Tag Archives: Jack Beck

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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And I would walk – – –

Jack’s Wednesday guest blog post –

It’s Wendy’s birthday at the end of the week and back around the time of my birthday in February she asked me for a very specific present. Not a fancy expensive thing, but just a song. Not any old song, though, and not a traditional song which would have fitted with my usual repertoire.

The song she asked me to learn and then perform publicly at a gig coming up April 30 was ‘500 Miles’ by The Proclaimers!

The Proclaimers are brothers Craig and Charlie Reid, who grew up in Auchtermuchty in my home county of Fife in Scotland, which is also the town where Wendy and I married 18 years ago.

I really wasn’t sure that I could do justice to the song, particularly after watching various excellent performances on YouTube. But nothing ventured, nothing gained, so I spent weeks going around singing it to myself until I learned the words. But a funny thing began to happen. It may be because the Reids sing in a broad Fife accent very similar to mine or maybe it’s because the sentiments of the song are quintessentially Scottish, but I found myself falling for the song. Of course the idea of demonstrating love by being prepared to travel a long distance – five hundred or even a thousand miles – is a very common motif in folk-songs and that may have chimed with me too.

The opportunity to perform the song had also been a long time in preparation. Almost two years ago our good friend Mark Merz, who leads the excellent Celtic band ‘Night Crossing,’ had proposed a ‘Celtic Clanjamphry’ concert at the historic Lincoln Theater in Marion VA. At the time we weren’t able to pull it off, but with the appointment of a new director for the theater the idea was again raised and the sainted Kristin Untiedt worked enthusiastically with Mark to realize his dream.

Also appearing would be our old friends ‘Sigean’ and another local band ‘Fire in the Kitchen’. The idea was to present a live concert version of my radio show and record the whole event for future broadcasting. So a lot to plan and a lot to potentially go wrong! Sigean were happy to give backing me in the song a go, but our only actual rehearsal opportunity was a brief 15 minutes between the sound check and the start of the concert, back in the Green Room.

Soon the theater began to fill up and the concert began. The first half featured ‘Fire in the Kitchen’ and ‘Night Crossing’ who both played wonderfully. The second half would start with Wendy and me followed by Sigean with ‘500 Miles’ as our last item to make for an easy stage transition.

We announced it was Wendy’s birthday present, and then as I began to sing the first few words, the audience reaction was amazing – an enthusiastic shout went up, and everyone sang along. I hadn’t realized just how popular or well known the song was. There’s a special feeling you just occasionally experience when performing – when everything clicks and the audience is right with you. It was such fun.

I may just have to keep ‘500 Miles’ in my repertoire now! Wendy says I have to sing it to her every year on her birthday. That could happen. We’re going to Asheville this weekend with friends, and I see a rendition on their trolley bar that pedals through the streets, the patrons singing lustily. Or perhaps drunkenly.

If you’d like to see the live performance from the Lincoln, click here.

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Filed under folklore and ethnography, Life reflections, Scotland, Uncategorized, Wendy Welch

Lend me your ears – –

 

Jacks’ Wednesday guest blog post

There we were, on our way home on Monday night from the annual volunteers’ appreciation banquet at the prison where I visit every month. I’d noticed that Wendy had been busy on her phone for the last half hour and that usually means cats.

I should explain that I generally try to be the sensible one in these situations, trying to remind her that we can’t save them all and that the bookstore can only accommodate a finite amount while still operating in a customer friendly way. So I’m the ‘bad cop’ to Wendy’s ‘good cop’ much of the time.

Thinking this would probably be another clutch of tiny kittens I was gearing up to be my usual grumpy curmudgeonly self. But as we arrived home Wendy announced we were going out straightaway to find a feral cat that was hanging out in an area of town we’re not too familiar with. We had an address and the lady who Wendy had been on the phone with had offered to guide us to the place.

We arrived as it was beginning to get dark and began to search. No luck until Wendy’s phone contact came out and began guiding. In the darkness a very friendly white cat with oddly shaped black ears came straight to us. We had brought food and water and she made straight for them. Purring and most definitely not feral, so we had a closer look. Her ears weren’t naturally black – they were half eaten away and bloody. She was also scrawny but with a bloated belly. So she was injured, mal-nourished and pregnant!

We brought her back but couldn’t risk putting her in the same space as our own cats or the other fosters, so into the garage she went for the night. All this time she was happy to be picked up and carried in a box – as if she knew she’d turned a corner.

Of course the whole episode was being followed on FaceBook by a whole host of friends and fellow animal rescuers. One of them was our good friend Joe, who offered to come round in the morning to take her up to our Sainted Beth the veterinarian who never imagined she’d share so much of her personal and professional life with us.

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So now we know that Pogo (we called her that because she looked like a possum in the half-light) has melanoma on both ears, is completely flea-ridden and has a belly full of worms (so – not pregnant).

But all of that can be treated, although she may lose a goodly part of both ears in the process. Apparently she is about seven or eight years old and has obviously been a domestic pet. She either ran off and got lost, or was abandoned because of her ear problem. And to my astonishment, as soon as Wendy posted the update the next day showing Pogo relaxing in hospital, people began to offer financial assistance towards her bill. Which we know Beth will keep to the bare necessities, because she is a saint. But hey, saints and their nurses gotta eat too. Powell Valley Animal Hospital should you want to donate to her care. And we thank you from the bottom of Pogo’s sad little ear stubs.

I may try to lose Wendy’s phone, but she’d just get another one – bless her heart – – –

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Filed under animal rescue, bookstore management, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, Uncategorized, Wendy Welch

“Kids, Glorious Kids”

Jack’s Wednesday guest blog post –

Wendy and I don’t have kids – but – – –

Kelley, our chef par excellence married her true love Sam in February and immediately inherited a bunch of them, and has entered the role of parent with joy and enthusiasm. As have we, as surrogate grandparents. But we’re not the only ones, as our other friends Mark and Elizabeth (the goat herders) are also staking a claim and have these well-adjusted young people climbing on trees, feeding baby goats and being stand in grandchildren as well.

Despite not having any children, I have a plethora of nieces, nephews as well as their offspring and I delight in their doings of course. Wendy has a nephew and that gives her some insights as well.

But there’s nothing like kids running around your feet and we consider Asher and James, as well as Brook and Ciaran not to mention grown up Thom, as part of our extended family.

When my old singing partner Barbara was with us before and after ‘Big Stone Celtic’ a couple of years ago she and her husband Oliver immediately became stand-in grandparents too. They cheered them on at their soccer matches. My fond memory is of Oliver standing on the touchline dressed in typically English garb, complete with a hat, with a bunch of Asher’s team-mates circled round him. The players were obviously aware that he was an expert but couldn’t understand a word he was saying as he berated them. Completely illegal of course, to coach from the side while the game is in progress!

That’s children, though – they capture your heart. They don’t have to be yours, but they are part of the next generation and that does make them your responsibility too.

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Filed under Big Stone Gap, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, small town USA, Uncategorized, Wendy Welch

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

Monday Book Review

Jack’s guest Monday book review –

Birdmen by Lawrence Goldstone (Ballantine; 2015)

Well – my guilty secret was bound to come out eventually! I am an aviation nut, from my teenage years building flying models for competition, through a wonderfully memorable gliding vacation in Yorkshire, and on up to re-discovering the delights of model building in my retirement.

I have a particular love of planes from the early days of aviation – the glorified box-kites, with barely enough power to sustain them flown by intrepid heroes who learned through trial and (often fatal) error.

I really thought I had a good handle on the history of those times, but Goldstone reveals a story of rivalry and pig-headedness that almost defies belief!

Everyone knows, of course, that the Wright brothers, Orville and Wilbur, were the first men to design and fly successfully a heavier than air flying machine with the means of controlling its path through the air. What most folk don’t necessarily know, however, is how much they owed to other contemporary pioneers. They communicated regularly with Octave Chanute and Samuel Langley among others, incorporating many of their ideas into the design of their ‘Flyers’. Finally, they had the work of the German designer Otto Lilienthal to draw on – particularly with regard to weight distribution and the curved airfoil needed to generate lift.

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A Wright Flyer in France frightening the horses.

Sadly, the Wrights came to believe that because they were the first to successfully demonstrate flight by a heavier than air machine, they were entitled to royalty payments on every other machine made by anyone after that. It didn’t matter to them if the designs were radically different from theirs – the mere fact that it could fly meant to them that the principles they pioneered were being unfairly utilized.

The pursuit of an ever growing number of law suits against other plane manufacturers quickly began to consume all their energies, and meant that they didn’t have any left to spend improving and developing their designs. The most famous dispute was with the other great American aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss and this one probably contributed to Wilbur’s early death. Worn out by all the court appearances he succumbed to typhoid. Orville lasted longer but didn’t have the same drive as his brother, either to improve the planes or to pursue the litigation.

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The Curtiss H8 in a 1916 demonstration.

Goldstone, in this book, argues that because of all the disputes and court cases the fledgling aircraft industry in the US fell behind those in other countries – particularly France, Britain and Germany. He maintains that it wasn’t until some years after the end of WW1 that America began to catch up with the others.

For anyone with an interest in early aviation and ‘those magnificent men in their flying machines’ this is a must read. At least five thumbs up!

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Filed under book reviews, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, reading, Uncategorized, Wendy Welch, writing

Memory Lane

In Jack’s guest post he re-visits his earlier profession –

In the dim and distant past, when I left high school, I began serving my five-year long apprenticeship as a painter and decorator. I went on to work in that trade for many years, eventually teaching the skills in the local college where I had attended part-time as an apprentice. I look back on those days with fond memories and I’m still occasionally reminded of the satisfaction to be had from practicing a set of specialist skills competently.

So to this past weekend; after almost ten years, it was time to re-decorate what had been our upstairs sitting room and is now the main café area. The cozy and warm chestnut colored wallpaper that suited our life-style really didn’t work for a café and the woodwork was getting grubby and worn.

As I proceeded to strip the old wallpaper and prepare everything the memories came flooding back. When it came time to paint the ceiling and woodwork I remembered teaching the students a whole variety of brush skills – knowing what made a good brush, learning to work left or right handed, knowing just how heavily to load the brush with paint, applying the paint without any spattering or misses or runs etc. All this makes it easier, very satisfying and truly rewarding!

Hanging wallpaper is a different kind of challenge and not helped by the almost universal availability of the ‘ready-pasted’ kind. I really, really hate ready-pasted papers with a vengeance. If you use them as directed, you end up with water all over the floor and there’s never enough ‘slip’ to position the paper to match the pattern. So I just paste them anyway! But now it’s hard to find regular common or garden paste any more. So, for the first time in over fifty years I mixed a bucket of flour paste and got it right first time (something I took a while to learn as an apprentice).

As I only had a two-day window of time to complete the work, our good friend David drove over from NC and once again stepped into the breach and became my ‘apprentice’ for the weekend.

Our ‘best-of-the-best’ café manager and chef, Kelley, had popped in from time to time as the work progressed and her broad smile again brought back memories of satisfied customers. I finally made a point of checking with her customers as they sat down to lunch yesterday and they looked up just long enough from the best home-cooking in Wise County to give universal approval!

Enjoy the pictures and tell me what you think –

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Filed under bookstore management, home improvements, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, Uncategorized, Wendy Welch