Tag Archives: Quakers

A Window on the World

Jack makes a plea in his weekly guest post –

I’m prompted to write on this particular subject because of a book I’ve just read, a memoir by a prison librarian. But this isn’t the Monday Book post, so that will have to wait for now.

I’m a member of Prison Visitation and Support (PVS), set up to provide a visitation service for all Federal prisoners, including those in both civilian and military prisons.

I joined up four years ago as part of a three person team based around the Quaker group that meets monthly in the bookstore and we all visit prisoners at the local Federal prison. Each of us visits two prisoners on each visit and they are mostly men who are either in for a very long time or forever. They have asked for visits because, for a variety of reasons, they have no-one else.

You’ll not be surprised to learn that there are nowhere near enough of us around the country to visit all the prisoners asking.

I know what you’re thinking – why on earth would you? Why would anyone want to spend sometimes considerable time and expense traveling to an isolated spot maybe hours from home to spend an hour with someone who has committed a terrible crime (often murder, drug dealing or armed robbery?) The answer is frequently hard to take but true, nevertheless. They are human beings and we are the only people with whom they can have contact who are not part of their prison network; the only people who can provide a momentary glimpse of the outside world through a neutral window.

PVS is supported by all the major religious groups as well as many non-religious ones; the board includes representatives of these, plus ex prisoners and ex Wardens. It has an excellent relationship with The Department of Justice and this means we have a great working relationship with our local prison.

That said, we don’t specifically talk about religion and that’s not the organization’s purpose. Actually we are more listeners than talkers.

All this may sound wonderful and uplifting, but there are caveats. If you have any tendency to claustrophobia this isn’t for you. Once the various doors have locked behind you, you are as much a prisoner as the folk you are visiting. It’s also very draining–as Wendy will tell you, because when I come home from visiting she hands me a Scotch and leaves me for a few hours to re-surface. It isn’t physically difficult because you sit across the table from your visitee with absolutely no distractions (no TV or magazines or books or anything) and have an hour to talk. Then all over again with the second one. Yet that can be very hard work! In addition there may be unexpected counts or your prisoners be delayed by internal activities. While you wait for maybe an hour or more you also have nothing to distract you – just an empty table and walls.

If this seems rather intimidating or uninviting, there’s an upside.

Once you have started visiting a particular prisoner, that continues until one of a number of things happen: they are released, they are transferred to another prison, or they ask for no more visits. As a result you might be visiting monthly with the same two guys (and ours is an all male prison) for years. That has been the case for me. My experience has often (though not always) meant meaningful conversations with really interesting characters. One of them had escaped many times from State prisons before ending in the Federal system. He could write a best-seller about digging tunnels.

There are some prisons in remote parts of the country that have no PVS visitors at all and all the others have waiting lists of prisoners who want visits. We have our own waiting list and urgently need some more to join our little group. If you are interested you can contact me through this blog or check out the PVS website – http://prisonervisitation.org/

“I was in prison and you visited me” Now, who was it said that……


Filed under Uncategorized

The Monday Book (aka, the Guilty Pleasures of a Bookseller)

nannieOk, so I have to let you in on a secret. I love the Dear America girl diary books published by Scholastic. Each one is from an American history period or place of significance – the Revolutionary War, Colonial Jamestown, Quaker New England, the Civil War in Virginia, a westbound wagon train of Italian immigrants. They all have a particular culture and time period to evoke. I think the most recent was the 1960s, and in American  diaries, the farthest back is Jamestown.

They’re fun. They take about an hour to read. They are full of historic information with facts stuffed around the edges. They’re practically formulaic. I just love them.

My four favorites are marked from the list below (which was copied from Wikipedia, and to my delight I find I haven’t read two of these, so I have a few more discoveries to make). Most of the girls in the diaries are representative rather than actual people. One or two of them use actual names from historical documents, but beyond that are fiction. I don’t think any of them represent actual events of real people with historic documentation, more the epoch of the time.

For those who grew up on Nancy Drew, and remember the perfect grammar and manners and decision making of girls from her deportment, you’ll enjoy these books. These are real girls, with good and bad angles to their personalities and happy and sad adventures in their lives. I cried to hard during My Heart is in the Ground, I had to hide from bookshop customers.

Treat yourself to an adventure, and check a few out. Male or female, young or old, they are great reads. And good entries into difficult points of history, reduced to statistics rather than stories. Enjoy!

A Journey to the New World: The Diary of Remember Patience Whipple, Mayflower, 1620

The Winter of Red Snow: The Revolutionary War Diary of Abigail Jane Stewart, Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, 1777

When Will This Cruel War Be Over?: The Civil War Diary of Emma Simpson, Gordonsville, Virginia, 1864

A Picture of Freedom: The Diary of Clotee, a Slave Girl, Belmont Plantation, Virginia, 1859

Across the Wide and Lonesome Prairie: The Oregon Trail Diary of Hattie Campbell, 1847

So Far from Home: The Diary of Mary Driscoll, an Irish Mill Girl, Lowell, Massachusetts, 1847

I Thought My Soul Would Rise and Fly: The Diary of Patsy, a Freed Girl, Mars Bluff, South Carolina, 1865

***West to a Land of Plenty: The Diary of Teresa Angelino Viscardi, New York to Idaho Territory, 1883

Dreams in the Golden Country: The Diary of Zipporah Feldman, a Jewish Immigrant Girl, New York City, 1903

***Standing in the Light: The Captive Diary of Catharine Carey Logan, Delaware Valley, Pennsylvania, 1763

Voyage on the Great Titanic: The Diary of Margaret Ann Brady, RMS Titanic, 1912

A Line in the Sand: The Alamo Diary of Lucinda Lawrence, Gonzales, Texas, 1836

***My Heart Is on the Ground: The Diary of Nannie Little Rose, a Sioux Girl, Carlisle Indian School, Pennsylvania, 1880

The Great Railroad Race: The Diary of Libby West, Utah Territory, 1868

A Light in the Storm: The Civil War Diary of Amelia Martin, Fenwick Island, Delaware, 1861

The Girl Who Chased Away Sorrow: The Diary of Sarah Nita, a Navajo Girl, New Mexico, 1864

A Coal Miner’s Bride: The Diary of Anetka Kaminska, Lattimer, Pennsylvania, 1896

Color Me Dark: The Diary of Nellie Lee Love, the Great Migration North, Chicago, Illinois, 1919

One Eye Laughing, the Other Weeping: The Diary of Julie Weiss, Vienna, Austria to New York, 1938

My Secret War: The World War II Diary of Madeline Beck, Long Island, New York, 1941

Valley of the Moon: The Diary Of Maria Rosalia de Milagros, Sonoma Valley, Alta California, 1846

Seeds of Hope: The Gold Rush Diary of Susanna Fairchild, California Territory, 1849

Christmas After All: The Great Depression Diary of Minnie Swift, Indianapolis, Indiana, 1932

Early Sunday Morning: The Pearl Harbor Diary of Amber Billows, Hawaii, 1941

My Face to the Wind: The Diary of Sarah Jane Price, a Prairie Teacher, Broken Bow, Nebraska, 1881

***Where Have All the Flowers Gone? The Diary of Molly MacKenzie Flaherty, Boston, Massachusetts, 1968

A Time for Courage: The Suffragette Diary of Kathleen Bowen, Washington, D.C., 1917

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: The Diary of Bess Brennan, Perkins School for the Blind, 1932

Survival in the Storm: The Dust Bowl Diary of Grace Edwards, Dalhart, Texas, 1935

When Christmas Comes Again: The World War I Diary of Simone Spencer, New York City to the Western Front, 1917

Land of the Buffalo Bones: The Diary of Mary Ann Elizabeth Rodgers, an English Girl in Minnesota, New Yeovil, Minnesota, 1873

Love Thy Neighbor: The Tory Diary of Prudence Emerson, Green Marsh, Massachusetts, 1774

All the Stars in the Sky: The Santa Fe Trail Diary of Florrie Mack Ryder, The Santa Fe Trail, 1848

Look to the Hills: The Diary of Lozette Moreau, a French Slave Girl, New York Colony, 1763

I Walk in Dread: The Diary of Deliverance Trembley, Witness to the Salem Witch Trials, Massachusetts Bay Colony, 1691

Hear My Sorrow: The Diary of Angela Denoto, a Shirtwaist Worker, New York City, 1909



Filed under Big Stone Gap, book reviews, Hunger Games, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, out of things to read, post-apocalypse fiction, publishing, reading, small town USA, Uncategorized, VA, Wendy Welch, what's on your bedside table, writing, YA fiction

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