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Wednesday, October 10, 2012

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

Wendy Welch and her husband Jack Beck own and run the Tales of the Lonesome Pine Used Books but more people know the store as the Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap (yes, the same town that Adriana Trigiani is from and writes about.) It comprises the first floor of their house (they live on the second) and is a used bookstore they started more or less on a whim. Luckily they were both book hoarders previously, so when they started the store with mostly their own personal books, that still made up a few thousand, but it had exploded since then.

The book is told more or less in chronological order, but the chapters are also about individual topics, such as how often and how they deal with book donors who are donating after a loved one's death, and how small town gossip has both hindered and helped their store.

This book should be a must-read for anyone wanting to open a bookstore. Initially it's more of a cautionary tale of what not to do (start a bookstore on a whim in a very small close-knit town you're new to, without sufficient stock), but Wendy and Jack do learn through the years (and I really loved their tour throughout the upper Southeast and lower Midwest of other bookstores and how they picked up some Best Practices elsewhere that they brought home) and they have a few great ideas of their own (I was very impressed with the idea to advertise on the two blank sides of the napkin dispensers at local restaurants.) Having worked with dozens of new bookstore owners, I occasionally cringed at certain mistakes they were making  such as allowing customers to use just trade values to buy books - the better policy is to cap how much trade you can use towards a purchase such as at 50% so customers have to give you some cash, as the power company and water company won't accept books for their bills, so you do very much need cash coming in. Also they admit that at first they were accepting any books people brought in but they definitely don't do that anymore. Most readers won't be attuned to these details like a former bookstore rep is, and will breeze right past them. Plus, no shop owner has made no mistakes along the way. And some of them have turned into being happy accidents. I liked how they originally intended to impose a no cell phone policy but before they got around to posting a sign, they noticed that the vast majority of cell phone talkers in the store were talking about the store itself. They were telling the person on the other line about the new bookstore in town and often then taking an order of books for their friend. Personally it's rare that I'm on the phone in a store but it happens and I appreciate store owners who aren't martinets about these kinds of social faux pas.

Along the way Wendy and Jack make good friends, become a part of the community, and discover the many joys of running a bookstore (which have pretty much nothing to do with profits - they make enough to get by on and that's enough.) I especially loved the story of the gregarious old man who came in and bought Westerns frequently. After he died his daughter came to donate a handful of books. When Wendy inquired after the Westerns, she found out that not only had he bought them all to donate to the VFW, but he also was illiterate. Aw, so sweet!

The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap is a quick, breezy read that anyone who loves a good bookstore will love. And if you want to know more, the author's blog is here. The author will be appearing at Bibliofeast in Charlotte, NC on October 22. If you'd like to buy tickets, click here.

I bought this book at my local independent bookstore, Park Road Books.

1 comment:

Ellie said...

I'm going to have to get me a copy of this book! We sure as heck made mistakes along the way - still do - but we're still here and paying the bills, which is what matters. I adore reading other people's stories about opening bookshops, frequenting bookshops, even LIVING in bookshops (in Jeremy Mercer's case); it renews my faith in the business when my spirits are flagging, and can often provide a fantastic new perspective or a few little ideas that we might not have considered before. Thanks for the great review!