The Little Bookstore(s) That Could

I attended a wonderful book signing tonight at Afterwords Books, the little shop a few blocks from my house. Afterwords hosted Wendy Welch, author of The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, and her husband, Jack Beck.

Welch has one of those stories that is so incredible you have to believe it. You could make a movie of it, and no one would believe it; too Capra-esque, they would say. Welch left a "high-octane" business career that was making her miserable so that she and her husband could move to a coal town in Big Stone Gap, Virginia ("It's not the middle of nowhere, but you can see it from there," Jack says.) They started a used bookstore in a town of 5,000 people.

Wait a second. Yes, 5,000 people in coal country. The whole county has only 150,000 people. To put that in perspective for you, Madison and St. Clair County have a combined population of over 500,000. There's a lot more "country" than "people" around Big Stone Gap, which is hemmed in by mountains and about 45 minutes from the nearest interstate.

The high school graduation rate is 50 percent, Wendy says. The demographics say that any bookstore is dooooooooomed. "Those people don't read," was what they were told, she said.

Keep in mind that they did this while the economy was crashing, small businesses were DOA and the ebook boom was eating the book business alive. Wait, isn't that still going on?

Somehow they combined their natural humor, creative no-budget marketing and a lot of tenacity with a sense of community and service, which helped them build a business that is thriving where it really shouldn't. It's about community, but it's also about picking a goal and striving for it, even if it's crazy. If there's a theme, Wendy says, it's "do it anyway."

Several bookstore owners were there, along with authors and others connected to the book business. We had some interesting conversations about small business in small towns, the real impact of buying local, what truly killed Borders and imperils Barnes & Noble, and other issues of interest to those of us who love the written word and are lucky enough to make our living from it.

I recall a story from one of the booksellers about customers who try "let's make a deal," bargaining because they want a book they can get for 50 cents less on Amazon, and the bookseller trying to be nice. But the point they don't get is that even if you save 50 cents (or two dollars!) on Amazon, you're not really saving in the long run. Amazon is fine for certain things, and if you live in a corner of Nowhere, U.S.A. that has no bookstores, I can see how it would be good for you.

But that 50 cents is not keeping the lights on in your house, or putting food in your children's mouths. Instead, you can pay 50 cents more and buy from your local bookstore. And then the bulk of your money isn't feeding some faraway corporation, and it isn't fattening some developer's purse. It's going into her pocket to be spent in your own town. It's strengthening that local business that will remember your name, remember what you like, and treat you like a person when you walk in the door, and helping to rebuild a local economy that in turn will support you and your family.

Let me tell you about me and Julia Spencer-Fleming. Jimmy picked up her book for me by mistake, because I'd put a book with the same name on my Christmas list and he apparently couldn't tell the difference between Julia Spencer-Fleming and M.R. Sellars. But her books are crack on paper, so it was the happiest mishap of our year.

Each time I finish a Spencer-Fleming novel, I need the next one and now. I could go to Amazon and get it for $7.99. I can go to Books-a-Million and get it for $7.99. Or I can call up Afterwords and order it. She'll give me 10 percent off, so I get it for $7.19. I don't have to pay for shipping or handling. It won't take any longer than Amazon.

But it's not really about saving 80 cents. It's that my money goes to help support a local business, contributes to the economy of my hometown, and helps support a store that in turn carries my books and those of my fellow local authors, like Cole Gibsen and Suzanne Hartman and Jimmy Gillentine. (And the Welches; if you're interested, The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap is available at Afterwords.)

I picked up The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, and it's waiting for me on the nightstand. Of course, there are three or four (hundred) books ahead of it, but I was sufficiently intrigued by Wendy's story to buy it. Not because I'm thinking of starting a bookstore - oh no, I'm not that crazy - but because their spirit of "do it anyway" impressed me.

See, that applies to all of us. We all have something we want to do, whether it's taking a painting class or running a marathon or learning an instrument or writing a novel or starting a business. Everyone has something they've always wanted to do, and we spend most of our lives listening to all the negative voices telling us it's impossible, unrealistic, too expensive or a stupid idea.

The difference between the people who make it and the people who fail is that the ones who make it did it anyway, according to Wendy Welch. The people who fail are the ones who sit around waiting for life to happen to them. They're waiting for the time to be right, for the economy to improve, for the money to roll in, for the city to help them, for lightning to strike. Nothing ever comes from waiting.

Do it anyway.