The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap: A Memoir of Friendship, Community, and the Uncommon Pleasure of a Good Bookby Wendy Welch
An inspiring true story about losing your place, finding your purpose, and building a community one book at a time.
Wendy Welch and her husband had always dreamed of owning a bookstore, so when they left their high-octane jobs for a simpler life in an Appalachian coal town, they seized an unexpected opportunity to pursue thier dream. The only problems? A/p>
An inspiring true story about losing your place, finding your purpose, and building a community one book at a time.
Wendy Welch and her husband had always dreamed of owning a bookstore, so when they left their high-octane jobs for a simpler life in an Appalachian coal town, they seized an unexpected opportunity to pursue thier dream. The only problems? A declining U.S. economy, a small town with no industry, and the advent of the e-book. They also had no idea how to run a bookstore. Against all odds, but with optimism, the help of their Virginian mountain community, and an abiding love for books, they succeeded in establishing more than a thriving business - they built a community.
The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap is the little bookstore that could: how two people, two cats, two dogs, and thirty-eight thousand books helped a small town find its heart. It is a story about people and books, and how together they create community.
“In a time when brick and mortar bookstores around the country are literally imperiled, The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap comes along like a cool compress on a nagging wound; with humor, compassion, and a bold leap of spirit, Wendy Welch leads us back to this nearly forgotten truth, that bookstores are not simply distribution hubs for books, they are the warm living rooms of our culture, the portal to our dream worlds, the anchors for our hungry, drifting souls. Buy this book!” Andre Dubus III, author of Townie and The House of Sand and Fog
“The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap confirms what I've long suspected, that book lovers are good people and that bookstores are the best places on earth. Add in the elements of pre-loved books, in-love bookstore owners, and to-fall-in-love with local characters, and you have The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, a story to thrill anyone who has ever dreamed of owning a bookstore (and which book lover hasn't?) and a memoir sure to warm the cockles of the hearts of readers everywhere. A treasure of a book about books.” Nina Sankovitch, author of Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading
“Wendy Welch's memoir, The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, is a delight. Starting a used bookstore in a small Appalachian town during the decline-of-the-book era may seem like rank folly, but the project-and the book-turn out to be anything but foolish. With warmth and humor, Welch details the small successes and large missteps along the path to finding a place in a community. She shows that, even in the age of the e-reader, there is hope for books and those who love them, and that reading and bookstores still perform an important function in civic life. Her clear prose sparkles with personality in this heartening tale of the perils and rewards of following one's dream.” Thomas C. Foster, author of How to Read Literature Like a Professor
“Wendy Welch's memoir is entertaining, informative, and - best of all - big-hearted and wise. A perfect pick-me-up for people discouraged by talk of the death of the book.” Sam Savage, author of Firmin and Glass
“Charming, lively, bubbling with anecdote, incident and insight, Wendy Welch's animated memoir is any reader's perfect companion. You read this book and feel you've made a friend. By turns comic, and thoughtful, The Little Bookstore at Big Stone Gap brims with joie de livre.” Laura Kalpakian, author of American Cookery and The Memoir Club
“Amusing, engaging, astute, and perceptive, Welch's buoyant memoir of an endangered way of life is a fervent affirmation of the power of books to bring people together.” Booklist
“The whole narrative exudes enormous charm and the value of dreams and lives truly lived.” Publishers Weekly
“An entertaining book with a full cast of eccentric characters.” Kirkus
“Candid and endearing tale . . . Wendy brings a sense of humor and compassion to her story, sharing the trials and tribulations on opening and running a new bookstore. It is a joy to see the transitions that Wendy and Jack experience, and how a bookstore can be a magnet for heartbreaking stories and a hub of community spirit. This books is such a warm and engaging journey, best enjoyed with a cup of tea or three.” Beyond the Margins
“A heartwarming, cheerleading affirmation of indie bookstores everywhere. Don't fly those flags at half-staff yet.” Cleveland Plain Dealer
The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap confirms what I've long suspected, that book lovers are good people and that bookstores are the best places on earth. Add in the elements of pre-loved books, in-love bookstore owners, and to-fall-in-love with local characters, and you have The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, a story to thrill anyone who has ever dreamed of owning a bookstore (and which book lover hasn't?) and a memoir sure to warm the cockles of the hearts of readers everywhere. A treasure of a book about books.
- St. Martin's Press
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Read an Excerpt
How to Be Attacked by Your Heart’s Desire
Ever since happiness heard your name, it has been running through the streets trying to find you.
—Hafiz of Persia
PEOPLE TALK ABOUT FOLLOWING THEIR bliss, but if you’re stubborn, unobservant sods like Jack and me, your bliss pretty much has to beat you over the head until you see things in a new light. By the time Jack and I met, some twelve years before the bookstore in Big Stone Gap entered our lives, we had between us lived in eight countries and visited more than forty; the first five years of our marriage were spent in Jack’s native Scotland as cheerful workaholics with pretensions to vagabond artistry. His salary as a college department head and mine for directing an arts nonprofit afforded us fulfilling lives of music, story, friends, and travel throughout the British Isles and the States.
Since we’d married late in Jack’s life, the second time for him and the first for me, an awareness of our age difference (twenty years) kept an easy balance going. The undertow of time’s river reminded us to be happy with each other while we had the chance. With this in mind, we slid our day jobs between hop-away weekends performing stories and songs at festivals, fairs, and conferences. At first, Jack sang and I told stories, but as the years rolled by, his song introductions got longer and I sang more ballads until we were pretty much both doing both.
Driving home from these road trips tired and happy, Jack and I often engaged in casual banter about what we’d do “someday” when we gave up the weekend warrior routine. Such conversations revolved around a recurring theme:
“Someday we’ll give up this madness, settle down, and run a nice bookstore,” I’d say.
“A used book store, with a café that serves locally grown food,” he’d agree.
“It will have incredibly beautiful hardwood floors that squeak when you walk across them.”
“Lots of big windows to let in the sunlight, as it will of course face south.”
“In a town with tree-lined streets, where there’s lots of foot traffic so people walk in on impulse. Everyone will love us as colorful local characters. You can wear a baggy Mr. Rogers sweater and push your glasses up your nose and talk about Scotland, and I can teach at the nearby university and write the great American novel.”
“It will have high ceilings with old-fashioned wooden fans.” Jack liked to stick to physical descriptions.
“And a unicorn in the garden.” Two can play at that game.
“Of course! It will keep the elephants company.” My husband is a go-with-the-flow kind of guy.
Mile after road-weary mile, we created castle-in-the-clouds daydreams about the used book store we would run “someday.” When the five-thousand-square-foot personification of this idle pastime appeared without warning at a most inconvenient moment, it didn’t so much enter as take over our lives.
We didn’t arrive in Big Stone intending to run a used book store, and in fact we almost passed up the chance when presented with it. Two years before we moved to Virginia, we had left the United Kingdom for the States so I could take a position in the Snake Pit. (That’s not its real name, in case you were wondering.) That move landed me in a high-power game of snakes and ladders in a government agency—except we played with all snakes and no ladders. In this “bite or be bitten” ethos, it really didn’t matter what was true; it mattered whether you could bite harder than you were bitten—and that you never questioned why biting was the preferred method of communication.
Freedom might be another word for nothing left to lose, or the moment when common sense blossoms through the mud. One fine day I woke up seeing clearly for the first time in two years. A willing entrant into the Snake Pit—because the job looked exciting and as though it offered chances to do good in the world—I’d become instead just another biter. No, thank you; life is not about who gets the biggest chunk of someone else’s flesh.
Unless you’re a zombie.
I talked to a lawyer, gave two weeks’ notice, and walked away. Almost everyone has experienced a Snake Pit at some point in their lives—more’s the pity. Bad as our Pit was, Jack and I were fortunate. We owned our house and don’t eat much, so we could call it quits. That’s a luxury many people stuck in horrible situations—from minimum wage to white collar—don’t share. Sensitive humans doing a job they hate to keep food on the family table or a kid in school deserve major honor. If you’re in that position, kudos for sticking it out. God grant you an exit ramp soon, and forbearance until it appears.
For Jack and me, exiting Pitsville seemed like a bad cliché: midlife crisis meets crisis of conscience. The Fourteenth Dalai Lama expressed sympathy for anyone who “lives as if he is never going to die, and then dies having never really lived.” C. S. Lewis said almost the same thing in The Screwtape Letters, that people who suddenly wake up in the middle of some “important” activity and ask themselves, “am I enjoying this?” rarely answer yes, yet spend their lives doing the same things anyway.
Living in a world with no moral center had thrown us into an off-kilter limbo. We longed to return to a gentle life with friendly people who had less to prove and more honesty in how they proved it. So when I was offered a low-profile job running educational programs in the tiny southwestern Virginia town of Big Stone Gap, we packed our bags and shook the venom from our shoes.
Big Stone (as the locals call it) is nestled in the mountains of central Appalachia, in what locals call the Coalfields. The town had been on its way to becoming the Chicago of the South in the early 1900s, until the coal boom went bust. Now it was just another dot on the map, full of coal miners and retirees, with an embattled downtown and a Walmart up by the four-lane. Football games and high school reunions were the biggest local events.
A nice gentle job in The Gap (its other nickname) seemed a good situation in a pleasant place; we could hang out for a year enjoying life in the slow lane without getting too attached. I’m from central Appalachia, Jack from Scotland. Mountains and rural living are some of the ties that bind us.
While helping us look for housing cheap enough to be realistic yet cozy enough to be comfortable, Debbie, the affable local realtor, discovered we liked old houses. Her company had just acquired one she hadn’t yet seen, so we stopped and explored it together, just to take a break.
That’s how the Bookstore ensnared us. Edith Schaeffer, who with her husband cofounded a Christian commune called L’Abri, once wrote, “The thing about real life is that important events don’t announce themselves. Trumpets don’t blow … Usually something that is going to change your whole life is a memory before you can stop and be impressed about it.”
That about sums it up.
The five-bedroom 1903 Edwardian sat near two intersections, and edged a neighborhood of sturdy brick homes and leafy bungalows. Parking spaces dotted the front curb. The place felt snug and cozy the moment we walked in, despite its voluminous size.
“Squeaky floors,” my husband said with a frown, rubbing one rubber sole across the scarred hardwood.
“The pocket doors stick,” Debbie observed, sneezing as she wrestled oak panels from their hiding places amid a shower of dust.
“That’s a lot of windows for somebody to wash.” I pointed at the floor-to-ceiling panes adorning three open-plan rooms, stretched across the southern-facing house front.
Rickety wooden fans hung from high ceilings, wires exposed. The second-floor parlor, with its peeling wallpaper, overlooked the town’s tree-lined ancillary street one block from where it intersected the main road. The ghost of cat pee wafted from the oak staircase, which boasted exquisite copper corner pieces dulled by neglect. My husband and I stared at each other with lust in our eyes, thanked Debbie-the-Realtor for the impromptu visit, and left her making notes of things to fix before the house could be put on the market.
From the Edwardian mansion, Jack and I headed to Little Mexico, a signature Big Stone Gap restaurant. Little Mexico sits at the top of a hill next to Walmart, and the parking lot offers magnificent views of the surrounding mountains. The season’s flowering power—rhododendron pink, mountain laurel white, cornflower purple—displayed its full glory in the midday sun. Inside, we dipped tortilla chips into fiery salsa and eyed each other through sangria glasses.
We had no money. We’d bought a house in the Snake Pit with cash when we first came over from Scotland, but the economy had just tanked while the housing market crashed amid escalating horror stories; no way would we be able to sell that house quickly. Thus we couldn’t afford to buy without getting a mortgage, and given the nose-diving economy and the limited appeal my esoteric PhD in ethnography had in the job market, that didn’t seem wise. We needed to just park ourselves quietly for a year and regroup. It was madness to even think along unicorn-in-the-garden lines. No, the word “bookstore” would not come out of my mouth.
Jack crunched a corn chip. “That big white house would have made a perfect bookstore, had it been in a bigger town.”
I knew it! “Oh, did you think so?”
My husband of ten years smiled. “I knew that’s what you were thinking. Debbie said the population is 5,400. That’s not enough people to support a bookstore, and anyway we won’t be here that long.”
“Yep,” I agreed. “Stupid to get entangled in something like that now, when we’re so tired and, you know, off balance.”
“Aye. Not to mention, we don’t have enough money.”
“Or energy. Pity to see something so nice and not be able to take advantage of it, but the timing is so wrong. We need a sure thing. I’ll handle this job for a year or two, and you can find some relaxing retirement project.”
Jack waited a beat, then said thoughtfully, “But if we were to stay a wee while longer, there is a college nearby where you might teach … well, not that we’re thinking of long-term plans now.”
My heartbeat accelerated. “No, not that we’re thinking long-term.”
“We’ll set up a bookstore someday.”
We crunched in silence, and then Jack drew his sword and slew the dragon. “What if someday is today?”
Not even a gentle pop resounded as the cork flew from our bottled-up lives. But the waitstaff seemed startled when I leaned across the table, stomach grazing the chip basket, and kissed my best friend long and hard on the lips.
Copyright © 2012 by Wendy Welch
Meet the Author
WENDY WELCH and her husband (Scottish folksinger Jack Beck) own and operate Tales of the Lonesome Pine Used Books in Big Stone Gap, Virginia. An Ethnography PhD, she rescues shelter animals (SPAY and NEUTER, thanks!) and is one of the world's fastest crocheters. This is a good thing because between her day job teaching college courses on culture and public health, running special events at the shop, writing about stuff, and chasing kittens out of roads, she doesn't have a lot of spare time.
WENDY WELCH and her husband (Scottish folksinger Jack Beck) own and operate Tales of the Lonesome Pine Used Books in Big Stone Gap, Virginia. An Ethnography PhD, she rescues shelter animals (SPAY and NEUTER, thanks!) and is one of the world’s fastest crocheters. This is a good thing because between her day job teaching college courses on culture and public health, running special events at the shop, writing about stuff, and chasing kittens out of roads, she doesn’t have a lot of spare time.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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This book, frankly, was a surprise for me. I picked it up and agreed to review it mostly because I am a sucker for books about books and bookish people. What I didn’t expect was that it would actually be so well written, solidly edited, funny, heart-warming, and informative. Wendy Welch and her Scottish husband, Jack Beck, bought a charming, huge Victorian home in the town of Big Stone Gap, West Virginia, with the sole intent of transforming it into a used bookstore. Unfortunately, they had a couple of things working against them. Big Stone Gap is not exactly an area that welcomes strangers into its midst and its economically depressed state does not make it a prime zone in which to open a business. However, the Beck-Welch team was undaunted and Wendy, in her breezy, humorous style carries her readers through their many experiences as they built their inventory of books and friendships. Perhaps what sets this book above others of its kind is the added insight that Wendy gives into some of the lesser know aspects of owning a bookstore. I love the stories she tells about the more emotional aspects, such as those people who bring in book collections of those loved ones who have passed away, and what it is like to be the store owner who must on the one hand transact the business of divesting the bereaved of the books, but on the other hand be sensitive to the fact that this is a part of a loved one that the person is letting go of. There are many, many such personal stories in this book, each of them singular and touching and showing a different aspect of their lives not only as owners of the bookstore, but as members of their unique community. I mistakenly assumed that life in a small town bookstore would become routine and expected the book might get a bit soporific at times, but Wendy showed me that their life is full of rich relationships and lessons learned, and I enjoyed the chance to experience Big Stone Gap and their book store right along side them. Wendy and her husband also use their bookstore to host many other types of activities that enriched their community, and her sharing these events adds a good deal of interest to the book. In addition, Jack and Wendy went on a tour of other indie bookstores, the narrative of which makes for some good reading. Finally, she shares lots of reviews of her favorite books to recommend, as you might expect from someone who spends her days surrounded by and selling books. This is a solid read about a couple with a dream, how their marriage weathers the making of their business, life in a small town, friendship, selling books, and a few life lessons learned along the way. Wendy’s lovely writing will touch your heart and your funny bone in turns, making this a read for many moods. I definitely recommend this one.
Yes, I'm a e reader only recently but I sure do miss the smell and feels of books. I really enjoyed the writtings of this author. It made me feel cozy, the only word I can describe this book. It made me feel that I wanted to go out andbuy myself a rambling old home with a wrap around porches, paintd white and have spacious rooms in which to start my own bookstore. Great readings. Loved every minute.
This is a wonderful story about two not-so-young book lovers and artist/ mavericks who follow their dream. Although their decision to purchase and renovate an old house as a used book store in a poor economy and on a shoestring budget was not logical, they made it work with hard work, ingenuity and creativity. Makes you want to drive to Big Stone Gap, VA and check out the world of real paper books again!
If you are reading this website, then you probably have (or have had) a favorite bookstore. A place where you walk in and are recognized by somebody. A place where you can go and escape in the stacks, among the sounds and smells that are associated with any bookstore, no matter what the size or the name on the door. The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap will take you back to that place, to those feelings you have when you walk through the door. Trust me, it is a fun journey you won't regret taking!
I have owned this book for a while, but just recently got around to reading it. I wish I had read it a long time ago! I really, really enjoyed reading this book. I did not want it to end. The writing in the book was wonderful, just so easy to read, it flowed from one sentence to another to the next paragraph to the next chapter. It was a funny, sweet story and I loved it. I highly recommend this book to everyone, but especially to anyone who loves books!