A rural bookstore that beat the odds
“Bookshops are magic.”
This quotation, buried in the middle of Wendy Welch’s The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap: A Memoir of Friendship, Community, and the Uncommon Pleasure of a Good Book (ISBN 978-1-250-01063-6, $24.99), could serve as the banner for this wonderful account of a used bookstore and the community in which it came to life.
Wendy Welch and her husband Jack Beck, a native of Scotland, had lived overseas, and had then returned to the United States, where they both worked high-powered jobs. In addition to her professional life, Wendy Welch also worked as a storyteller. After becoming dissatisfied with the back-stabbing and cutthroat office politics at her place of employment, Welch and her husband decided to seek out a quieter life. Their search brought them to Big Stone Gap in rural Virginia, a former coal town which was suffering, like so many small towns, economic upheavals. Here they found a five bedroom Edwardian house which, despite its exposed wiring, rickety fans, and need of paint, struck them as their dream home.
It also sparked another of their dreams. For years the two of them had fantasized about owning a used bookstore one day. Though the thought was at first a mutual jest, eventually it began to take on shape. On finding the house, they decided that the bottom floor would become the bookshop of their dreams.
Welch takes readers on a humorous journey as she and Jack build the bookshop. They began with no books other than those from their own collection, and so purchase their books from yardsales. Welch’s sister cleverly advises them to advertise that they will pay for books from customers with promises of future credit, and the idea begins to bring in more and more residents of Big Stone Gap.
With her fine eye for detail, Welch introduces us to many of the shop’s regulars, and we watch as their initial incredulity — “A bookstore? You’re nuts!” is the usual reaction of the locals — turns to acceptance and then to love. Welch’s descriptions of these customers reflects her love for them. Here, for example, is her portrait of Fiona:
“A transplant from Europe many years ago, Fiona runs a pottery and weaving studio on the town’s main street, and her designs command international respect. Not quite five feet tall, she sports a pixie cut of magnolia-blossom white hair. Her smiling eyes hint at mischief bobbing just beneath the surface. I couldn’t say what it is about her — her pixielike figure, baby face, or charming upper-class British accent — but sellers knock themselves out to throw discounts at this happy-go-lucky grandmother.”
In addition to describing encounters in the shop, Welch also gives us a fine portrait of this Appalachian town. In the chapter titled “God Bless You for Trying, Losers,” Welch shows her readers — and I suspect many of them may recognize the sensation — the difficulties of entering into the life of a tight community. When she is fired from a day job, which she’d taken to help support the store, a certain clique in the town begins gossiping about her, and some refuse to bring their business to the bookshop. She writes that “amid the innuendoes and nuances, relationships between insiders and outsiders — and who gets called which — can be as subtle as a homemade quilt.” She and Jack finally prevail in their quest for acceptance through their resolve to stay in the town and keep the shop open, and through Stephen Igo’s celebratory column about the shop that appeared in The Kingsport Times-News, bringing a sense of appreciation to Welch and more customers to the store.
In further efforts to attract customers, and because both of them are community-minded, Jack and Wendy hosted many events at the store. Some of these were impromptu parties with wine and homegrown music, others involved occasions like Needlework Night, when women from the town gather to talk while crocheting and knitting.
At the heart of The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, of course, are books. Welch not only offers anecdote after anecdote about customers and why they buy certain books, but she also shares her own preferences in reading along with those of her husband. She discusses the place of the book in today’s digitalized culture, and the special place of second-hand bookshops in the book world. Her chapter “On Recommending Books” should send readers off to open old classics and newer novels. (I was particularly gladdened to see that she had recommended “Till We Have Faces,” which is for me not only the best novel ever written by C.S. Lewis, but a truly important work about relationships and the human spirit).
Tales of the Lonesome Pine is the real name of Jack and Wendy’s bookshop, chosen because of the town’s association with John Fox Jr.’s novel The Trail of the Lonesome Pine. Both the bookshop and the town of Big Stone Gap are now on my “places to visit” wish list. For the present, however, The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap must serve as a sort of secondhand visit to this secondhand shop.
And a fine visit it was.