Tag Archives: used book stores

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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Hidden Pleasures in the Night

One of the coolest things about running a bookstore is the nighttime raids. On any given evening, when the shop is closed and Jack and I head downstairs to our bedroom den, one of us might say, “Oh, I finished my book.” Thus begins a pleasant twenty minutes of discovery.

Jack and I take turns minding the store, so while we each have a really good idea of inventory, things are likely to come in on the other’s watch that we don’t yet know about. Trolling the shelves brings happy surprises. “Oh, I didn’t know we had the latest Sarah Allen!” Or “Hmm, a book about building fake ship docks and air bases during World War II.”

The little gems sit on our shelves waiting for us to traverse a section, not straightening, not searching, just browsing. It is such a pleasure to browse one’s own bookstore. And that “you can’t judge a book by its cover” thing? Hah. Yes you can. You can tell what’s targeting women – hello gorgeous ballgowns or period dresses with the wearer’s head not shown on the cover–and what’s marketed toward lit lite readers, covers edged in a dignified gilt frame, or photos of faraway cities and characters splashed behind a new author’s name.

A gorgeous photo, the judicious use of color, a drawing where a second glance reveals a second meaning: these are guaranteed to make me flip the book and read the blurb. If I’m not hooked by then, I do the random test taught me by a browsing customer years ago. Open to page 123 and read it. If the author’s writing is personally appealing, take the book downstairs. If not, there are 35,ooo more to browse.

I don’t think this would work if we didn’t live here, as we’re too absent-minded to remember to bring the books back once we’ve read them. And of course, if someone wants something, we have to bring it up from the den. I once sold a book Jack was reading from right off the nightstand, removing his bookmark and swearing later I didn’t remember seeing it. (Don’t tell him; he still doesn’t know I did that.)

Yeah, it’s a business. But when the main lights go out, and the relaxed evening hunt for something to read begins, it’s pure hedonistic happiness to live in a bookstore.


Filed under Big Stone Gap, book reviews, bookstore management, Life reflections, publishing, small town USA, Uncategorized, writing

Tails of Dogs and Cats

Jack’s weekly guest post -

I’m a bit of a fan of Alexander McCall Smith, ever since I stumbled across the No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series. I also fell for his Scotland Street series as well – particularly for his very accurate depiction of a certain element of Edinburgh society with which I’m familiar. The slightly down at heel Georgian New Town intelligencia, complete with their locked private gardens!

One of the characters in the Scotland Street series is a dog called Cyril and McCall Smith manages to get inside his mind wonderfully. In many ways Cyril became one of my favorites.

But then along came the incredible Freddie De La Hay – one of the residents of Corduroy Mansions a new series set in the Pimlico neighborhood of London. Freddy is first introduced as an ex-drugsniffing dog made redundant from Heathrow Airport as a result of a campaign against sex discrimination (all the drugsniffers were male). Once again McCall Smith gets right inside the mind of a dog as it smells its way around its world, eating expensive shoes and catching Russian spies along the way. Despite a fascinating range of humans, it’s the dog that once again does it for me!

What got me thinking about this was an experience I had yesterday. We took in an older cat a few days ago that had initially been rescued by our friend Jessica. She was going to keep her, but her existing feline co-habitee didn’t approve at all. So Jessica paid to have Sweetie Pie spayed and then she came to us until we can find her a permanent home. All well and good!

Wendy left at lunchtime yesterday for a couple of days of business in Richmond and I was left keeping an eye on the lodger. Sweetie Pie seemed quite content relaxing on a stool in the mystery room. Then Kellie, our cafe chef, came in around 5 pm from a grocery run – “Sweetie Pie’s outside”, she said. “what?” I said – –

Sure enough – she was out in the front garden and when I went to pick her up she ran down onto the sidewalk. We both tried to catch her, but she kept running further off. eventually it got too dark to see where she was and I gave up. What on earth would I say to Wendy – and Jessica – how would we tell her that the cat she recued and paid to have spayed had run away on our watch? Wendy phoned later and I broke the news. We commiserated with each other and agreed that at least she had been spayed so there wouldn’t be exponential explosion of kittens.

Feeling disconsolate, I headed down to our basement bedroom and noted both dogs and our three indoor cats all in their favorite spots. Sitting on the edge of the bed to take of my shoes, I glanced up. Owen Meany had been lying beside Zora but now he was magically up on the window sill! No – wait – he’s still beside Zora – what?

Sweetie Pie holds court

Sweetie Pie holds court

There she sat, calmly licking her paw and preening herself. “What?” she meowed – “fine neighborhood you have here. Nice cats! What’s for dinner?”

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Filed under animal rescue, Big Stone Gap, bookstore management, humor

The law of unintended consequences

Jack’s weekly guest blog today reveals the bookstore planning methodology.

Regular readers of this blog will recall my guest posts towards the end of last year describing the conversion of our basement from a dark dismal hole into a light and airy work-space for Wendy. I thought maybe that would be the last major building work for a while – – –

But there’s the other half of the basement, which remains in its original cobwebby state, replete with concrete floor, brick walls and exposed roof beams/wiring/water pipes et al. But not for long, for Wendy has been thinking – – –

When Wendy says “I’ve been thinking – -” I just know there’s going to be work to do. Her latest wheeze is to make the second floor of the bookstore into a proper eating establishment. To explain – we’ve had a food license for  few years, with the intention of serving lunches in the bookstore. However the ever increasing bookshelves mean we’ve never really had the room to do that except occasionally when requested.

But we spend most of our free time in the store anyway and only sleep upstairs and, besides, there’s a perfectly good kitchen and bathroom upstairs as well as a couple of good sized rooms and a spacious landing. One of these rooms is currently our bedroom, so – – –

The still-to-be-converted additional room in the basement will become our bedroom, thereby making the whole space into our living apartment. It has a door into the yard in which I’ll fit a dog flap, so Zora and Bert will still have access to the yard and a place to hang out inside. That will also mean they will no longer be barking at customers from behind the gate at the bottom of the main staircase.

As we discussed all this and began to think about food styles and menus, Wendy said – “you know, I’ve been thinking – -. We could extend the bookstore upstairs as well. You’d only need to make a few more bookshelves – – -”



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We Have an Anchor

It’s been a hard week here at the bookstore, and that’s a fact. Jack is getting on with the basement renovations, despite crazy weather (from 4 to 62 degrees Farenheit in two days?!) crooked walls, and mucked-up windows. I’m working my way through piles of donations from people who cleaned closets in January, and greeting new customers and new friends the book has brought us. Business is thriving.

But some outside pressures we need not go into have got me rattling just like the basement windows in these bitter winds: confused, pressured, cold and battered. Rattled.

Books are excellent therapy in such times. Walk the shelves, straightening and arranging; set the spines upright; run your fingers over familiar titles and remember when you read them. Breathe in the dust and ideas that float on the sunbeams of a second-hand books shop. Sit at the table and drink a cup of tea, surrounded by the weightiness of all those books holding the collected weight of human learning.

There’s a hymn that says, “We have an anchor that keeps the soul steadfast and sure while the billows roll, fastened to the rock which cannot move, grounded firm and deep in the Savior’s love.” 

I’m a person who believes in Jesus as He presented Himself, and who turns a suspicious eye toward many of those offering to interpret Him for the rest of us. Perhaps I have two anchors: the eternal one I neither take for granted nor feel compelled to force on others; and the “take time to think” drag force of 38,000 books, just sitting there, reasonable and silent, in a world full of people screaming for attention. Pull one down at random, read a page at random. Just breathe. Drink tea. Relax. Read about–learn from–someone else’s experiences.

Dust, ideas, silence. Peace in a buffer zone. Our bookshop is a space whose walls are lined floor to ceiling by books. Inside them are ideas enough to start a hundred revolutions, yet oddly enough I feel like they shelter me. They remind me that this too shall pass, that there is very little new under the sun, that how I feel now has been felt by hundreds of real people and fictional characters in the past, and will be in the future. It’s okay to be rattled; I’m in good company in these high winds.

We have, here in our little bookstore, an anchor and an Anchor. And that’s enough.


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

“Put the Kettle On”

Is it traditional to make your last post of the Old Year a True Confession?

When Jack and I did that string of author signings in October/November, friends who had published warned me to expect similar questions at each bookstore. But we found that for the most part (excepting, “How did you find an agent?”) questions were rarely repeated in different places.

We found it was comments, not questions, that tended to circle recurring themes: readers loved “Last Cowboy”; lots of participants made “we’ll put the kettle on” references; and people often interrupted at appropriate places with “You’re Nuts!”

But the questions they asked were as diverse as the audiences and the shops themselves. So when someone asked me about my author advance, I wasn’t prepared. She only wanted to know what I’d done with the money, nothing more invasive, but it still startled me.

Truth is, the day after I signed the contract with St. Martin’s and everything was official, I went on a little spending bender. Yes, it’s embarrassing, but straight to the Signals catalog did I go, and dropped $60. You know those sweet little white cups with “Sereni-tea” etc. printed on them? I got the four I’d always wanted. Silly though it is, I’d coveted those things for years, thought they were cute, but considered it silly–even un-Quaker-esque–to pay $15 for a household item available for 10 cents at any yard sale.

Until I became an author, and a much-published friend’s exact words to me were, “You should go buy yourself something you want.”IMG_3508

Ah. Permission from an elder. That made it okay.

The Sereni-tea, Creativi-tea, Simplici-tea, Tranquili-tea mugs hang in the one corner of our bookshop that is private—our wee kitchen with the microwave, electric skillet and teakettle from which Jack produces masterful meals. And every time I walk past them, I smile. Perhaps at my folly, or perhaps because I own them. Sometimes it doesn’t do to analyze.


Filed under Big Stone Gap, folklore and ethnography, humor, publishing

Because I Say So

Some “rare yet regular” customers who visit family twice a year were here yesterday. As the husband browsed Classics, he asked, “How do you decide which books are classics? I mean, I can see anything by Nathaniel Hawthorne, but you’ve got Joyce Carol Oates here, too.”

Jack gave the usual response: “If we like them.” Which caused the husband to guffaw.

There’s nothing quite like running one’s own shop. No corporate manual: “If the book is older than 75 years and has been assigned to more than one literature department in two disparate American states, OR if the book is foreign and written within the last 20 years and has been assigned …”

Peh. We thought Eileen Goudge and Louise Erdrich had good things to say, so there they sit in perpetuity, conversing with Faulkner between them. Of course, if I had my way, John Irving would be in the bargain basement, but one does bend to certain commonly-held sensibilities.

It’s the Margaret Atwoods, Cormac McCarthys and Robert James Wallers that prove tricky. They’re in, they’re out, they’re hot, they’re not, a movie’s getting made…. We joke about putting up a revolving shelf with the heading “Your 15 Minutes Starts Now.”

But for the most part, we find few people worrying about what’s where. If you can’t find it in Southern Fiction, try Classics, then General Fiction or Historical Fiction. Most serious second-hand book  shoppers WANT to browse. It’s part of the pleasure, to crack the code and get into the heads of the bookslingers organizing that particular shop. That’s how you know you’re on the inside, when you can tell other people where to find Ludlum, Flynn, Higgins and Forsyth–Mysteries and Thrillers, or Guys with Big Guns (aka Westerns and War)?

OK, that’s a trick question, because on any given day, Jack will stick them in one category, and I in the other.

A bookshop divided against itself cannot stand. I finally put a note on the Mysteries and Thrillers room door: “If it’s a political thriller having to do with spies or war, try the Guys with Big Guns room first. Because that’s where Jack puts them.”

It’s upped traffic back there. And earned my husband sympathetic comments.


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