Tag Archives: small towns

Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité

Jack’s guest post today –

Regular readers may recall that I tend to favor non-fiction and particularly histories of one kind or another. So our recent visit to colonial Williamsburg suited me down to the ground. As a ‘New American’ myself it was fascinating to be immersed in the life of those other newcomers of the mid 1700s.





The first thing to catch my attention were all the union flags dotted around, but it took me a little while to work out why they seemed a bit strange. There was no red saltire! Just the white one signifying Scotland. Then it dawned on me – the red saltire is for Ireland and it was a colony as well then, so wasn’t part of Great Britain/The United Kingdom.

Williamsburg is a small compact town containing some eighty original houses and many other reconstructed ones, all laid out between the Governor’s Palace at one end and the Capitol at the other. in between is a mixture of domestic homes, taverns and shops where re-enactors play out the everyday life of the 1760s through the 1780s. I was continually reminded that there was no ‘United States’ at the start – just a collection of individual colonies that started as English and then became British (the last Governor was a Scot).

Something I was very aware of as we explored the town over a couple of days was how different this part of Virginia would have been compared to where we live here in Big Stone Gap. Williamsburg would have been the epitome of sophisticated living with fine furnishings and modern amenities for the day, whereas SW Virginia would have been the outer reaches of the frontier (hhmmm – let me just think about that again – – -)


At various times each day there were specific little scenes played out by specially knowledgeable actors taking the part of prominent citizens of the time. The members of the audience at these events were invited to ask questions and play a part as the tableaux unfolded. My favorite one involved a young man playing the part of the Marquis de Lafayette. He was himself half French and half American and his knowledge of the history of the time was very impressive. As soon as he heard my accent he showed his understanding of the complicated relationship betwixt Scotland, England and France as a backdrop to the American War of Independence. Remembering that we had to stay in the correct time-frame, I asked him if he thought the American Revolution would have a ‘knock-on effect’ in France and his reply was very interesting. He said he favored a constitutional monarchy! But he feared that, unless Louis paid attention to what was happening, there could be a real and bloody revolution – – –


Other events were equally enlightening, but my highlight was still the Marquis.

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Plus ca change, plus ca meme chose – –

janelle basketIn which Jack looks back with a nostalgic smile, and forward with a sardonic grin

It’s amazing how the bookstore has changed and evolved over the last few years–particularly since Little Bookstore was published and SECOND STORY CAFE opened.

While many of our long-term customers continue to support us, others have moved away for job opportunities. New arrivals have discovered the bookstore. Passers-through have made sometimes lengthy journeys just to see the place and swathes of non-readers from the community have become regulars in the cafe.
In other words, the bookstore is flourishing, and trying to give back as well.

Meanwhile Big Stone Gap continues to be exasperating and charming in equal quantities – the eternal push-pull between reactionaries and progressives of small towns everywhere. But one very good thing that has happened is the work the Town Council has done to seriously tidy up the downtown streets and the greenbelt walking trail. Wendy and I walked the trail recently for the first time in a few months–don’t judge; we’ve been busy–and were amazed and impressed by it. The river that runs alongside has been stocked with trout and families of ducks paddle up and down serenely. Some of the surfaces are redone, the lighting improved, and rails put up alongside roads.

It’s nice to have something so lovely to point out to visitors. Wendy delights in taking them for walks up the Greenbelt to the campground, where colorful local character Johnny Cubine has carved faces into six of the trees. In the last week shop visitors have included a forty strong group from Berea College, as well as some couples and a few of what Wendy calls ‘girlfriend posses.’
Now, if we could just find a way to pull together as a town and support some more specialist shops through their difficult first year….



Filed under Big Stone Gap, bookstore management, home improvements, Life reflections, small town USA, Uncategorized, VA

Rambling Boy



In Jack’s weekly guest blog he ruminates on the season –

Now that the weather has turned into something akin to Spring, Wendy and I have got back into going for a ramble round the neighborhood of an evening lately. It’s lovely to see everything looking green and coming back to life.

Part of our meanderings have taken us along the greenbelt path alongside the river and we were surprised and delighted to see how it had been upgraded with new fencing, lighting and signage. As we were overtaken by joggers, families on bicycles and passed by fishing folks, I couldn’t help thinking how much this would appeal to visitors to the town.

Those visitors, more and more, are coming here because of reading Wendy’s book – book-clubs, reading groups and individuals. As we get into traveling weather, I’m sure this will only increase. The latest messages we got were from readers in Portugal who have suggested a specially chartered plane!

But, of course, as we wandered along we noticed another colorful display – yard signs for candidates in the forthcoming Town Council election (I’m one of them).

Never having been a candidate in any election in my life and coming originally from a place that doesn’t ‘do’ yard signs I wasn’t too sure where you were allowed to put them, so tried to play safe. Front yards of folk I asked first and places that looked as if they were simply ‘common ground’. Imagine our surprise when we noticed that three signs I’d put out had disappeared! Not just blown away in the wind (my first assumption) because in two cases the wire frames were still there – somebody had gone to the trouble of removing the board from the frame.

I can only surmise that this election is more competitive than I first imagined!

Regardless who gets elected – if enough people get out and vote then we’ll get a Council that truly reflects the wishes of the local folk and if the Town continues with its downtown revitalization work we’ll have something our visitors can really savor.



Filed under Big Stone Gap, Life reflections, small town USA, VA

As One Door Closes – – –

Jack’s weekly (kind of) guest post –

I have to admit that the sudden closure of the iconic ‘Mutual Pharmacy and Diner’ which features in The Little Bookstore, and in Adriana Trigiana’s Big Stone Gap series of novels, was a severe shock to everyone in our community. Wendy and I believe in places like that and so it hit us particularly hard. The fact that it was bought out by a well known national pharmacy chain (which probably needs to remain nameless, but is the only one in BSG) only makes it more poignant. Of course we are glad that said chain is re-employing some of the staff, but there’s a suspicion that it was all about removing competition.

But nothing lasts for ever, and that brings me to another point. Small towns have a USP (OK – I have an MBA so I’m allowed to mention a Unique Selling Point) and that is easily experienced, but very hard to define. It’s a mixture of architecture, culture, personality/character, position, dynamic and history (at least). Big Stone Gap has all of that in abundance, so I am optimistic about its future despite the closure of ‘The Mutual’.

Something else that the ‘Gap’ has is a growing number of people who realize that waiting for one of the existing established organizations to do ‘it’ for them is not necessarily a recipe for success. When Wendy and I travel around the country to other small towns we continually see that the thriving ones are that way because enough people just got together and did something. Sometimes that is centered on a business, but just as often it will be a farmers’ market, or a community yard sale.

Today I was doing my normal quick trawl through FaceBook and saw a post announcing that Bob’s Market and Family Drug was having a re-opening event. This is another long established local business. Bob has retired and everyone thought that was another one gone. But, no! New owners have taken over and are rarin’ to go – that’s great!

So, what’s the message?

All communities change and develop – sometimes much loved landmarks go; but sometimes enthusiasts like the new owners of Bob’s Market and Family Drug arrive on the scene. Their timing, in this case, was spot on! So to David Adkins, Kara Goins Adkins and Rick Mullins, I can only give the traditional Scottish well-wish: Lang may yir lum reek!


For more on the background to this post check out our friend Amy Clark’s op-ed piece in a recent edition of the NY Times – http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/03/opinion/appalachian-hope-and-heartbreak.html?


Filed under Big Stone Gap, Life reflections, small town USA, VA

Privacy? Oh, Puh-leez!

Because I am extremely busy this last week of Jack being gone (found a backhoe!) and because the Edward Snowden stuff has made everybody jumpy on the subject, I am re-running here a blog I did back before my book came out, on the expectation of privacy in small towns. At that time, people were concerned about Facebook, but it’s been updated to encompass the phone hacking concerns. Enjoy.

I don’t know why people are so het up about privacy issues concerning the government and our phone calls. First of all, the government has shown itself so thoroughly efficient in other matters, we should all be quaking in our boots that they’ve set up a phone monitoring plan? HA!

But honestly, living as Jack and I do in a town of five thousand, we know there is no such thing as privacy. Never has been, not for us rural dwellers, anyway.

In a small town, when you pass the grocery store (THE grocery store) you can tell by the license plates or car makes who is shopping there. Same with the liquor store. Or any other {ahem} establishment a body might frequent. Go to the doctor at 11 am, and by 5 pm someone from your church calls to find out what’s wrong with you.

That’s why pastors have parishoners buy their hard stuff. That’s why teachers drive to the state line to buy lingerie. That’s why Jack and I gave up on selling addiction recovery books in our shop.

In a small town, what your child did to get in trouble at school makes it home before s/he does. The poor kid gets it twice, because during lunch the school nurse, who happens to be your sister’s worst enemy, calls HER sister to gloat about whatever it was, and five minutes later her sister has told her friend who has told another friend who happens to be your pastor’s wife…..

The other day, I checked a book of folktales out of the library; it was titled “The Rat Catcher’s Daughter.” When our termite control man showed up to do his monthly routine a couple of days later, he said, “You know, we take care of rodents, too.”

“We don’t have a problem with them. Never seen one. Must be the staff cats,” my husband replied.

The man winked. “Sure, right, but if Wendy’s thinking she can catch them herself, it’s not much more money to have mice and rats in your contract, and they’re hard work. Don’t worry; we’ll be discreet.”

Jack gave him a blank look. Turns out our termite guy’s wife volunteers at the library, saw me check out the book with the misleading title, and noted it to her husband, knowing we were his customers. Jack showed Tom the folktale collection. They had a good laugh. All in a day’s small town living.

And y’all are worried about privacy loss due to our so-very-efficient government trying to glean info from phone calls? Puhleaze….


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

Dear Lady in the Gray Sweater (or Why Voting in a Small Town is Fun)

I am sorry. Please let me explain my behavior.

My husband Jack and I had three tasks this morning: vote; drop off Owen Meany, bookshop staff kitten, for removal of procreation equipment; and be at our 8:30 chiropractic appointments.

We arrived at the polls at 7:40, when the lines were only 3 deep. Jack searched my shoulder bag. “The voting cards aren’t here.”

Oops. It had been my job to grab them from the table. Jack drove back and returned with the cards, thoughtfully refraining from rolling his eyes at me as we got in our respective lines.

As you will remember, ma’am, the lines at the gym were odd: A-F, then G-M, then N-Z? Why was half the population–in a town full of Taylors and Smiths–in one line? My husband Mr. Beck sailed through as I languished in N-Z, now some 8 deep.

That’s when I saw the sign: YOU MUST HAVE ID TO VOTE.

My driver’s license was at home. All I had was the voting card. Sighing, I left the line.

Jack voted–his first US election ever–and approached, proudly bearing his sticker. “What?” he asked, seeing my face.

“I didn’t have the right ID. We’ll have to come back after chiro.”

He rolled his eyes this time. I know, Miss Gray Sweater, that neither you nor I fault him. He’d been through a lot.

We dropped Owen, who had switched from yowling threats to piteous “Why don’t you love me anymore” mews, at the vet, where they cuddled him and carried him away. Jack mentioned our voting fiasco and the staff looked puzzled. “Huh,” one said. “All I had to show was my voter registration card.” Others nodded.

Jack gave me a dark look.

We had 26 minutes before the chiropractor’s, so raced home for my driver’s license, then back to the polls. The lines were 3 deep at the other tables, about 12 at N-Z. I sighed as we inched forward. When my turn came, they glanced at my card and didn’t ask to see my license. I got my little red ticket and felt good about participating in the Democratic Process–although annoyed at how it had played out.

That was when one of the voting machines broke. The one in front of our line. It took us all awhile to realize it wasn’t moving, this line which you headed, Madam Gray Sweater.  People in A-F breezed forward even though they’d come in AFTER the last person in our line of N-Zers, now 22 strong and without a machine.

Once the election officials realized what was happening, when a machine at the top end came clear they halted the A-Fers and beckoned to you. I understood what went through your mind then; really, I sympathize. You were raised a Southern Female. You do not take cuts. You do not even take even-handedness. You were taught to hold back, let others go first, put them before your own needs.

But, ma’am, there were 21 people behind you, some of whom really needed to get to their chiropractic appointments on time, and then home to open their bookshop. Plus I know that the lady behind me runs the jewelry store, and she opens at 9 a.m. So please don’t blame me for what happened. I really don’t know where that gravely voice of Satan came from, but when I screamed, “GO, GO!” it was for all of us.

Who knew it would echo like that in the gym? So many people, staring….

Permit me to add that I was impressed by the height of your jump.

People in Miami, people in New Jersey, even friends in SW VA (Sorry, Chelsie and Donald!) went through a lot to vote: 2-hour waits, demands for documents, even being denied. So I should have been more patient. I have seen you in our bookstore occasionally, ma’am, so next visit you get a free book. It’s the least I can do after betraying–and forcing you to betray–the Southern Female Upbringing code.

Still, the fact that the people behind me clapped indicates a certain crowd concensus. So thank you for going forward, and for voting. And, and… and God Bless Us, Every One.


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

“Hi, this is NPR” or: Sincerity is a Virus

Something interesting happens in the brain when you pick up your bookshop’s telephone and a a voice says, “Hi! This is NPR calling.”

Yeah? Pull the other one; it’s got bells on.

But it really was NPR, in the form of a nice lady named Gemma, who in her gorgeous English accent explained they were interested in doing a story about our search for a shop-sitter.

Talk about viral: that’s what happened to our “vacancy” trading full room and board–but no salary–for two months of freedom for Jack and me to run around bookshops, selling my book and enjoying the camaraderie of other bookslingers. The info went into a Swedish literary magazine, several New York publications, the L.A. Times, and then Wednesday I picked up the phone and said, “Good morning, bookstore” and Gemma was on the line.

Happy as we are personally for this publicity, we take it as a sign that reports of bookstores’ deaths have been greatly exaggerated in the media at large (saving Linda Wertheimer’s presence; she was our very professional and kind interviewer). If no one cares about bookstores, or the printed books they sell, why have so many people applied for this position, with we don’t know how many more applying between now and Sept. 7? (That’s a Friday, and the new cut-off date; we want to do final phone calls Monday 10th and have the person by Monday night.) One article called it “The Last Great Job in America,” while a few thousand people online re-posted and re-sent and make wistful comments like, “Oh, isn’t this a dream job!” and “How I wish I could!”

Because we all long for what bookshops provide: honesty, kindness, a human connection, and a literary balance to our lives. Small shops are spaces that let us breathe; books are mind-blowing devices that change our lives. Who could ask for anything more?

Someone congratulated me recently on “successfully pulling off a viral marketing campaign” and I almost hit her. Sincerity is not marketing. We needed a shop sitter, asked Kim at Facebook’s Goodwill Librarian and Robert Gray of Shelf Awareness to help us find one, and hit a societal artery. I wish marketers everywhere would look at what we hit, and stop making assumptions about what Americans need when it comes to books and bookstores. Look again. LOOK!

OK, enough with the soapbox. Just please keep in mind that our shop-sitter will be someone who has that elusive yet easily-observed quality of being genuine. What else are we looking for? Jack and I laugh that we’re hunting someone who has a basic familiarity with the collective library of humanity, a sense of wonder at the stories humans tell and write down, and a brisk efficiency toward cat pee. One of our cats is senile. (Don’t get stars in your eyes; this is a real job involving dog hair, spiders and heavy lifting.)

We need this person or persons Sept. 20-Nov. 20 because the shop wants covering during the town’s annual Celtic Festival. Don’t worry; we will train you in all the other intricacies, but straight sales are the easiest part, and those happen during Big Stone Celtic, when the town is converged on by Celtophiles from around the States.

Potential shop-sitters please send to jbeck69087@aol.com your experience with litter boxes, history with books, proof you are nice but not a pushover, and what you would do if you were suddenly called home for a job or emergency, plus any questions you have for us. Thanks!

(Btw, if anyone wants to enter Caption Contest VI, it’s just a couple of blog posts down, and a lot of fun. The picture is so gosh darn cute. Scroll down if you fancy it.)


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