Writing Stores

I’ve been thinking a lot about stores lately. About stores and the way they make writers. Just about every writer I know of has a store of some kind in their past. Lee Smith—the Patron Saint of Southern Writers—often talks about the influence of growing up in her father’s five and dime in downtown Grundy, Virginia. Pamela Duncan talks about growing up listening to her grandmother, who was a wonderful store in her own right. Lots of Southern writers will tell you about grandmothers or Mamas or aunts being stores that taught them how to tell a story. One of my favorite writers, Thomas Hardy, soaked up much of the knowledge he would later use in his writing by attending the many square dances where his fiddler-father and uncles performed almost every week. Willa Cather’s most beautiful novels are the ones that were most heavily influenced by the store she lived in, a store populated by sad and beautiful immigrant women who would become the basis for such strong characters as Alexandra in O Pioneers! and the title heroine of My Antonia.

I had so many stores I’ve had to sit down and make a list of all of them, and it’s been near impossible to figure out which was the most important.

First, there was the literal store I grew up in, my aunt’s little jottemdown store that served the tiny community of Fariston, Kentucky. Dot’s Grocery. If you don’t know what a jottemdown grocery is, that’s the kind of store you never, ever see any more. It was called a jottemdown grocery because on the counter there always laid a big, ragged, spiral notebook. At Dot’s, it was usually one from the Dollar General, bought twenty for a dollar at the start of the school year, more than likely with a red cover. Each page was headed by the name of a local community member. When they’d come in and get their groceries, Dot would figure up their tally and then they’d turn to their page and jot down the amount they owed her, which would be paid whenever their paycheck came in. Jottemdown. That’s what everybody called such stores back then, which really wasn’t so long ago. This was in the 70s and 80s, before WalMart took over America, back when a widow woman like my aunt could start her a little store in a little bitty house close to the road with a few candy bars, cigarettes, a good cold pop cooler, and actually see it grow.

Lots of people never paid off their credit at Dot’s Grocery, but every day they offered their stories, which I was always eager to hear. I loved to be in Dot’s Grocery with the big Stokermatic stove that got so hot it sometimes glowed red and the shelves and shelves of diapers and canned soup and Zagnuts and the big, terrifying, gold-framed picture of the blonde-headed Jesus looking down on us with longing in his sad blue eyes, as if he too wanted to be part of the conversation. Here I learned about Mamie Spurlock’s kidney problems and Lester Conley’s many inabilities and Hy—short for Hyacinth—Shepherd’s affair with Vestal Stacy, who just so happened to be the preacher at the Holiness church where she was the choir leader.

But I learned more than just gossip: I learned about kindness when my aunt Dot grew sorry for poor mothers and gave them gallons of milk, erasing their marks in the notebook after they had left. I learned about boundaries when aunt Dot would run the same girls off if they had figured out she was kind-hearted and started to take advantage of her. I learned, by studying her in moments of silence, about being blue, which is something she went through her whole life, and is something people rarely talk about these days. In Dot’s moments of blueness I learned about silence—the nit nit of that red plastic clock that hang behind the register—even though she hardly ever stopped talking when she was in a good mood.

People in my family rarely stopped talking. We were raised to believe that it was impolite to let a silence fall. We told stories to survive. One of the few places in the world we ever hushed up—and rarely even there—was another store I grew up in: the Lily Holiness Church, where I spent two or three nights a week and every Sunday morning of the first seventeen years of my life. My brain and soul have the scars to prove it.

Despite how it messed me up to be raised going to church so much, I have accepted that that store was integral to my becoming a writer, and to my becoming a person. Here I learned how to observe, how to memorize, how to study people properly, and from different angles. There is not much formality in the Holiness church (one of its true qualities), so I was often allowed to stretch out beneath the pews, where I could closely—and unbeknownst to anyone else—study the lower parts of people. You can learn a whole lot about people from studying them only from the knee down. Some people never polished their shoes, for instance. Some people polished their shoes to a fare-thee-well. Some people come to church with mud caked on their shoes.

These are important details to writers.

The most fun was to be beneath the pews when everyone started “shouting,” which is when they would holler out and dance in place and speak in tongues. I laid there and imagined an earthquake had come, or that God was holding the floor at opposite corners and bending it up and down to have his way with his Children. Sometimes I would doze off and awake to silence—very rarely, but sometimes, usually only when someone had just finished speaking in tongues and was waiting for the translation—and I would be assured that the Rapture had come and I had been the only one Left Behind. When this happened I always raised up too quickly, knocking my brains out on the hard underwood of the pew, the hit plomping out into the quiet of the church like a baseball being struck by a fast bat.

I learned the power of music and the hugeness of words was reinforced to me every single time someone would get up to testify and poetry would mysteriously fall out of their mouths. These were good, hard-working people who didn’t have much else but going to church, and when they stood up to give their testimony, well, it could make a believer out of anybody.

As a Holiness boy, I did everything with the other church members. We went to Mammoth Cave together. We ate together at least once a week. We sought each other out at the junior high, desperate to find companions that would not cuss nor talk about sex all day long. We went roller skating together on Gospel Night, all of us wearing our matching t-shirts that said HOLY ROLLERS on the back while we skated to the Singing Cooke Family or the McKameys. And all the time all of these people were telling stories, using words in a beautiful way.

The most important store, however, was my own family. We Southern writers tend to always go back to them, sooner or later. They’re all the material we’ll ever need.

My family was—is—loud and fiery. They grow tender as easily as they grow angry. And they know how to tell a story. They exaggerate, they zoom in on the perfect detail, they establish a rhythm. These are three of the most important thing a writer can learn.

There was my Uncle Dave, who was also an accomplished quilter, taught by his mother during an especially bad winter when they couldn’t get outside to work on anything else. But he was an even more accomplished story-teller. He told epics. Often family gatherings turned into a listening session when Dave would hold court, everyone gathered near while he kept us on the edges of our seats, either telling a ghost story or a funny story or some adventure he had had at some point. My favorite was the one about him riding a mule in the house just to scare his mother.

“She was cutting a big hen up to fry,” he’d start out. “I believe it was Christmas. Or Thanksgiving one. I don’t remember which. But she was hard at it, son, cutting that hen up, and I rode that old mule in real easy, real slow, gentle as you please, and got him right up behind her and all at once she felt his breath on her neck and she turned around—real real slow—and then she was eye to eye with that big old nasty mule and she just throwed that hen right up in the air and run out of the house.” He went into a fit of laughter, and through his glee, puffed out the rest: “And. That. Little woman. Never was afraid. Of nothing. But that liked to scared her. To death.”

I knew that one was too good to pass up; I used it in my first novel and received dozens of letters about that scene alone.

He sang little songs:

Oh, I had me a little chicken and she wouldn't lay nary egg
I took and poured me some hot water up and down her leg.
And the poor little hen hollered and the poor little hen begged,
But then the poor little chicken laid a hard-boiled egg.

He had dozens of those.

There was, most of all, my aunt, Sis, who always had a Winston planted firmly between her teeth. Sis loved music better than anyone I have ever known. She must have had ten thousand record albums, which I was assigned to keep in alphabetical order even though she never put them back where they belonged. Sis was ten years older than my mother and had taken on the position of grandmother in my life. I stayed with her as much as possible—often to escape going to church—but mostly because she let me do whatever I wanted. With Sis I could set up and watch the Late Movie, or Johnny Carson, or reruns of “The George Allen Show.” She’d make chocolate fudge at midnight, let me drink coffee, had me read articles out of her True Story magazines to her while she rested her eyes with a washcloth across her forehead, the blue smoke of the Winston twirling between us.

Sis did not have great judgment, bless her heart. She took me to see The Exorcist when I was four, for God’s sake. But her bad judgment was my great fortune, because every Saturday she and I went “yard-saling,” her favorite and most oft-used verb. And on these yard sale and flea market trips, she let me buy any book that I wanted. She had bought me a guitar in the hopes that I might become the next Eddie Rabbit, but when that didn’t pan out she realized that I might not have the desire to be a country singer but I sure had the determination to be a writer. So she bought me books. One of those books was Peyton Place, by Grace Metalious, which I found at the bottom of a greasy cardboard box at the flea market.

“Aye Lord, that’s a good’n right there now, I tell ye,” she said, talking around her cigarette, squinting at the cover of the book through the smoke. “I read that when it first come out, twenty year ago. It was a scandal, that book was. You’ll love it.”

I was nine.

So, that day she bought me two of the most important gifts anyone has ever given me: a tattered paperback of Peyton Place, and a ginormous Royal typewriter, which was solid metal. The typewriter was as big and brown as a small tank; it must have weighed two hundred pounds. Sis, the man who had sold it to us, and I had to carry it to the car. But I ended up writing the first draft of my first novel on it.

Even though Peyton Place was considered incredibly dirty when it first came out in the 1950s, there is no denying the beauty of the prose in that book. Its influence can be found in all of my descriptive writing and also in the ways I try to get at the operations of a small town’s heart. In a way, I’ve always been trying to write a book that Sis will love as much.

There was also Mamaw, who always sprinkled new colloquialisms into her tales. Among my favorites was when she told me the story of my grandfather coming to the boarding school where she was a student to whisk her away on a date against the schoolmarm’s wishes. Mamaw sat on the couch, wrapped in a sweater and hunched over the heat register in the floor even though it was June outside, and said: “I stood up there on the big high porch and seen him down there on his little horse,” she said. “That mountain was steep as a calf’s face but buddy he just rode right up there and got me. I wrapped my arms around his waist and never did look back.”

I could go on and on. Those are only three of the storytellers—or store-keepers—that I was lucky enough to hear throughout my childhood. And what made this store—the family store, you might say, if you choose to be as corny as me—so particularly wonderful was that it was always populated by loads and loads of people. There was always a big bunch of people in my house, streaming in and out at all hours, staying for supper, staying the night, staying for a week or two sometimes. And they all told stories, they all used language in a specific, beautiful way that I just absolutely soaked up.

I have an image of myself as a child that I have more than likely made up. But it probably happened at one point. Sometimes I see myself as a little boy--perhaps eight year old--standing in the middle of the living room, which is absolutely filled with every person in my family, all of whom are caught up in the act of telling a story. Some of them rear back and laugh, slapping their knees, probably laughing at their own jokes. Some dot Kleenex to their eyes, upset by their stories. Others are so caught up in telling their stories that they barely pause to breath or check to see if anyone is listening to anymore. A murmur that rises to a roar that threatens to blow the roof right off my childhood home’s house. The power of words, rising and rising.

That’s what is always present at these stores we writers remember, whether that store was the family or the church or a real little jottemdown store: words. Sentences. Stories. Language.

We survive because of stories. We live to tell our tale, to hear a tale told, to be part of a tale that is in the process of happening, just so it can be told later. People might think we Southerners are all ignorant and illiterate but secretly we’re all obsessed with words. I’m thankful for that, because otherwise I wouldn’t get to do what I love for a living. So every book I write is for the people who made me, the stories that made me. For the words.


It is so true how social centers like community stores, churches, and homesteads are such rich "stores" for storytelling and experience. I can remember when my grandmother ran the cash register of a little gas station in Woodlawn, virginia, and how I jumped, head first, into a Coca-Cola cooler to pull out a glass bottle of Mountain Dew because I liked the gun-toting hillbilly and outhouse logo on the front. And the older men that sat around the counter and talked! I hope you will continue to post when you get the chance. I'm sure you keep yourself busy as a writer. I enjoyed reading A Parchment of Leaves. Keep up the good writing!
Silas, you never cease to amaze me with your gift of capturing such beautiful truths and bringing to life the vivid memories of the past. I also remember these stores that you recall in your blog; I'm only sorry to see them die off one at a time to the big chains like Wal-Mart, as you mentioned. The South is slowly becoming homogenized and these little nuances we cherish would all but be obliterated if it weren't for stories like yours. Your stories are truly a treasure and a gift. I look forward to reading more from your blog. God bless.
I, too, was raised around a "jottemdown" store. My mother ran one from 1988 until 2001 on US 25 between Renfro Valley and Berea in the little community of Snyder. She got out of it at such time when the grocery business had migrated the few miles north to the new Super Wal-Mart in Berea, taking the food stamp and WIC voucher business with it. (I could, by the way, very much relate to the brawl in the country convienence store that took place in CLAY'S QUILT. Both the WIC vouchers and the occasionally Bubba-scorned fight were known to have taken place at the store.)

While the store you remember was around a few years before my Mom's, they sound very similiar. But, then things always have ran 10 or 20 years behind here in Rockcastle County, I suppose.

But the stores definitely sound like they were similiar (right down to those dollar store notebooks, filled with credit bills that might, or often times more likely might not, have gotten paid.)

The country store thing was a second-generation thing for Mom though, really. My great Aunt Mattie ran a real crossroads country store in the Green Hill community here in Rockcastle County from the 1920s clear up through the 1970s.

I always enjoy your books so much, all of which I've read more than once. Whether a country store or whatever other little nuance of Southern and Eastern Kentucky, you always seem to get such important little details just right.

And too, after all, I'm glad I'm not the only one under 40 who enjoyed at least a fleeting glimpse of a simpler time, when we all were not compelled by necessity and budget to insure the economic prosperity of Sam Walton's great-great-great-great-great grandchildren.
Rick Wilson said…
Silas, I enjoyed reading about your stores. I also grew up around a jottemdown country store and gas station. My aunt and uncle owned and ran it. In addition to the cigarettes and coke cooler, they sold lunch meat and made sandwiches every day for local farmers and their workers. I grew up on cold bottles of Pepsi with salted nuts poured inside, ham and cheese loaf sandwiches, fudge bullets, orange pushups and all the penny candy I could eat. Since I lived way out in the country, my only socialization was at that store where the local folks would come in and just sit and talk. I wish I could go back and listen again now that I might actually care about what somebody has to say. After a few years, my grandparents left the farm and moved to town. I would stay ANYWHERE except at home (where I was an only child and lived with my other grandparents a half mile from nowhere). Would anybody now believe the highlight of a child's day could be to see a car coming up the lane? That dry dust roiling and you KNEW you were about to have company--because nobody else lived on that road!
Kim said…
Hi Silas, I'm glad you have a blog now. I wish you'd tell us when we'll see that next book!
Grant said…
Slias, so glad to see you here in the blog world, I just stared a few months ago and find it very addicting. I am a great fan of your work and was troubled to have to miss your appearance at Pikeville College last month. I couldn't escape from the metropolis of Catlettsburg to journey up the Levisa midweek.
Clay's Quilt will forever hold a special place on my shelf!
Roberta Schultz said…

Lately stores have been extra-present in my consciousness. When I was 6, my grandma used to send me to Elsie's on the corner with grocery lists scribbled on the yellow slips of paper my grandpa brought home from his teller job at the bank. She never gave me money for those trips, so I guess I was headed for a "jottemdown" and didn't even know it.

Then, when I was a teenager interested in playing folk music with two neighbor boys--we really wanted to be the next Peter, Paul and Mary--we practiced in Ed Yelton's store. Since Mark Yelton was trying hard to be Paul Stookey, his dad, Ed, let us practice in the can goods aisle after the store closed each Wednesday night. Sometimes on weekends we'd drive down to Grant's Lick in Gary Baker's car and practice on the store porch of his grandpa's store, Baker and Hulley. Gary was studying to be Peter Yarrow by way of the Smothers Brothers. We even named our fledgling folk band after the first store as we called ourselves "Yelton's Friendly Service."

Last week all my memories of stores and store porches came flooding back when my current folk band, Raison D'Etre played the Richard Young Benefit at Rabbit Hash General Store in Rabbit Hash, KY. That store and community is a shrine to all of us who remember and celebrate the kind of store you describe. Can't wait for your next book.
MarcieCrim said…
Goodness Silas, that was wonderful.

Gena said…
I just read your October blog and laughed so hard. I also come from a very large family of story tellers .
I live in Harrison County and we still have a couple of places like you speak of. Shadynook still has a little country store where folks gather to loaf and eat a hot lunch. My friends Hattie and Burnie Rankin own it and she prepares a hot lunch and a great sandwich and lots of old tales and new gossip daily.
A good group joins nightly at our local McDonalds for stories and friendship. You can find my mother and I there every night from about 9-12 laughing and enjoy stories.
I am usually the youngest in the group (40) but I love going ,it reminds me of my grandmothers kitchen where everyone was welcomed and everyone was loved.
It really is a shame how our children will never experience the old ways, but occasionally I can persuade one of my kids to join me.
Keep up the grat work. Love everything you write, you feel like kin.

gena arnold
Anne said…
Silas, your writing is amazing. You write exactly what I wish I had the talent to write. I was raised by grandparents who moved to Ohio during the depression. They never called Hamilton, Ohio home. McKee, Kentucky was always home. They always talked about going "down home". I spent most of my summers in Kentucky, and now I too talk about going "down home" smile I grew up visiting Norris Grocery store in McKee. There was a pot bellied stove that sat near the check-out area, and the owner's mother, Maggie Norris, would sit in a big old rocking chair. She would visit with all the folks who came to do their Saturday grocery shopping. My grandmother would pull out her crocheting and sit with Maggie. After I had explored all the grocery store I was free to roam around McKee. I was safe to do that in those days. There was nothing like visiting Bishop's 5 and 10. When I read your writing I'm back in Norris Grocery, or I'm at a holiness church listening to first one and then another singing, or testifying. Keep doing what you are doing.
Anne said…
Silas, your writing is absolutely amazing. I grew up with grandparents who moved to Ohio during the depression. They never stopped talking about "down home". I spent many summers in McKee, Kentucky. There was a grocery store there that sounds very similar to the one you write about. Norris Grocery was a treasureland for me. Aunt Maggie Norris (my grandmother's aunt) was the mother of the store owner. Maggie's husband Ben owned the store until he died. Maggie would sit in a rocking chair by the pot bellied stove and visit all who came to buy groceries. I love memories of Kentucky, and now I talk about going "down home". Keep writing, Silas. You make me smile.
Jersey said…
Silas, Parchment of Leaves is such a great book! I have it for my book group this month, and reading again.
Love your prose and the beauty of the countryside and nature. Also noted that there are not explicit details of each person, facial characteristics, hair etc - Just general body types. Would this be because your characters could be anyone the reader sees, or that those individual traits are not as important as what they feel/do?

Maybe you could say Hi to our Beach Bookers, and I can extend it to the members on 1/23 as we delve into the story on Vine. Saul, Esme and Aaron. Continued good writing!
Jane said…
I envy your experiences you had as a child, with family that we have in common. (Dot was my Grandmother) Being raised up in Ohio, we only came down ever so often, and that's not enough time to really be able to study people. And most people who came to Ohio from Kentucky just wanted to leave it all behind, they very rarely ever spoke about the many things that you write about. I enjoy reading your blog.
Marsha said…
Boy, did you remind this little Pentecostal raised gal of some harrowing moments in church. I used to wake up every morning to a silent house and worry that the rapture had taken place. The lights went out in a very ordinary church service once and everyone started to shout! The girl next to me reached out for an older lady in front of her since she knew that the older lady would be gone if the rapture had taken place. Geez, I can't believe she didn't reach for me thinking I'd have been gone;)
To the tune of "Turkey in the Straw", right? I sing that ditty to my little nieces/nephews when we go out to check for eggs. They giggle and dance with glee and argue over who will carry the warm treasures, gold wrapped in brown chests.

I just read "Coal Tattoo" b/c I caught you on KET recently. I wonder if "Peyton Place" is the inspiration for your descriptive love scenes? (idk what I'm talking about b/c I haven't read it.) I about dropped the book when I read the first scene and by the 3rd I was blushing. I wondered to myself, "Does his wife read those paperback romance novels and he sneaks a peek?"

Just started reading your blog via FB link. I find it worth my time to read. There's a compliment if ever I gave one.
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Anonymous said…
Just listened to some of your music. Love Sexton Street. and Old Before your time. New to your site- will be looking for your books. It's late, but I'll be back!

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