Tag Archives: independent bookstores

In Which Jack Pontificates on Customer Service

Jack’s weekly guest blog traces the odd path from management guru to bookseller

It’s funny the things that come into your mind!

Way back when, I was working in my college in Scotland at a time when ‘Heid Bummers’ (Principal and Depute Principal) were under pressure to flatten the rather hefty management hierarchy and make things more dynamic. They set out to radically restructure the staffing, and for some reason they had been watching me and decided that I had a much more ‘collegiate’ model for working with my colleagues than the rest of the staff in my department. Thus I was appointed Head of Department and told to “make them more collegiate.” After a couple of rocky years, things settled down and I’m proud to say that I eventually won everyone round to my way of working.

Some years later I wound up teaching management courses and ultimately studied for, and gained my MBA from Heriot Watt University in Edinburgh. As part of those studies, of course, I did a lot of research into organizational structures, management styles, team dynamics, marketing and motivational theories.

Now, anyone who has read ‘The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap’ will be wondering how on earth I could think of getting involved in starting our bookstore and even more how we could have made a success of it, given what I’ve described above. But there were some insights I could bring and that we have put into practice. Probably the main one is that the customer is absolutely the first priority, come what may.

I was pondering this today for some reason and found myself picturing a continuum with high staff convenience at one end and high customer convenience at the other and contemplated where we might fit along that line.

Wendy and I had noticed, when we first came here, that businesses in small towns sometimes open and close very randomly on a whim; they might have opening hours posted but you could never be sure until you tried the door. We could never understand this when we visited such places, as it seemed crazy to us. When our chef par-excellence Kelley had to close the café this week to go to Chicago to help her sister recover from surgery, she made sure that all her customers and potential customers knew well ahead of time, and I’m very pleased to say that so far there have been no disappointed regulars.

It’s important to make sure that we are open when we say we will be, so we have both short term and long term ‘shop-sitters’ to ensure that. Everyone who comes through the door is treated with value and respect; we order books for customers when they aren’t in stock, repair battered family Bibles that are family heirlooms and don’t mind if folk just come in for a chat.

So where would be positioned along the line? Of course we’d like to think we’re at the customer focused end, but it’s really difficult to know. There are lots of different factors that can affect the continuing success of a small business in this part of the world – people move in and out of town, the economy takes a dip, a local clique decides to attack, etc.

But one thing I’m certain of – it’s all about the customers!

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The State we’re (not quite) in.

Jack’s guest blog post is a little late this week –

In the middle of all the hoo-ha in NC just now with big music stars cancelling appearances in protest against the so-called religious freedom legislation, I noticed an appeal by Malaprops bookstore. An author scheduled to do a signing had cancelled and they argued that he should have come and shown solidarity with a business that opposed the new law.

I suppose because it is one of our favorite bookstores (and Wendy has done a signing there herself) it made me pay a bit more attention to the question.

Of course this has nothing to do with religious freedom and everything to do with blind prejudice.

It’s ironic that many of the early European settlers braved a dangerous journey across the Atlantic in small sailing ships in order to escape prejudice. Over time, of course, it would be their descendants who would revert to putting up the shutters against Irish, Italians, Japanese, Jews, Mexicans, Hispanics etc., etc. You don’t have to dig too far into that list to see religious overtones either.

The worst example, and its legacy is still with us, is color prejudice – something so deeply rooted that I fear it will take many generations to completely die out.

A further irony is that one of the things that makes the United States distinctive in the world is its culture – the art, music, dance and storytelling traditions that mix and blend threads from all the individual cultures of the incomers along with the Native Americans who were already here.

It’s the artists who are in the vanguard of this latest battle and I salute their integrity in the face of this degrading, politically populist and downright rabble-rousing move. Wendy and I love Asheville and visit the city frequently to enjoy its cafes, shops and very European atmosphere. It’s very hard to believe what’s going on in the state as you wander through its downtown mingling with the street musicians, mime artists, dog walkers et al.

And, what of Malaprops’ cancelled signing? For what it’s worth I think that got more attention than a few words on the day would have.

 

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Filed under bookstore management, folklore and ethnography, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, Uncategorized, Wendy Welch

– – – Work for Idle Hands

Jack’s weekly guest blog post –

February (and just imagine a Scotsman’s pronunciation of that word) is always a quiet time in the bookstore as far as customer numbers is concerned. But don’t let that fool you!

This is the time when bookstore owners take care of all the jobs that there’s little space for during the busier months. That’s why we chose now to lay the new floor covering in the bookstore kitchen area.

It’s when we give the place a good clean from top to bottom, look at whether the shelving is appropriate or any repairs are needed, fix that dribbling toilet tank.

Then there are the books we have listed on-line to be re-checked to see if the prices are still competitive and whether any need to be culled and re-shelved in the shop. While we’re doing that we need to check whether customers have also re-shelved any books inappropriately and move them back to their rightful places. This is also a good time to check the alphabetizing by author in the various sections – we don’t have a computerized database of our stock, so that makes it much easier to find things when customers have a specific request.

One of the reasons why this month is quiet is because it’s just so damned cold out, so this is also when we check all the windows and doors for draughts and proof them where necessary.

But just because there are fewer customers doesn’t mean there are none at all, so we still have to make sure that the shop is accessible. The room where all our Westerns are located lies beyond the area that we re-floored and, of course, two customers specifically came looking for Westerns as we were in the middle of that!

Finally, just because there are fewer bookstore customers doesn’t mean there are fewer café clients looking for lunch, so the menu gets tweaked to suit the weather with hearty soups and warming chillies and we create more evening events with themed dinners.

How many other bookstore owners out there are following a similar regime this time of year?

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Filed under Big Stone Gap, bookstore management, Uncategorized, Wendy Welch

Remodeling #10

 

Jack’s weekly guest post –

Since we moved in here ten years ago we (and that means mostly I) have carried out some serious building projects. Some were simply needed because of the age of the building (built in 1903), some we chose to do and others were needed to meet certain legal requirements.

The first was redecorating most of the upstairs to make that area pleasant as living quarters, then I walled in the open car port to turn it into a garage complete with a window and an ‘up and over’ main door. Next was building a disabled ramp at the side of the porch and then re-shingling the roof. The upstairs bathroom got a complete make-over and shortly after we got a grant to completely renovate the front porch. We had earlier built a fire escape stair from upstairs which doubled as access to the yard for our dogs Zora and Bert, which turned out to be handy when we opened The Second Story Café.

Before we opened the café I had turned our dismal and cobwebby basement into our new living quarters (that’s chronicled in an earlier blog post) but I also had to install additional sinks and an extraction system in the upstairs kitchen. We had never had a separate heat and air system upstairs, so the advent of the café meant fitting a heat pump in the attic, running ducts to all the rooms and cutting holes in all the ceilings (very messy!).

Most of these jobs were interesting and challenging and I felt a definite sense of pride in my contribution to them although confirmed in my nervousness about plumbing and electrical work.

However, the latest jobs I had been putting to the end of the queue for years. The downstairs kitchen and bathroom both had old worn and curling vinyl flooring and I had been dreading fixing them. The first to be done was the bathroom and I used a floating planks system that proved much easier than I expected, so then it was time for the kitchen. We had divided this room with bookshelves as well as installing more along the walls on one side, so all the books had to be boxed and stored wherever we could find a corner followed by removing all the shelving into the garage. My good friend David Hamrick had arrived on Friday to help me and Wendy began boxing books on Saturday. By Sunday lunchtime we had all the books and shelves out and had started laying the new floor – more floating planks. By Monday afternoon we had the floor finished and the shelves back in place and this morning the last of the books were back.

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The old floor

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– and the new one

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’m absolutely sure of one thing though – there’s another job just waiting around the corner!

 

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Jack’s weekly guest post.

In which Jack moans about the weather –

Well – I woke up this morning to a blanket of snow, it hasn’t stopped yet and there’s more on the way. You would think that, coming from Scotland, I’d be used to it!

The trouble is that I come from the lowlands and not only that but most of my life I lived close enough to the Forth estuary to get the ‘salt water effect’, which usually kept the snow away. That changed when Wendy and I got married and moved to higher ground that was a bit further inland. Almost every year after that our village got snowed in good and proper for a couple of weeks every January or February and we weren’t a high enough priority to warrant early attention from the county snow plow; and since we lived up the only side road, when the plow eventually went through it created an even bigger bank of snow across the end of it!

That pattern seems to have followed us to Big Stone Gap and this is shaping up to be the third winter when we will replay our experiences of New Gilston.

Last year we had a series of storms every couple of days that eventually dumped nearly three feet of snow and had the whole area shut down for weeks. The town administration eventually ran out of grit and salt so their best efforts (and they were mighty) were eventually in vain.

It’s not so bad as we live below the shop, we have plenty of supplies in, the liquor store is across the street and the supermarket is within walking distance.

However, Wendy’s job required her to drive to Richmond and remain there until Friday, which is when an even bigger snowstorm is due and forecast to last through Sunday, so she is very likely to be delayed getting home.

Meanwhile I am preparing to make a big batch of Chicken Madras curry which is my comfort food of choice and will keep me happy and warm me as I watch the snow piling up outside.

curry

Y’all take care out there, dress warm and don’t drive if you don’t have to!

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Filed under Big Stone Gap, bookstore management, humor, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, Scotland, small town USA, Uncategorized

You are Entering… the INDIE BOOKSTORE ZONE

A guest blog from Lyn Ford, Storyteller, who scared everybody out of their wits here on Friday night. It was a magnificent evening!

lynIn October, I often stand in candlelight and pumpkin light, moonlight and dimmed stage light, to tell frightening tales of experiences that never happened (well, most of them didn’t). I speak of love, death, relationships gone bad, strange children, the wrath of the undead—you know, your average, everyday topics of conversation. I am…wait for it…a storyteller.

I share stories in the twilight at the edges of graveyards, in haunted historic sites and moody park gazebos. But my favorite place to haunt is what the first-season monologue for the “Twilight Zone” television series calls “the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition…between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge…the dimension of imagination.” It is a place called…the independent bookstore.

Storytelling programs in independent bookstores hold a timeless, haunting energy, and the people who come to listen are ready for stories. The atmosphere can be greatly enhanced by the presence of a resident cat or two. And when the cat is named Edgar Alan Poe, well, that’s Haunt Heaven, honey.DSCN0999

I can now add to my résumé an evening spent as the guest storytelling spirit at Tales of The Lonesome Pine LLC Use Book Store. If you’re reading this blog, you may already know of the store and its owners, Wendy Welch and her husband/partner in music, story, and love, Jack Beck. But you might not know Edgar, the cat, or be aware of the occasional supper-and-stories events Wendy and Jack produce. At these special occasions, you enjoy good food and a friendly, conversational atmosphere in the café upstairs, after perusing the books and petting the lovely kitties ensconced in the bookstore downstairs.

If you’re in southwest Virginia, plan a visit. If you can’t get to Virginia, visit an independent bookstore in your area. Wandering through an independent book store is one of the best gifts you can offer yourself, especially in the season of “volumes of forgotten lore” (I’m quoting Poe the man, not Edgar the cat).   Creep through the titles among the shelves. Be shocked and amazed at the variety and value you will discover. In the crisp, cool air of October (or any other time of year), relish the warm and generous welcome of the store’s owners–they are truly happy to see you!

You’ll probably enter a different dimension of sight and sound, and stay a lot longer than you’d intended.

Lyn Ford, friedtales2@gmail.com

visit Lyn’s website and see her books Hot Wind, Boiling Rain, Affrilachian Tales, and Beyond the Briar Patch here.

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Filed under Big Stone Gap, bookstore management, folklore and ethnography, humor, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, reading, small town USA, Wendy Welch, writing, YA fiction

The Randomness of Joy, the Joy of Randomness

I awoke this morning determined to get our “caretaker’s flat” in order. After almost three straight weeks of travel and deadlines, the place looked something between a laundromat and a pet grooming facility, both at closing time. Fur, cloth, yarn: not a surface had been spared the clutter. Even the cats had given up trying to find spaces to sleep down there.

Fortified with three cups of coffee and a leftover peanut butter chocolate chip crumb cake from the cafe, I prepared to do battle for our next-to-Godliness souls.

And the bookstore door opened.

In came four people who had driven from South Carolina, clutching copies of Little Bookstore they wanted signed. And one of them had brought us a present.

“I’m downsizing my library, and thought you might like to have a few of my old quilting books,” she said. Four boxes later, they scooped up kittens, scoured the mystery room for Cadfaels, and then went upstairs (sans kittens) to have Our Good Chef Kelley’s amazing tomato bisque with grilled pimento cheese.

And I began categorizing “a few quilt books.” Two hundred of them. It took me most of the morning, but hey, needs must. There were so many, we had to find a new place to display them, reorganizing a little bit of the shop, cleaning a few things on the way. It turned into one of those “tidy as you go” operations.

Jack says I like to sneak in cleaning in those moments. Whatever.

So my morning tidy of our flat went away, but I had such a good time talking to the couples, learning about their lives in South Carolina and Montreal, looking at the books, and generally being a bookshop owner hand-selling good books and enjoying her customers.

Go by, mad world. The dust and clutter will be there tomorrow, when I may or may not have time to attend to it. Joy is random, and sometimes, randomness is joy.

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