If you are reading this review (and if you frequent this website), you’ve probably thought to yourself at least once, “It would be so nice to own a little bookstore and be surrounded by books and curious readers all the time.” Wendy Welch and her husband, Jack Beck, had said this to each other time and again. Finally they decided to buy a two-story fixer-upper in Big Stone Gap, Virginia, and give it a try. It didn’t matter that Welch, an ethnologist, and Beck, a musician, didn’t exactly know how to run a business, or that they would be newbies in a small town that would need a great deal of time to warm up to them. If you love books, you can run a bookstore, right?
"The book will probably make you think twice about opening your own store, but it will definitely make you want to take a trip to your local used book hub and see what treasures you’ll find, either the bound kind or the human kind."
This turned out to be true, but it wasn’t without a lot of gumption and patience that Tales of the Lonesome Pine Used Books became a thriving (and permanent) fixture in the small town. In her memoir, Welch describes stocking the first few shelves with Jack’s and her own volumes, trolling garage sales each weekend, getting fired from her job in town and losing a large chunk of their customer base. Later challenges ranged from deciding what to do about light switches hidden behind ever-growing bookshelves and deciding which eager volunteer to let staff the bookstore when Wendy and Jack went on vacation.
If you have a favorite used bookstore, or even if you frequent a big-box or independent store for new books, you’ve probably noticed that there’s a different feel to this type of store. Not quite a library, certainly not a Barnes and Noble, a used bookstore is, as Welch describes it, many people’s “third place” (based on the idea that everyone has a home and a workplace, but to be happy, you need a third place that is yours). As Tales of the Lonesome Pine grew, it started being that space for many of Big Stone Gap’s people, from the needlepoint group to the illiterate man who bought boxes of books to donate to the hospital, to the people who loved Jack’s authentic Scottish shortbread.
The book’s subtitle, “A Memoir of Friendship, Community, and the Uncommon Pleasure of a Good Book,” is perfect for this volume whose vignettes and essays go from delightful encounters with new and old customers to meditations on cleaning out a deceased lovedone’s home. As the people of Big Stone Gap learn to love the bookstore, and as visitors keep coming across it, Wendy and Jack become unofficial counselors, listening to people’s concerns and problems and offering a kind and understanding listening presence, in lieu of actual marital or life advice.
THE LITTLE BOOKSTORE OF BIG STONE GAP is a lovely memoir that, due to its tone and voice, will appeal most readily to readers of women’s fiction. After reading, you’ll also be treated to a trip around the South to other used bookstores as well as recommendations of must-reads and never-bother-to-reads. The book will probably make you think twice about opening your own store, but it will definitely make you want to take a trip to your local used book hub and see what treasures you’ll find, either the bound kind or the human kind.
Reviewed by Sarah Hannah Gomez on October 26, 2012