The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap: A Memoir of Friendship, Community, and the Uncommon Pleasure of a Good Book

The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap: A Memoir of Friendship, Community, and the Uncommon Pleasure of a Good Book

by Wendy Welch


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250010636
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 10/02/2012
Pages: 304
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

WENDY WELCH is a Ph.D. in ethnography who currently teaches at the University of Virginia at Wise. She is also professional storyteller and the co-owner of Tales of the Lonesome Pine Used Books in Big Stone Gap, Virginia.

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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 longterm."

"We'll set up a bookstore someday."

"Mhmm. 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.


No Longer Renting the Space Inside My Skin

Oh the water is wide, I can't cross o'er.
— Scottish folk song

The ink wasn't dry on my signature before I regretted the impulsive, made-with-the-heart-not-the-head decision to buy that house at the side of the road. Sure, we've all heard the Dr. Phil chatter: follow your bliss and the money will follow.

Yeah, right. Anybody out there still unaware that life does not always resemble a Hallmark commercial? Bank accounts are amazing reality checks — no pun intended.

The Edwardian wanted structural fixing, while our minuscule savings needed cash injections, not drainage. Buying that big white elephant would be driving on the wrong side of the money highway. A house back at the Snake Pit waited to be sold in the tanking real estate market. The word "recession" loomed in nightly news stories. The quiet little position I'd come to town for was not PhD level, and a couple of staff members already wondered openly what I was doing there. (The job was with the same type of state organization as the toxic one I'd fled had been, which those with the foresight God gave mayflies might call a dumb move. We would call it that, and many other things besides, in the coming months.) I had defended my doctoral dissertation just as the economy — along with university hiring — was drying up. The possible safety net of something opening at one of the two area colleges, should my day job go away, was not a strong bet. A safety net that lacks enough strength to catch you really isn't much of a safety net, is it?

Stacked against all that, we had two very important things going for us: we believed in ourselves and each other, and we were desperate. We craved returning to a sweet, happy, slow life. A lot of money wasn't important — just enough to eat, sleep, and stay warm through the winter. All we asked was to contribute something to a community and derive pleasure from doing so — plus health insurance.

Necessity may be the mother of invention, but desperation is her very pushy pimp. Jack and I had a long talk that afternoon as the waitstaff, convinced we were crazy and in need of gentle humoring, brought basket after basket of chips and salsa. (To this day, when gripped by intense emotions, I crave fried salt.) At one point I described living in the Snake Pit as "renting the space inside my own skin." A phrase that had been haunting me for weeks. I'd never said it out loud before. Trapped in all those hidden agendas, putting a foot right proved impossible.

Let two mild examples suffice. In one instance, a volunteer begged an employee organizing a very large and important event for a specific assignment, got it, and then left the task undone, while bragging to another person that he'd never intended to do the work; instead he fired off an e-mail to the organizer's boss, telling the (notoriously uninvolved and oblivious) senior official how angry he felt that such an important task had been neglected. Another time, a supervisor told me to send a certain answer to a "concerned citizen's" question, copied to the supervisor. When the concerned citizen e-mailed again, the supervisor e-mailed him directly that I had given incorrect information, and he would speak to me about it.

Just another day in the Snake Pit. Watch your back, and if you have any energy left over, do your job.

My husband looked me in the eye. "We're not going to live like that anymore."

Jack does not make promises lightly; I started to feel a little safer.

A little. It's hard to explain, but the Pit had been my dream job until it revealed its horrors. A perceived opportunity to do positive things had ended in literal nightmares. Now here Jack and I were, just two months later, talking about another dream we'd cherished for a long time. I didn't see how I could survive if it too went rotten.

I said as much to Jack. He looked at me with those keen hazel eyes, and covered my hand — trembling around my glass — with both of his. "We just left a maze of moral weirdness," he said. "It's got you confused. Think a minute, love. How can something be rotten when it has you, me, sincerity, and books at its center?" he asked.

Put that way ...

Passivity eddied away as we took up oars and began to row — hard. We could do this; we could open a bookstore inside that house, live upstairs, and just see how things went for a year, then reassess. Maybe then we would go back to doing gigs full-time, or the fairy godmother of decent, honest living would visit us some other way.

Now might be a good time to point out that all this soul-searching took place before the Edwardian even hit the real estate market. Impatient little souls we were, but once dreaming became an option again, waiting five more minutes felt impossible. If we waited, I'd lose my nerve and go back to triple-guessing every move and how it could be perceived — a nasty habit I'd picked up in you-know-where.

Jack, who knows me very well, took no chances. Seeking out Debbie straight from the restaurant, he explained our plan.

"A bookstore!? You're nuts!" she said, and helped us use our house in Pitsville as collateral for buying the big, beautiful, scary home five minutes after it went on the market. We moved in upstairs an hour after signing papers at the lawyer's office. That night, even before we had bedroom furniture, Jack took two hundred dollars from savings and bought lumber, hammer, and nails. The next morning he dug through the boxes filling our front room — our front room! — to find his tools, and installed bookshelves downstairs amid the rubble and chaos. Subliminally, I think we considered filling the space with shelves symbolic. Like Dr. Seuss's Whos in Whoville, each hammer blow shouted, "We are here, we are here, we are here!"

Books to put on those shelves had to wait awhile, since we were flat broke and living out of cardboard-box furniture. Lacking funds to collect ours in a rental truck — we'd just shoved clothes and anything small enough to fit in boxes into our car and fled — we planned to make do for a month or so until we had a little money saved up. In fact, moving in above the shop-to-be was the only thing making the store financially possible in our present circumstances. Although I'd like to say we were clued in enough to understand the accompanying tax breaks of living where one works, we planned to live upstairs because it required no additional cash outlay and offered sufficient space for two humans, two dogs, and two cats. Living overhead kept us from having financial overhead, which was what saved us in later months. God looks after fools and little children.


Excerpted from "The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap"
by .
Copyright © 2012 Wendy Welch.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Prologue 1

1 How to Be Attacked by Your Heart's Desire 7

2 No Longer Renting the Space Inside My Skin 14

3 Mommy, Where Do Books Come From? 27

4 Follow Your Ignorance Is Bliss 46

5 Holy Grails Full of Frass 61

6 Creating, and Being Created by, Community 71

7 God Bless You for Trying, Losers 82

8 Stephen Saved Our Bacon Day 92

9 Catty Behavior, or How Beulah Taught Us to Stand Tall, Quit Whining, and Have Fun 99

10 Saved by the Cell (and the Napkin Dispensers, and the Corkboards) 104

11 A Book's Value Versus Its Price 109

12 I Dream About Running a Bookstore Someday… 123

13 Running an Unlicensed Intellectual Pub 132

14 Yarn Goddesses 142

15 What Happens in the Bookstore, Stays in the Bookstore 149

16 Growing into Ourselves 154

17 Reading Rekindled 162

18 Last Cowboy 178

19 Living Large in a Small-Town Bookstore 185

20 The Network 197

21 Ceridwen 207

22 The Way We Buy Now (with Apologies to Trollope) 214

23 Booking Down the Road Trip 229

24 Bibliophiliacs Versus Book Snobs 246

25 On Recommending Books 252

26 Citizen Jack 280

27 The Last Word 286

Acknowledgments 289

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The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap: A Memoir of Friendship, Community, and the Uncommon Pleasure of a Good Book 4.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 12 reviews.
lit-in-the-last-frontier More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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!
charlottesweb93 More than 1 year ago
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!
FrancescaFB More than 1 year ago
FroggyBella More than 1 year ago
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!
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Great book!
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