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Timing is everything

Jack’s (fairly) regular Wednesday guest post –

On Sunday we had the third Clanjamphry Live concert at the beautiful Lincoln Theater in Marion Virginia. This is a twice a year link-up with my Celtic music radio show ‘Celtic Clanjamphry’ and we were delighted that our friends Alan Reid and Rob van Sante were touring over here and available just when we needed them.

The trouble was that we had originally intended to hold the concert on Saturday night but at the last minute the theater had a request from their long established ‘showcase’ – Song of the Mountains – and couldn’t realistically turn them down. In the end we opted to move to Sunday afternoon, but had absolutely no idea if that would work. Was there an overlap of potential audience that would choose one or the other but not both? Would anyone come out to a concert on a Sunday afternoon?


As usual we peeked out from the wings and were somewhat nervous when, with five minutes to go, saw a pretty sparse crowd. However we then had to get organized as Wendy and I were starting things off. To our surprise and great relief when we stepped out onto the stage we saw that we had just as big an audience as we’d had for the previous concerts in the series.

Even better than that it seems that we may now have a loyal audience that trusts us to give them an experience they value.

But, despite everything, I suspect that we should try to avoid Sunday afternoons in future!

Alan and Rob got a standing ovation and an encore, which didn’t surprise me and was richly deserved. What the audience didn’t know was that they had just completed six gigs in six days with lengthy drives between and were pretty exhausted. Luckily we had booked a cabin at nearby Hungry Mother State Park for Saturday and Sunday night, so they could get some R&R before and after our concert. That meant we could also share our gigs from hell stories too!

Celtic Clanjamphry airs on WETS.fm on Sundays at 9pm, WETS HD2 on Mondays at 8pm and Saturdays at 10am. It also goes out in the Marion area on WEHC.fm on Sundays at 5pm. http://www.wets.org

Alan Reid and Rob van Sante can be found herehttp://www.reidvansante.com/


Filed under Big Stone Gap, blue funks, folklore and ethnography, Life reflections, Scotland, Uncategorized

Stand and Deliver!

 Jack’s Wednesday guest post –

Tricking, treating or guising?

We had three hundred kids plus their supervising adults through the bookstore last Saturday. They were ‘trick or treating’ as these Americans say. They filed in over three hours, snaking through the place to the kids’ room to choose a free book, getting handed a cafe cookie and having a photo taken of them in costume before leaving for the next port of call.


A small number of the 300 waiting to enter

I wondered about that American tradition so I did some investigating – it turns out that it means “give me a treat or I will play a trick on you”. So, in other words, what would be described in an English or Scottish court as ‘demanding with menaces’!

There’s been a fair bit of discussion on facebook over the last few days about the different Halloween traditions on the opposing sides of the Atlantic, and even about the various names for the vegetable that gets carved into a lantern for the occasion.  I was forced to take part, if only to promote the correct name for the said vegetable.

In Scotland the festival was, for me, always ‘Guising’ (dressing in disguise) and the lantern was carved from a tumshie (a large turnip) and the kids had to perform a poem, song or joke in return for their gift. It was always a family event too, with games – dookin for aipples or trying to snare a treacly scone dangling from a string by mouth with your hands behind your back.

The name of the vegetable? I’ve heard Turnip, Swede, Neep and Tumshie (rutabaga over here) . It was always a tumshie in my youth. But when I grew up and became a responsible adult I was once asked to join an EU funded international environmental education project led by a Danish organization that had a license to grow hemp (don’t ask!). They suggested various Acronyms for the shared undertaking and one of them was NEEPS! I immediately agreed – of such is inter-cultural understanding achieved, although no-one understood why we’d agreed so quickly and enthusiastically.

Long may these weird things continue to confound us, and I can still remember the smell of a candle burning inside a hollowed out tumshie or neep!

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

A Steady(ing) Weight of Book Boxes

Boxes…. book boxes. They’re everywhere, coming in droves, full of hardback fiction, old textbooks, and occasional gems like the latest bestseller or an obscure Carlos Castaneda title. Jack reckons we’ve had 22 boxes of trade-ins come through in the last week alone.

These coincide with what might be the busiest two weeks of our lives. Big Stone Celtic Festival is Sept. 22. My book launches Oct. 2. I’m complaining about NOTHING, mind; The Celtic Festival is fun, and good for the town. My book is fun, and I’m so happy people are liking it, and it’s getting good publicity. (The Book News page has links.)

Through all the hoopla and the final arrangements of where to put the Shetland ponies (on the park lawn) and where to park the British Cars (outside the schoolhouse museum) and when the latest newspaper or radio spot runs for Little Bookstore (I don’t know) those boxes of books trudge like determined soldiers, reminding us that underneath everything else, our bookstore needs to keep running. Or limping, at least.

Between sheepdog trial planning and radio spots, the book boxes stack and empty as Jack and I try to keep the shop floor clear. That anchoring weight of books–solid, steady books–anchors us. Publicity is a wild ride. Running a festival is a wild ride. Books can certainly be wild rides when read, but triaging them for trade-in is a more staid activity. It’s like intellectual solitaire: categorize, value, stack, shelve. Repeat.

That repetitive motion of getting those volumes into places where customers can find them, buy them, read them, enjoy them, is the heartbeat that underpins everything else. We remember this, come happiness or high water, and we are grateful for that steady, weighted pulse, steadying us in the sturm and drang. Because when the festival is over, the hoopla past, and the publicity gone, it will be the two of us, and the book boxes.

What was it Thomas Hardy said? “And at home by the fire, whenever you look up there I shall be—and whenever I look up, there will be you.” The wild ride is fun, but it’s a ride. When it’s finished, more book boxes will arrive, and we will sort them, Jack and I. Then we will sit together amid our bookshop’s tightly-packed shelves with a sigh of contentment and a cat on each knee–ready to do the same again tomorrow.


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

Who would you rather emulate: Lee or Rowling?

Okay, writers: who would you rather be Harper Lee or J.K. Rowling?

No brainer, right? We’d rather be ourselves. That’s why we’re writers. Yes, precisely, and now that we have that established, which of these women changed the world (more, or at all)?

J.K. Rowling went from1.50 (can’t get the computer to make a pound symbol) for a pot of tea, pushing her child’s pram back and forth with one hand while pouring out words with the other in an Edinburgh tearoom, to seven mega-hit books–books so powerful, she dragged a friend of mine along in her wake.

Theresa Breslin published one of her Dreammaster books in the year that Rowling actually dipped the annual projected publishing earnings by delivering her manuscript late. Ottakar Books, a chain in the UK, put up a display with Theresa’s YA fiction, and a sign: “Going potty waiting for Harry Potter? Try this instead!” And Theresa’s well-written, charming stories of a young boy and a crotchety old non-mortal who oversees his sleeping moments shot into bestseller status as well.

Did it bug her, a woman of great talent, to be handled this way, when her writing deserved recognition in its own right, I asked Theresa as we sat over our own cups of tea in Edinburgh one afternoon. I was fully prepared to be indignant on my friend’s behalf, but “I have no regrets,” Theresa said, smiling. A brilliant, savvy and kindhearted woman, Theresa is; if you haven’t read her books, you’d enjoy them.

The point being, J.K. Rowling broke into a rigidly self-contained industry and dominated it–but good.

Then there’s Harper Lee. A friend to the damaged (Truman Capote, among others) and a quiet woman, she coalesced a generation’s confusion into one heartbreaking, eminently readable novel. Did she change the American mindset? Or did she just describe it so well that we all got ashamed of ourselves and sought to change it? It’s well-known, that pop-psych wisdom about the first step being defining the problem and wanting to get rid of it. Did Lee launch that vessel? (Didn’t Samuel Clemens do that with Huck’s raft, some 75 years before? Perhaps Lee gave it a fresh head of steam.)

Mockingbird is loosely based on events Lee witnessed as a child growing up in Alabama.

Author Joan Didion says we write to get our thoughts in order and make sense of what’s happening around us. Did Lee ride the wave, or create it? And does it matter? She never wrote anything else (at least, not that her name was put to) but what she set down is still being read and studied and analyzed and held up as the Golden Mean. And it deserves to be.

Did Rowling ride a wave, or create it? It certainly looks as though she created one: a tsunami of interest in the supernatural, neglected children, and national health service owl-frame glasses. Seven waves, each white-topped with money, each exploring ever-darker themes of what it means to be loyal, to grow up, to go from a cupboard under the stairs to the most important person in the universe yet still be a nice guy.

Lee only wrote one, and also hit instant success. She won the Pulitzer. She was lauded as the voice of a generation about to change itself. And she stopped accepting public appearances about her book.

Did America change itself? Did she help? People with white skin and people with black, people who are paid to analyze what others write and people who don’t care to analyze much of anything, would answer that question differently.

But they’d all know what To Kill a Mockingbird was about, too.

I asked the “Rowling/Lee” question of a friend at lunch the other day–a woman high-powered in her profession but not a writer–and she said instantly, “Harper Lee. Duh.”

“Not duh. Think about it,” I shot back, launching into my diatribe: the waves were too murky, the issues less black-and-white than one might think. Marketing, money, the conscience of one generation to change the world, the longing of another to be special….

After five minutes of my onslaught, my lunching friend’s brow furrowed. “Hmmm,” she said.


Filed under book reviews, humor