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A Shopsitter’s Christmas



As I’m spending Christmas in a bookstore this year, I thought I might share a few of my favorite Christmas tales with all of you. What’s more festive that curling up in front of a roaring Fireplace for your Home, popping open a box of wine, and diving in to a jolly holiday classic? Nothing as far as I know. While there are dozens, I’ve selected a few that have special meaning for me. Here goes.

The Cat Who Came for Christmas, by Cleveland Amory. My grandmother introduced me to this wonderful memoir many years ago. A self-described curmudgeon finds an abandoned cat on Christmas eve. Heartwarming human/feline bonding ensues. Especially poignant for me this year, because I’ve found my very own Christmas kitty. See photo.

A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens. The quintessential Christmas classic. A story of faith, forgiveness, and redemption. All the biggies. Ebenezer Scrooge mends his evil ways with the help of three Christmas spirits. Little ghoul that I am, I probably liked this story most because of the ghosties.

Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, by Agatha Christie. For those that might enjoy a little murder with their mistletoe. The eccentric Belgium detective finds himself spending Christmas at a country estate, where one of the guest proves to be a cold blooded killer. It’s festive. Honest. 

The Christmas Day Kitten, by James Herriot. Another kitty arriving just in time for the holidays. I have a vague, but persistent notion that this one made me cry. You’ve been warned.

The Latke Who Couldn’t Stop Screaming: A Christmas Story, by Lemony Snicket. While my own Jewish heritage provided me little more than the ability to kvetch in Yiddish, I do love a good latke. This story is about a potato latke that, well, can’t stop screaming, but it’s also about being true to yourself and your beliefs. A good message for whatever holiday you celebrate.

Not a comprehensive list, but a fun exercise nonetheless. I must now go finish putting coal in the kitten’s stockings. They’ve been naughty, as all proper kittens are wont to be.









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Too Many Books


“Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”

-Robert Browning


I’m depressed.

OK, maybe depressed is the wrong word. I’m here in Big Stone Gap, knee deep in kittens, good food, and friendly people. I’m happy, I’m content. What’s better than living in a bookstore? It’s kind of a dream come true, right? So why am I…wistful?

I believe it’s the unavoidable realization that I will never be able to read as many books as I would like. This may not seem like a big deal. I mean, there are plenty of things I’ll never get to do in my lifetime, that’s what the Travel Channel is for. In the normal course of things, I can accept that my life will contain the pleasure of reading only a small, finite number of books. There are times, however, when I feel the weight of all those unread words. This feeling is strong when I visit libraries, and naturally, bookstores.

When I first arrived at Tales of the Lonesome Pine, the shelves bursting with books whispered possibility as only bookshelves can. The knowledge that I had all month to peruse left me giddy. Who knew? Maybe I’d take a gander at the romance section; I’m not proud. Or the Westerns. I’ve never read a Western! The craft section! The gardening section!!! THE MYSTERY ROOM!!!! It was all at my disposal. I imagined tiptoeing through the shelves at midnight, as The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy played softly in the background.

Two weeks in, I’m feeling a little less giddy. Maybe it’s because I’ve only finished two books since I arrived. Maybe it’s because I can’t decide what to read next. Maybe it’s because, with only two weeks left in December, the dream of endless reading possibility has been effectively cut in half.

I can take books home. As many as I want. But that doesn’t alter the fact that I will never read all the books on my ever-shifting list. Maybe this is OK. The ultimate Zen lesson. A reading life can never be fully satisfied. But why would you want it to be? Imagine the tragedy of actually, literally, having nothing to read. When I die, I will not have read the vast majority of the books my fellow humans have produced. Dreary thought? Perhaps, but I will certainly have enjoyed the time I spent trying.




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I Ain’t Afraid of No Ghosts!



That’s a lie. I totally am.

I’m not saying I actually believe in ghosts, but I’ve been blessed, or cursed, depending on your perspective, with a vivid imagination. I also made the mistake of watching The Changeling with George C. Scott, when I was in the fourth grade. If you haven’t seen this movie, I recommend it…IF YOU WANT TO BE SCARED OF THE DARK FOR THE REST OF YOUR LIFE! 

But I digress.

Not only is my imagination more active than most, I am also inexplicably drawn to the macabre. I enjoyed graveyard tours when I was in grade school. Still do, in fact. I’m one of those wide-eyed nuts that asks, always with the benefit of broad daylight, “Is it haunted?!”  I’m eager to hear all the stories. I want ALL THE DETAILS.  And then I need to sleep with the lights on.

When I arrived at Tales of the Lonesome Pine, I was delighted. It was exactly what I had expected. A wonderful old house, certainly with an interesting history, stuffed full of kittens and books. My two favorite things!

I met wonderful people. I played with the cats. I learned to crochet.

And then I did it. I asked the question that was sure to leave me sleepless for the rest of my stay.

“Is it haunted?!?!”

“Only a little”, I was told.

“Just the kitchen”, Kelley said.

“It’s a friendly ghost”, Erin assured me.

“Nothing to worry about”, they both agreed.

And I wasn’t worried. It was three o’clock in the afternoon, after all.

Now it’s night. Everyone has gone home, and I am getting ready for bed. I’m not scared. I don’t believe in ghosts. I walk quietly about my room. NOT nervously, I can tell you. NOT listening for every little house settling sound. No way. Not me. But then I hear it. A sound that does not sound like an ordinary house sound. A small cry. A small mournful cry. A small mournful GHOST cry! It’s the Kitchen Ghost! It’s coming for me! It’s…it’s…it’s a loose floorboard. I step back and forth a few times listening to the small squeal that now sounds perfectly innocent. I get into bed. As I drift off, my last thoughts are how happy I am to be here. How much I love the bookstore, and the town…and didn’t I close that closet door?



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A Quiet and Human Place

Kelly Saderholm’s guest blog about her and her daughter’s recent stint as shopsitters in the Little Bookstore –

“Oh, wow, I just LOVE it here!” The customer said as she handed me money for her purchases. “I could LIVE in a bookstore!”

“I am living here,” I said, happily, as I gave her a receipt and explained how I was shop-sitting while Wendy and Jack were away in Scotland.

“That’s really COOL,” she said. And she was right.

My daughter Rachel and I agreed to shop-sit and look after the two dogs and ever-changing number of foster cats; in exchange, we could pick out whatever books we wanted, and have the experience of tending a bookstore. For so many of us hard-core reader types, this is a secret fantasy. In the age of disappearing brick and mortar stores (of any kind but especially bookstores) I had often wondered how that fantasy would stack up against the real thing. In this case, the reality fared pretty well!

I was fortunate not to have bad days, crank customers, or disasters. The worse thing that happened was that Bert, one of the dogs, got upset by the Fourth of July firecrackers and chewed up a basement step.

The best thing? There were so many “best things” it is hard to choose. Of course the books, surrounded by books, ahhhhh. I loved chatting with customers. With a high school class reunion and the holiday weekend, people from all over were visiting family and friends. Most had either read Wendy’s book or heard about the bookstore from friends and family. It was interesting talking to people from different regions, discovering their connection to the area.

Even more interesting were the people living here. Rachel and I fell in love with the place. I realized that our temporary home was not just a used bookstore, but Big Stone Gap’s Bookstore, catering to the needs and wants of the community. In the introduction to one of my favorite books, Laural’s Kitchen, one of the authors, Carol Flinders, talks about “a sense of place.” Jack and Wendy’s shop is very much a nurturing “Place” with capital letters, where people feel a connection to each other, to the town, the region, the culture.

Speaking of cooking and food and place- Kelley’s Second Story Cafe (on the bookstore’s second floor) is another very special place, with delicious food. She kept us well-fed during our stay!

Kelley’s food nurtured our bodies, the books nurtured our minds, but a third, intangible element of the bookstore nurtured our souls. A strong sense of Quiet pervades the bookstore. That feeling was re-enforced as Rachel and I took our leave last Sunday just as the Friends Meeting started upstairs. But the whole week there was a gentle, quiet feeling throughout the place. Several customers remarked on it. All week people came in just to browse and enjoy the quiet. One guy stayed for two hours.

If one is looking for a business to make fast, easy money, a used bookstore is not it. But, if one is a bibliophile interested in a satisfying, rewarding business–not in a profit sense but in a people sense– one could do worse than to run a used bookstore.

The first Foxfire book has a chapter titled, “A Quilt is Something Human.” It makes me happy that with so many chain retail stores selling mass-produced consumer goods, Jack and Wendy’s bookstore is indeed Some Place Human.


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Robo-Owen’s Guide to Reverse Culture Shock

We are pleased to present here the first of Andrew-the-shopsitter’s guest blogs post-shopsitting. He promises to send them now and again, and we look forward to them. For those unfamiliar with the term, Robo-Owen is a wee anamatronic kitten presented to Ali and Andrew on their departure.

It’s now been a few weeks since I left Big Stone Gap. And while I didn’t feel as if I had experienced any culture shock following my arrival in September, I must admit some reverse effects upon setting foot in New York again. My ability to maneuver in crowds is only now returning, after a number of shoulder bashes on busy avenues. I am very wary of cops, and have somehow convinced myself that there are a number of New York street laws I’ve somehow forgotten and am unconsciously violating. My ability to pick good pizza slices has atrophied.

There have also been positive side effects. I find myself itching to replicate some of the regular activities from the bookstore (although I don’t see many of my friends having the requisite skills for Needlework Night). I seek out company in ways I didn’t before… in small town ways. Instead of waiting to catch up at a party I’ve dropped in on friends to chat and drink tea. I cooked some recipes I learned at my family’s Thanksgiving. And I find myself back in the habit of reading.

There is a suspicious lack of animals in my apartment. Sure, there are the mice, roaches, and centipedes, but they’re not good company like cats and dogs. Speaking of, I introduced my brother’s cat Baxter to Robo-Owen. They seem to get along, but judge for yourself.


Robo-Owen is a poor doppelgänger for the possibly-evil, possibly-dumb real thing. For one, he never interferes with my cooking. But now my food-defense instincts are so strong and ingrained I’d be ready if he somehow reprogrammed himself for human food. He also doesn’t have claws, so my skin is no longer a tapestry of angry red lines. This makes him a disappointing sparring partner. Sometimes I’ll try and goad him, but unlike the real thing Robo-Owen is unflappable. Robo-Owen never falls asleep on my stomach or leaps into my arms. All in all he’s good company, and even has a mechanical purr, but he’s no replacement for the real deal Owen Meany.

Just like Robo-Owen is no real cat, I’m no longer a real shopsitter. But old habits die hard, so I may just start loitering around my local used bookstore until they kick me out for aggressive re-alphabetizing. Whatever my future away from Big Stone Gap may hold, I know that book and bookstore culture will remain a part of my life. So I look forward to sharing more of my own experiences with the book life in the near future.

Happy Holidays to all of you and to all of my friends in Big Stone Gap!

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Construction Ballet

Construction workers have been busy installing a new sewage pipe in the streets around Tales of the Lonesome Pine. But the more they close off sections of street, first on one side of the house and then the other, the more it feels like they’re building a giant moat around the bookstore.

On Wednesday Jack moved the pickup to a parking lot across the street while men and women in hardhats tore a deep channel out of the road. They worked at a breakneck pace and had laid the pipe and covered it with a new layer of gravel by late afternoon.

The chaos and noise seemed to be over, so I moved Jack’s pickup back in front of the store. Big mistake.

The next morning saw the construction shifted down the block, with Jack’s truck now a key part of the roadblock cutting the street off to traffic. Cones lined up diagonally out from the back bumper. A new border was drawn.

“So what’s the problem?” you might ask.

With the pickup forming a new boundary for construction, it became the line inside which immense yellow machines roared and tore at the street. I sat and watched at the window as they spun out gravel with a backhoe, all within inches of the truck door. It became a kind of performance piece, with each terrible machine whizzing as close to the pickup as possible while other construction workers admired the precise daredevilry of the driver.

For several hours they played chicken with the parked truck. I got up every few seconds to look through the window, fully expecting to see a massive metal claw lodged in the truck’s roof. I began chewing every pencil in sight.

Finally I couldn’t take it anymore and went out with the keys. “Can I get that out of your way?” I said. One guy glanced over and insisted it wasn’t a problem, then turned back just in time to marvel at a bulldozer that had swung its blade up within two inches of the door while simultaneously spinning into a 180 turn. They were like guys watching skateboard stunts, except with a skateboard that weighed 8000 pounds and could crush a refrigerator. And with the pickup boxed in by a dump truck there was nothing I could do.

About an hour later a construction worker came in to the store. He took off his helmet, as if about to offer condolences. I tensed and latched on to the table with clawed hands.

“Can you flassdiscommoe?” he said.

It didn’t sound anything like “move your truck” or “we destroyed your truck” or “your truck is about to explode,” so I didn’t process it at all. My brain could only understand the word “truck,” and he had failed entirely to oblige this temporary insanity.

“You want me to move the truck?” I asked.

“No, no. Can you flush the commode?” he said. I breathed again. It had nothing to do with the truck. With that settled I moved on to the task of unlocking why he wanted me to flush the toilet. After some confused back and forth the truth came out: they needed to test the new pipe.

They were done for the day. And as the toilet water spun down the drain with my test flush I knew that Jack’s truck would be safe. The truck and I had survived the construction ballet.


Filed under Big Stone Gap, shopsitting, small town USA, VA

All The Stars

I knew there was a problem when I first brought the physicist out to the bookstore’s backyard. Lucian Undreiu, Associate Professor of Physics at UVA-Wise came to lead a bookstore stargazing night. But as he lugged his telescope tripod around the yard and looked more and more disappointed I could see that all my plans were falling apart.

I don’t know about the rest of you humans, but I am exquisitely sensitive to contaminants and pollution. The slightest whiff of scent and I’m crawling around my apartment, searching for gas leaks. Litter in parks makes me bonkers. Is that a plastic bag or a jellyfish drifting there? Either way, my day at the beach just got a little worse.

But despite all these sensitivities I rarely notice light pollution.

In New York the sky is a red haze all night long. If I see a star, any star, I usually point it out. A single star is a noteworthy event. So when I went into the backyard of the bookstore, looked up at the stars and then looked down to the two streetlights and the lighthouse beacon at the car dealership across the street I shrugged, this’ll do. But as Professor Undreiu’s frown deepened I knew that this would not do, it would not do one bit.

As people started arriving for the event Ali and I stalled. Wendy had driven Lucian out into the night, out to find a place suitable for his telescope. We passed out cups of hot cider and printed off stargazing sheets (sounds simple… but was its own saga, involving incorrect charts, poor contrasts, kitty interference, and a cartridge change). I started sweating on my upper lip, like Richard Nixon. This was turning into a disaster!

But then Lucian returned and began his talk. He started with basics, but soon expanded into cosmic ideas, covering vast distances and spans of time. Instead of asserting knowledge he walked the audience through the steps scientists took, sharing the process of discovery. By the end of his talk everyone was ready to see some stars… and had a decent idea of what they are, how they act and how humans know what we know about them.

After getting everyone situated in a vehicle, the convoy went a half-mile down the road to a dark field. Lucian’s telescope begins with manual searches for specific stars. After a few points of input have been fed to it, the telescope can then process where it’s pointing in the night-sky and find new objects on its own. A very cool gadget. Lucian also had a powerful green laser that shot a beam into the night sky, so he could point specific constellations, planets and star clusters. We took turns peering through the lens at Jupiter, the Andromeda galaxy, the Pleiades star cluster, and a binary star system with each a different color. People chatted, asked questions and kept an eye on the sky for shooting stars.

While everything felt like it was falling apart before it had even started, the night ended with a cup of hot cider and complete satisfaction. Thanks to Professor Lucian Undreiu I think everyone had a great night and learned a bit about our universe… I know I did.

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