The following op-ed piece appeared in The New York Times on August 3. Dr. Clark hits the nail on the head. We aren't just saving buildings, we're saving culture.
Appalachian Hope and Heartbreak
By AMY D. CLARK
Published: August 2, 2013
BIG STONE GAP, Va. — A PERSON just passing through Big Stone Gap may not notice the corner drugstore on Wood Avenue with the fading sign, its windows dark and hollow like so many others in these rural coal towns. But for people who live here in the heart of central Appalachia, the Mutual Drug Cafeteria was a community hub, an extension of the family kitchen. It’s where residents could fill a prescription, pick up an oil lamp or a strawberry huller, find a plastic pirate sword for the school play and get a good cup of coffee with a plate of pork chops, soup beans, pickled beets and blackberry cobbler.
I learned a lot about people in places like the Mutual, as I was raised by a family who believed that shopping local was as important as going to church.
I found comfort in the store’s dark paneling, the creak in the floor, the aroma of kraut and franks, the first names of everybody from the pharmacist to the cooks. My grandparents drove 30 miles past chain pharmacies to get medicine here. The pharmacist’s daddy was a lifelong neighbor and family friend, after all.
In the store, books by local authors like Adriana Trigiani were displayed beside tiny sculptures made of coal, all stamped with blaze orange price tags.
The Mutual inspired the setting for Ms. Trigiani’s Big Stone Gap novels, where her main character, Ave Maria Mulligan, works as the pharmacist. “It seems like such a small thing, a corner pharmacy with a cafe in a small town,” said Ms. Trigiani, who grew up here. “But the Mutual was everything to me when I was a girl.” She added, “The greater world lived in our corner pharmacy."
The Mutual is steps from Poplar Hill, where Victorian homes of 19th-century coal barons still stand. Many predicted that Big Stone Gap would be the Pittsburgh of the South. And years ago, the Mutual’s neighbors had big-city names, like the New York Cafe and the Monte Vista Hotel. Today, lower coal prices, fewer jobs and chain stores mean the Mutual has joined more haunted, vacant spaces in towns with decreasing populations.
Residents were still lining up for breakfast the week the Mutual closed. But in recent months, talk in the cafe had turned to hard times: a nurse worrying about the layoffs at the local hospital, or a teacher and her aide talking about losing their jobs. Miners, their hardened hands wrapped around coffee cups, were anxious about a changing industry.
I had hoped my children would have memories of the Mutual, that they would have studied the old pictures on the wall and learned about community while eating lunch in those brown booths. Memories aren’t made in superstores with their beeping and bar codes, with their automatic doors and drive-through windows. As the town inches toward homogenization, it loses a little more of its history, language, architecture.
I’ll miss the old display case in front of the pharmacy counter that holds medical relics. Beside those brown glass bottles was a quotation written on a worn notecard: “To sin by silence when we should protest makes cowards of strong men.”
There is wishful chatter about somebody opening the Mutual again, a cafe in the space where people can come together, where tourists can eat a piece of pie and see the fog rising from the river like spirits against the backdrop of ancient mountains. They could step over to a new tourist center, they dream, where they will get directions to landmarks like our museums and recreational trails.
They might find their way to the used bookstore owned by Wendy Welch and Jack Beck. Ms. Welch’s memoir, “The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap,” chronicles how she and Mr. Beck managed to sustain a brick and mortar bookstore in a digital world, and became a ray of hope in a community where decades-old businesses can no longer compete.
They might run into Jack McClanahan, the chairman of the Southwest Regional Recreation Authority of Virginia. His and others’ Spearhead Trails project aims to turn our mountains into year-round recreational attractions.
There is potential in our rural community and those nearby for landmarks to be renovated and reopened, and crumbling buildings replaced with gardens, spaces for farmers’ markets and theaters. If towns want to thrive again, they have to focus on preserving and promoting their signature attractions. Small businesses like the Mutual must be part of that plan to draw people back.
After all, no one ever takes a road trip to see a CVS or McDonald’s.
We must make an agreement to support our small businesses and make the hope of saving our towns a reality.