Living the Dream (Vicariously): Reading About Wendy Welch’s Bookstore

“‘Someday we’ll give up this nonsense, settle down, and run a nice bookstore’…”
—Wendy Welch in The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap

WEndy Welch

Here is a dream I used to have:  I dreamed I would open a used bookstore.

The store would be in a grand old house with a big veranda, and the books would be arranged accordingly.  There would be compelling fiction and non-fiction in the living room–books that would tempt one to sit near the fireplace, wrapped in a warm, fuzzy throw, and spend an afternoon, immersed.  The old kitchen would have cookbooks galore; I might, I’d think, tear the cupboard doors off–all or some–and fill them with cookbooks, sorted by type.  There’d be food literature, too–MFK Fisher and Ruth Reichl, Michael Pollan and Barbara Kingsolver, and maybe I’d buy wonderful pot holders from a local crafter and sell those, too.  There might even be, in the old kitchen of that bookstore in my mind, gently used, wonderful utensils–whisks and wire pastry cutters, pasta makers, garlic presses.

In the backroom, there’d be books for the tool guy–books that tell how to re-plumb your old house or how to finish your basement.  There’d be a craft room, too, and a room with history, biography, and true crime.  Maybe, in that big old house, there’d be a big old room big enough to resemble a home library–think of the books a room like that would attract!

When I got done sorting my imaginary books and stocking my imaginary shelves, I would think up events that might take place at the bookstore–open mikes and book clubs, for sure, and maybe every Friday night would be pasta night.  For sure, there’d be a working kitchen upstairs in the tastefully refurbished apartment–whether we would live there or keep it for visitors, I hadn’t quite determined.  But the kitchen would be stocked and we would stir up lovely big pots of red sauce or Alfredo, and after the doors were locked on Fridays, friends and family, interesting people of all sorts, would gather.  We’d uncork wine that guests had brought, heft big bowls of steaming pasta to a long trestle table, and slice loaves of crusty bread, and conversation would spike and swirl.

That, I would think, would be a good, good busy life.  That would be a store where Jim, my autistic guy, could carve out a niche to sell used movies and video games and where family members needing a boost could work until they were, indeed, boosted.  (Maybe that’s who would live in the apartment upstairs.)

I used to dream about that, owning a used bookstore in a lovely old ramshackly house.  Wendy Welch DID it.

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My airplane book on my trip to see my niece Shayne on her birthday weekend this year was Wendy Welch’s The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, and I bought it, appropriately, at one of our favorite used bookstores. I was drawn by the title–it reminded me of the Adriana Trigani novels, and that was no coincidence.  Trigani’s stories take place in the very same warm and quirky little town as Welch and her husband, the Scottish folksinger Jack Beck, set up used book shop.

I love books about against-all-odds ventures that succeed wildly.  I love books about bookstores.  I loved the Adriana Trigani books.  This volume wove all three of those things together into a new tapestry, and I bought it.  It kept me company while I waited to board in Columbus and Detroit, and on the way home, in Fort Lauderdale and Atlanta.  It kept me awake on the plane–thanks to Little Bookstore, not one of my seatmates had to endure my snoring.

CS Lewis said…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 thing anyway.–WW

Wendy and Jack moved to the States, and Wendy took a job she hated.  She hung on for insurance and for security, but finally, finally, it was enough, and the impetus fueled by that decision led them to Big Stone Gap, to the purchase of a lovely old house, and to opening a bookstore.

They knew very little about running a bookstore, Wendy and Jack.  Their inventory was culled from the books on their shelves. They didn’t know the people, didn’t know the business, didn’t know too much about any kind entrepreneurial enterprises, really.  But they had wit and will and overwhelming work ethics.  They loved meeting people; they valued the people they met; and they weren’t afraid to get back up after making mistakes.

They glommed themselves on to their new home; they–and their bookstore–became essential.

Bookshelf anthropology can be fascinating; how many times have you scanned a friend or associate’s bookcases to discover similar–or disquietingly dissimilar–tastes? — WW

Wendy and Jack are rampant readers, so they could talk to all the people who came through their doors–and the book comes alive with the tales of those people.  Some came to sell books–books left behind after a nasty break up or a tragic death; books that need to go to free up shelf space for more; books to trade in kind for more books.

Some came to buy books–action adventures to spice up a winter’s evening, romances to touch a lonely and loving heart, children’s books to sweeten the transition to sleep.

Wendy and Jack talked books with all kinds of people, humanitarians, avid readers, even non-readers with golden hearts.

They started a writers’ group, a book club, and musical gatherings.  They had murder mystery nights.  They sponsored reading activities for children. They had meals and teas and supported community events.  They did all of the things I’d daydreamed about. And then, they did some more.

And when they finally got to the point where success was unequivocal, they packed up their car and drove around the country, looking for other used bookstores, other stories of determination and success. “Twelve days,” Welch writes, “forty-two bookstores, and ten states later, we returned wiser and–given that only eighteen of the forty downtowns we visited were healthy–oddly cheered.”

Why cheered?  Because, writes Welch, “…people who follow their dreams and do what’s in front of them…are still standing, while those who wait for permission, or guarantees, or help from someone else, disappear fairly quietly into that good night.”

Now there’s an inspiring, disquieting quote.  There’s a quote with which I need to wrestle.

***********

In Chapter 25, Welch recommends her best reads, and I love this kind of recommending.  I am right there with her on several books–Grapes of Wrath and Charlotte’s Web; I’m so-so on Tale of Two Cities; and on the cool side of lukewarm on Vanity Fair (although, to be honest, it’s been quite a darned while since I read it.) And I’ve written down several titles to look for–little known Whartons and Cathers, a short story collection by Ray Bradbury, Raney by Clyde Edgerton, and a book by CS Lewis.  I love the sharing of ‘best books’ and I love too, to think of what I’d put on my list of great reads to recommend.

What titles, I wonder, would go on YOURS?

*************

I bought The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, as mentioned above, at a used bookstore. Although that didn’t particularly benefit Wendy Welch financially, I think she’d applaud the greenness of that transaction, and the fact that I will send it,–titles to look for transcribed,– to my friend Wendy.  That Wendy (‘my’ Wendy) read Adriana Trignai’s books with enthusiasm, and I think she’ll enjoy the casual mentions of ‘Adri’ stopping by to sign books and have a nosh in the real Big Stone Gap.

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