it the fabulous people? I wasn’t living in the area when they settled down here so it couldn’t have been that.  Are they here as spies? Wendy doesn’t lie very well so it can’t be that.

Let’s go on a little speculative photo trip. What is so fabulous about this area that Jack and Wendy moved here and birthed our dear Little Bookstore.

This is Powell Valley, where it’s rainbows and butterflies all the time. In fact, back in October when Superstorm Sandy rolled through, most of the county was on the receiving end of upwards of a foot of snow. Powell Valley / Big Stone Gap received none.


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Just down the road less than 5 miles is Roaring Branch Falls, a rough waterfall located off the side of the road. It’s just sitting right there for the world to see, no effort, no muss no fuss.


If you’ve leaving Big Stone Gap driving past Roaring Branch Falls, this is your destination: the small town of Appalachia, built by coal, carrying a lot of history.


Morels. Dry Land Fish. We have them. Restaurants pay $50+/lb for them.  We eat them by the pound for free. Envy us. By the way, it’s currently Dry Land Fish season here.  If you ask a local where his/her hunting spot it, the absolute best you could wish for would be to be blind-folded, driven in circles for a couple of hours, hike a few miles, and maybe you’ll be permitted to see a morel. morel

We throw a heck of a party. The July 1 2010 Stator Party was one for the record books. This bad boy rolled through town July 1 at 11:45 pm. Big Stone Gap partied all day and all night. Familes, college students, the elderly: everyone celebrated The Stator.


You’ll also find recreation areas of various sorts. Here we have Flag Rock, a 25-acre recreation area in the Jefferson National Forest. The flag was placed here in 1920.


Next up: University of Virginia’s College at Wise. At the left of the photo across the lake is the Gilliam Center for the Arts. In this building The Phantom of the Opera was recently performed, featuring students & musicians from the college. Every show was sold out, with the natives and non-natives demanding access.

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Trek down US58 and you’ll find Little Stoney Falls. A person can walk a short distance from the parking area to find these falls, and if feeling more adventurous, walk on down to find additional equally lovely falls. I highly recommend it. Don’t fall in. I don’t recommend that. The water is freakishly cold at all times. I know this the hard way. I’ll miss that Birkenstock…



Fall colors. Not just for the Northeast!


Talent. We have it.

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Here, Lyric the Mastiff teaches her human how to spin wool. Lyric doesn’t look very pleased with her progress, does she?

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There’s a local group of woodworkers that make art with chainsaws, or carve 3-Dimensional faces in standing trees. I asked one of these folks what his approach was when carving a large bear from a tree and I was told “Easy. You just remove everything that isn’t a bear.”

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And lastly, we have one of my dachshunds, Princess Nellie the Nelligator. You don’t have one of these. There’s only one. (And the world breathes a sigh of relief…)

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Filed under Big Stone Gap, VA

Minding the Books

Jack blogs on the business matters of bookstore life

Since opening our bookstore we’ve kept a close eye on our sales from month to month. This was initially part of the process of calculating sales tax, but as we moved from year one to year two, we realized that comparing the same month in different years couldn’t hurt our planning. (We were business virgins when we started, but we have learned quickly.)

That, in turn, allowed us to see how we were building our customer base in succeeding years – until we hit a plateau around year three or four. We were comfortably aware that we had probably reached saturation point, in terms of our region’s ‘willing to drive to the bookstore’ market, but then things changed again after Little Bookstore was published.

To begin with its effect coincided with our usual pre- and post- Christmas peak (believe it or not January can be a good month for bookstores, as people spend their Christmas gift money). The Christmas Factor made it hard to separate the two. Traditionally, the period from late January through late March has always been very low. In fact we have come to expect a goodly handful of ‘cashless wonder’ days during this period, when people either use accumulated credit or bring boxes of books in for credit. We brace ourselves and eat more mac and cheese.

But, here we are heading for the end of February 2013 and we’ve continued to be almost as busy as during that seasonal Christmas peak. The explanation seems to be that the folk who have read Little Bookstore are intrigued enough to want to experience both the bookstore and Big Stone for real.

It’s becoming pretty easy to tell these nice folk as soon as they come into the shop, too! They have an expectant look about them; they smile at our cats and call them by name. They seek out ‘the rejection letter,’ and they just kind of hover in a satisfied way.

Once we twigged what was going on we would ask where they came from and discovered that our geographical footprint had grown. Quite a bit.

Funny though this may seem, as excited as I’d been about the book coming out, it had never occurred to me it would entice people to seek out our shop. But I’m certainly glad they are. Without exception, they’ve been nice people, pleasant visitors, appreciative of the town without a whiff of “how… quaint” to them. They’re good conversationalists. AND they’re buying books.

What more could a bookslinger ask for?


Filed under Big Stone Gap, book reviews, bookstore management, publishing, shopsitting, small town USA, Uncategorized, VA

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

Two Square Inches of Fame

This is PEOPLE Magazine from Oct. 22. It has a two inch square recommending my book as a Great Non-fiction Read. And while it doesn’t change much of anything I think about myself, it’s changed the way some people think about my book.

A couple of people who weren’t interested in buying the book when I was in their local bookstore hawking it saw that lying open on the table, and suddenly Little Bookstore got a whole lot more interesting. Same thing with Walmart; some friends found out the Big W was stocking me, and my life changed in their eyes.

Might we just dial back a second here? A book that talks about the value of community, how people can take charge of their own lives, not “rent inside their own skins” but really enjoy and examine the decisions they make about why, how, and where they buy books–is embraced by mainstream commercialism, and that makes people like it more?

Irony, thy name is marketing. It’s the small version of what’s on the front cover of the People my two square inches are in. Adele is pictured on the cover, and it says, just below her face on this 2-million circulation magazine, “How and why the singing sensation lives outside the spotlight.”


Don’t get the wrong idea. I’m more grateful than words can express that people are embracing this book (which they couldn’t do if they didn’t know about it via the media), that they like how it describes life in small towns, that some neighbors from down the street and across state lines have emailed to say “You’re describing what it felt like when I moved to a small town/ got a divorce and started over/ quit my job to start an art studio/ lost my daughter.” There’s just nothing like life in the slow lane to solidify watching the strangeness of mainstream media and its effect on what people think you are.

I am delighted that people identify with, take pleasure from, even repeat what I said about small towns, books, cats and life. And it pleases me no end that the quote people are starting to come up to me at book signings and reel off, with a big grin, is,”I’ll put the kettle on.” (Plus, they ask after Beulah. She’s well, thank you.)

But at the bottom of two square inches of fame, Walmart, Amazon and the rest of the pile-up, Jack and I run a small bookstore in a rural part of Coalfields Appalachia for people who like to read. We are happy. We like our friends, we like our church, we like our store, we’re lucky, we’re careful, and we work hard.

Good enough, gang!


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