You can’t judge a bookstore by its sign

Words n’ Stuff is a great little bookstore.

It’s in a place called Van Lear, in the hills of eastern Kentucky, near where I grew up.

Words n’ Stuff isn’t big, and it isn’t fancy. It doesn’t have a Starbucks, but if you’d ask, I’ll bet they’d give you a cup of coffee.

Words n’ Stuff is for people who love books. It has everything from local history to world religions, literary fiction to romance novels, new hard covers to used paperbacks.

If you go there, you’ll buy something. You can’t help it. You will.

We went there when we were visiting my folks last weekend, and we left with a memoir of Amelia Earhart’s first solo flight across the Atlantic, an Edmund Morris biography of Theodore Roosevelt, a book of essays by Jonathan Franzen and some children’s books.

We might have bought more, but Thing 2 got restless. There’s a good children’s section at Words n’ Stuff, but no train tables.

What impresses me most about Words n’ Stuff, though, is that it’s in Van Lear. Van Lear isn’t the place where you’d expect to find a great little bookstore.

Van Lear was built by the Consolidation Coal Co. in 1909 and named for a company director, Van Lear Black.

(If the name of the place sounds familar, it’s probably because Loretta Lynn mentions the Van Lear mines in her song, “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” and in the title song of her album, Van Lear Rose, which won a Grammy in a few years ago. Dwight Yoakum mentions the mines in the song, “Miner’s Prayer,” which was on Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc.)

Van Lear is unincorporated. There isn’t a downtown. Words n’ Stuff is one of Van Lear’s only retail businesses. People who live in Van Lear tend to shop and work someplace else.

I can’t find 2010 Census data for Van Lear, but in 2000, about 2,100 people lived in the bookstore’s ZIP code. Only 10% of them had bachelor’s degrees (the national average was 24%), while the median household income was $26,600 (compared with the national average of $42,000).

If you were Barnes & Noble’s or Borders, who wouldn’t give Van Lear a second look.

I think that’s worked to Van Lear’s advantage.

33 thoughts on “You can’t judge a bookstore by its sign

  1. I just love their sign! It does my heart good to hear that one of the only retail businesses in such a small town is a book store and not a liquor store. It’s getting harder and harder to find little gems like this in my area.

  2. By the sign, looks like I can get a Pepsi there too. I try to support independent bookstores whenever I can, and definitely libraries. Sounds like Van Lear ain’t so behind as the stats might show.

  3. Thanks for this! I spend a lot of time at Borders (and even more at Amazon), but I love knowing that bookstores like this are still around and doing well. Next time I visit my folks in Indiana, I may need to take a drive down to Kentucky.

    1. A lot of the folks who stop at the store are tourists looking for Butcher Hollow, which Loretta Lynn sings about in “Coal Miner’s Daughter.” Butcher Hollow is about a mile up the road. Loretta Lynn’s birthplace is still there, althouh no one lives there anymore. We went there once. Her brother, Herman, gave us a tour.

  4. There’s something really atmospheric about that photograph and your description.. It reminds me of the feeling you get when you find something familiar and something you can treaure when you are travelling, and possibly lonely abroad.

    1. They are interesting. The owners are about my parents’ age, maybe a little older. He’s a civil engineer. I’m not sure what she does. They’re good people, and smart, too. I didn’t mention them because I didn’t ask permission (sorry, Jim).

  5. Perfect post–today is Mom and Pop day (the day to honor our local business)–Local book stores are so deserving of our support. I use a Kindle, have an I-pad but still visit my favorite local book stores and always end up buying something I love.

    If I am ever passing though, I will be sure to stop in! Thanks.

    1. Katybeth, you’ll never just be passing through Van Lear, Kentucky. It’s too far off the main highway. If you’re there, you’re there on purpose.

  6. Words ‘n Stuff would have been a great blog name (if it isn’t already). Hope you had a nice visit and congratulations to Kentucky for its tournament success so far.

  7. Fantastic. Glad you posted about this, Todd Pack. I’m adding this to my list of places to visit, and no, I’m not kidding. It’s only 2 hours from where GB’s parents live. Sounds like a great way to spend an afternoon the next time we head that way.

  8. Sounds like an oasis– I could spend hours in a place like that. Love that there are no couture coffee places within miles.
    And, we’re pulling for Kentucky big time–my father-in-law grew up there, and my brother-in-law has lived in Lexington for years, so I guess no hard feelings about y’all beatin’ my Tar Heels.

  9. There’s a similar-looking stop in High Ridge, MO called Betty’s Books but it’s almost all hijacked romance novels (years ago when I worked in a book shop, I learned that when we tore off the front covers to return to the publishers, that meant they were “trashed” and NOT meant to head straight to a place like Betty’s). I wish we had a “good” book shop like that!
    -not that I live in High Ridge but I pass it commuting to work

  10. I was born and raised in floyd county, I live in Ohio but ever time I come home , We always make time to go the book store, love the store and the people there.

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