Tag Archives: Quakers

Fun with Philly Bookstores

I went to Philadelphia wearing my college hat, talking about rural health infrastructure and entrepreneurial activity. But of course there were a few spare minutes here and there, so I got to visit four bookstores. :]

chaucerThe first was the Quaker-run Book Corner, just beyond the Free Library of Philadelphia. THEY HAVE STAFF CATS! Catticus Finch declined to have his picture taken, but this is Chaucer. Book Corner supports the nearby library, which is how they wound up acquiring the cats. The two boys were trying to get into the library last winter, and it was cold, so the Quakers did as Quakers do, and now they have staff cats.

The boys weren’t all that interested in talking to me about Hadley et al; apparently they are sophisticats. But the lady who staffed the bookstore was very friendly, and at $3 per hardback, $2 per trade paperback, I had a grand old time!

book trader 1 book trader 2Then it was off to the Book Trader (shown above) across from historic Christ Church – a place of looming shelves and sideways books and a cheerfully curmudgeonly shopkeeper. When you think “used books store” this is the place you think of. Also, he proved cover color theory – just look at his display of Chick Lit books!chick lit


The conference started so no time for excursions again until today, when I got to catch up with old friends Ann and Adam. Ann owns The Spiral Bookcase in nearby Manayunk, and had just come from a photoshoot featuring her store. (She’s a brilliant marketer and a tireless community organizer!)ann and adam

Since our schedules wouldn’t permit meeting at her shop, she trained over, her husband Adam walked down from his office, and we had a late lunch at an upscale, trendy wine bar. “The kind of lifestyle one aspires to,” we agreed, nibbling on cheese that had been described on the menu as having a “fluffy personality.” (Yes, it kinda did.)

curtisRealizing we were near another bookshop owned by a mutual friend, we walked over to Neighborhood Books, run by Curtis. It’s so much fun to talk shop with fellow bookslingers: “What do you do with your old romances? Do you sell much sports? How often do you cull? When’s your biggest tourism season? How do you brace shelves that curve? Etc. etc. ad infinitium. Bookslingers can talk strategy all day long, and then move on to the great themes of literature over dinner.

Unfortunately, our schedules wouldn’t allow dinner either, so we said goodbye and headed back to our respective places in life. Walking back through Phillly, my head was buzzing with good ideas from the conference and good ideas from fellow bookshop owners.

There’s gonna be some work to do when I get home. Heh heh heh…….


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

A Return to Normalcy? HA!

normal12Jack’s Wednesday blog tackles a big question

For years now I’ve pondered on what ‘normal’ means. I can identify various times in my life when it meant very different things for me – my early life running a painting and decorating business, my 20 year career as an educator in a community college, my parallel life as a singer and musician in Scotland, and then my life in the US as a bookstore owner. Believe me, when you work retail, normal is just a setting on a dryer.

But that’s fairly superficial and applies to most folk as we get older, I’d imagine.

No – what I’m interested in is maybe more fundamental. It’s what we consider normal behavior or a normal lifestyle when we look at other people around us. It’s how we judge these things and place values on folk, placing them somewhere on a continuum that’s based around our definition of ‘normal’. In a small town bookstore, we find that some books just won’t sell, and we think it’s because the norms of the area don’t uphold those lifestyles or needs. People asking for some books wait until the shop is empty, or phone ahead anonymously.

The society we live in obviously has a bearing on this, and that’s society with both a small and large S. On my monthly visits to the local Federal prison I’m painfully aware that we incarcerate people for failing to conform to our norms. While some of that non-conformity is understandably so extreme that keeping those people from harming others is essential, a good deal of it is simply inconvenient or unfashionable.

Possession of items as opposed to the committing of violence to get them is one example–wouldn’t treatment be a better option? However, I don’t want to get political. It’s interesting to look back in history and observe how different activities have been classified as crimes and/or insanity. It’s not so long since unmarried mothers or kids we’d now classify as autistic were locked up and treated pretty much as if they were in prison.

It’s very easy to look at other people, or other places, and be critical of how they treat different sections of society, not to mention individual non-conformists. If we turned this same critical eye on ourselves, would we look any different? Does thinking about this make me any more tolerant of other ‘normalities’?

I am not sure it does, but since I live in a glass house and am concerned with the mote in my own eye, I really don’t have time to judge others. :]

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

Our Shopsitter Moved to SC

confusionToday we have guest blog from Wes and Rachael, our local shopsitter and his wife. They recently moved to South Carolina (WAAAAAHHHH!) Rachael is seated in the photo.

Regular readers may recognize us as the couple that got married in the bookstore.  We recently moved due to a job change.  It was a difficult decision to leave such a tight knit community of loving friends.  But change comes for us all and so it has come for us.

One of the most joyful things the little bookstore community brought us was our monthly Quaker meetings.  As mentioned before we chose a Quaker meeting for our wedding.  Most of our friends find it baffling that we enjoy sitting in dead silence for an hour, but we can’t think of a better way to find peace in the stressful life we lead.  So finding a Quaker meeting was top on our list for the move.  We earmarked this past weekend for a trip to the Columbia meeting 40 minutes down the road.

That morning we were raring to go, but on the drive we were wracked with doubts.  What do we really know about this meeting?  It’s in a church.  What if it’s “churchy”?  We did a quick google search for “Quakers” to get a feel for what we could expect, and found this troubling statistic: “90% of meetings are programmed worship”.  This means standing, singing … in others words “churchy”!  They probably meet in the sanctuary – pews, altar and all…we pretty well worked each other into an anxiety-ridden frenzy convinced this would be a disaster.  Were we prepared to sit through church, or worse yet walk out?

At the run-down church building, the engraved sign read “unprogrammed worship”.  A collective sigh of relief filled the car.  The first friends arrived a few moments later in their hybrid car.  The woman, wearing a comfy crocheted sweater put me in mind of Wendy who often attended still in her pajama pants and cozy slippers. NB from Wendy: I don’t remember pajama bottoms but it’s a fair cop on the slippers.

We were welcomed with open arms.

The woman told us how the building had been donated by the Methodist church, along with a hefty sum to renovate.  She was particularly proud of the energy efficient LED lighting.  A back room held a loom where salvaged fabric was being made into rugs.  You could see their lovely garden from the window.  The sanctuary had been modified too, the altar removed and the pews in concentric squares facing the center of the room.  Shortly after, a man arrived with a small vase of flowers and set it as the central focus point.

And just like that, we were home.  The Quakers began filing in – all walks of life, young, older, teenagers, some children, but all with the joy and friendliness we have come to appreciate and foster in ourselves.  It seems we haven’t left our tight knit community after all.  Rather we’ve opened the door to a world wide community that will follow us wherever we go.  We are eternally grateful to Jack and Wendy, the little bookstore, and the Big Stone Friends for that opportunity. confusion


Filed under Big Stone Gap, humor, Life reflections, shopsitting, small town USA, Uncategorized

The Monday Book: SAFFRON CROSS by J. Dana Trent

saffron corssDana and I made Twitter-friends (is that a noun?) a couple of weeks before the Movable Feast of Authors run by Bookmarks, a very active lit-lovers group in North Carolina. The Feast entailed twenty tables of eight people, with authors moving in ten-minute intervals between them–a wild ride covered with online publicity, so Dana and I were in a lot of tweets together. One day I clicked on her icon and found her book was about being an ordained Baptist minister married to a Hindu who used to be a monk.

Well, that sounded intriguing….

Dana and I got a chance to chat after the event, and we traded books. (Don’t tell our publishers, ‘kay? Thanks.) She and Fred had gone on bookstore dates, and I’m fascinated by interfaith connections, so it seemed pretty natural.

More natural than the eHarmony match Dana and Fred made. Her book is less about external pressures put on them by others than personal expectations and changes. That’s what I liked most about her writing. Dana left a lot of space for others to interpret or extrapolate, by holding her narrative to “This is what happened to us; this is what I learned; this is how I understand the contentious points.” Saffron Cross is an honest description of a wife reconciling her full-on belief in Jesus with her husband’s full-on devotion to Krishna.

Early in the marriage, they decided they couldn’t take an easy road and worship separately as each saw fit; they had to share seeking God as a foundation for their shared lives. That made for some very interesting theological points not easy to reduce in a review. If I say that Dana and Fred set up a Hindu-tradition altar in their homes and included Jesus and the Bible in its objects, you might get the idea that this was an easy compromise, rather than a parsed-apart and carefully considered decision about how the two faiths work. You might think about hair-splitting, mental gymnastics, and semantic end runs around scripture.

And that would be the wrong idea, because nothing comes easy in this pragmatic narrative. Back when Sue Monk Kidd wrote about her rejection of male-centered religion, my friends and I who read her memoir were frustrated. She avoided the central question: What about Jesus? If a guy says “I’m the son of God” and you relegate him to “I’m a son of God,” then you’re worshiping someone who belongs in a lunatic asylum. If Jesus isn’t God’s son, he’s a nut case. The “all religions lead to the real God” approach is facile if the only way to make that happen is reducing Jesus’ status.

Dana and Fred don’t take that route; she addresses both anecdotally and in theological observation that she believes Jesus is God’s son. Her meshing this with Fred’s approach, finding peace that they’re both on honest paths, proves less semantic than thought-provoking.

If you’re interested in Christianity because you are a Christian; if you’re anthropologically interested in faith communities; if you’re a Hindu frustrated with Western materialism; if you find marriage stories voyeuristically interesting; or if you like the idea of a woman Baptist hospice minister, you’ll find Saffron Cross a densely packed book that keeps you up late.

And I admit to giggling, thinking of how hard it was explaining Little Bookstore in ten minutes to eight strangers, and there’s Dana sitting down to her tables: “Hi, I’m a Southern Baptist married to this nice Hindu guy…” Oh, to be a fly on the wall.


Filed under book reviews, Downton Abbey, folklore and ethnography, Life reflections, publishing, reading, Uncategorized, what's on your bedside table, writing


postcards 1You lovely, sweet, kind people: thank you for the postcards!

Jack and four other Quakers here in SW VA visit the federal prison once a month, seeing a few prisoners each. They use postcards a week ahead to let the prisoners know they’re coming, as required by federal regulations. And the prisoners use the postcards as windows, since their cells don’t have any.

So when I asked about two weeks ago, if you have some lying around, could you send us a couple of postcards from your area so they wouldn’t get the same ones over and over from us, you sent more than 400 post cards!

Thank you; thank you; thank you. This is so sweet.

The cards came (with such thoughtful notes about the book, our bookstore, and Jack’s willingness to visit prisoners) from Mary in Columbus; Sandra in Charlottesville; Janet in Crystal Falls, Michigan; Terry in San Francisco; Lynn in Rossland, BC (Canada); Barbara in Pawtucket, RI; from Wilmington, DE; from Gina, who not only sent cards but stamps for them; from my friends Beth of Blacksburg and Liz of Glen Antrim, Ireland, who spend half their professional life running through airports; and from the people we worked with at Hylton Arts Center this past January, doing a Burns Supper; five or six other places before that, but we threw the envelopes away before realizing we needed to write thank you notes! (I’m sorry; we are stupid; feel free to leave a comment here if you sent us cards so we can thank you properly.)postcards 2

The Quaker visitors have more than 400 postcards now, from Alaska and Montreal and Lourdes and Florida and the Midwest, boasting dogs and wildflowers and birds and moose and such pretty, pretty mountains.

“The guys are going to love these,” Jack said as we piled them on the floor to take a picture. (Please note that clump of cards is about an inch deep.) I think there was a tear in his voice. It’s wonderful to be affirmed in one’s calling; it’s lovely to have great photos to send the prisoners.

THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU! from Jack, Elizabeth, Sue-Ella, anonymous, and Jim (the prison visitors) and Wendy (who LOVED seeing them get such support and affirmation).

PS: From the sublime to the ridiculous, if you feel inclined, scroll down a couple of blog posts to the 100,000 visits contest and leave your funniest bookstore pick-up line. Contest closes when our FB page hits 1,000 likes or the blog reaches 100,000 hits, whichever happens first. It looks like they will take place pretty close together, so Jack and I have a friendly bet on. We’re not telling you who is betting on which. ;]

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

Got Postcards?

Every once in awhile I ask blog readers for something. I try not to do it often, but it seems like a good reason this time; it’s for Jack.

So…. got postcards?

Jack and my friend Elizabeth (she’s in Little Bookstore) do prison visits, along with a few other Friends from the Quaker meeting at our bookstore. Each month they sit chatting with two or three federal prisoners who don’t have visitors for some reason. The prisoners have requested someone through the Prison Visiting Service, an ecumenical group.

Jack and E go out at 8 a.m. and return home about 1 p.m., drained. It’s hard to make these visits; I don’t go; I know my limits. Two weeks in and I’d be contacting lawyers and media, mounting campaigns to improve food, ensure funeral visits, all that stuff. I’m an empathic listener, internalizing everything.

Jack is not; he’s a smart, sympathetic listener with common sense. One man Jack visits was brought to America illegally as a seven-year-old, lived his life without papers and then, at the age of 32, was the passenger in a car stopped for running a red light. He’s doing six years. The other guy Jack visits has killed two people and stolen things. He’s doing life.

About ten days before their next visit, Elizabeth and Jack send prison-required postcards to their guys, telling them they’ll be there. The prisoners decorate their cells with these cards and trade duplicates with fellow inmates.

So…. if you have some cool postcards from your area, and it wouldn’t cost you much to slip half a dozen into an envelope, Jack and E and the other Quakers doing prison visits would get new views to send, and the guys would get cool cards to post on their wall. We’re running out of Wise County postcards.

We don’t know what it would cost those of you in Korea, Britain, and some other countries to mail six unused cards, so if it’s expensive, forget it and thanks anyway. American views from anyplace would be very appreciated, and if international posting can be done, yippee! Send them to 404 Clinton Ave E, Big Stone Gap, VA 24219. And thank you, on behalf of visitors and visitees alike.


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She was HOT! He kept his cool.

Wes is our first call if we need a pinch-hitter for a day here or there in the bookshop. Those of you who read the blog regularly may remember that Wes married Rachael in a Quaker meeting at the bookstore last year.  IMG_3418He’s been invaluable while Jack’s in Scotland, because I’ve gotten tied up with some things at the college.

Today when I relieved him, a stack of J.A. Jance mysteries were sitting out of place on a counter top. Wes grinned when he saw me looking at them.

“Funny story about these,” he said, and launched.

A woman had come into the store with her daughter, who was the epitome of metrosexual beauty: lots of arm tattoos, her nose was pierced, and she wore a floral print mini-sundress.

“She was HOT!” Wes assured me, waving his hands in curves that, presumably, described the contours of her paisley pattern tattoo sleeves.

Hot Girl browsed classics while her mom surfed the mystery room. Mom emerged with the five Jance paperbacks, marked $3 each in good condition.

“That’s $15,” said Wes, smiling at the producer of Totally Hot Girl.

“What?” she shrieked. Wes, accustomed to people being impressed by our pricing, beamed, but Hot’s Mama continued, “I can get these cheaper someplace else!”

A few other customers in the store (who had also been admiring THG) began to studiously ignore what was going on. Hot Girl threw her mother an evil look.

Wes, however, has been hanging with Jack and me awhile now. With perfect dignity, he scooped the books from Hot’s Mama’s arms. “Then of course you should,” he said, bowing from the waist. “I’ll put these back for you.”

Out went Mom, back erect. Hot Girl waited until she left, then, according to Wes, “began grabbing classics randomly from the bargain bin. She bought $25 worth, and kept apologizing for her mom.”

Wes assured her it was not a problem. He invited her to come back anytime. “ANYTIME,” he emphasized, bagging her books. He probably carried them to the car for her.

It’s unusual that someone fusses about our prices–more unusual than a tattoo-wearing, flesh-piercing, breast-and-leg bearing Totally Hot Girl waking into our bookshop. Big Stone Gap isn’t as sleepy as people think.

And Wes? He’s looking forward to minding the store again tomorrow. I’ve told him my project at the college might take all week. He assures me this is not a problem.

Such a nice boy.

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Filed under Big Stone Gap, bookstore management, humor, shopsitting, small town USA, Uncategorized