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25 Years Online
••• The International Writers Magazine -
Travel USA - Great Smoky Mountains

More Than We Bargained For
• Chloe Rector
A Mountain of Books awaits you ...

The road to the bookstore snakes through the Great Smoky Mountains. The deeper into the curves we go, the more we think we may never see civilization again. We had never heard of this bookstore, though my family and I have visited this part of North Carolina--Maggie Valley and Waynesville--for years. Then, we saw it. A rickety wooden sign, poking twenty feet above the weeds below, promising a collection of over 200,000 used titles at the “Bargain Book Shop.”
As avid book lovers, we made the turn immediately.

Bargain Books Aisle


            After winding through the maples and birches, we reach the building. The only indication it is the right place is a sign out front. This squatty building, constructed from worn cinder blocks, looks as if it could never possibly house the number of books claimed by the sign. Skeptical, we scan the cracked parking lot, even less assured by the sight of a lone dented minivan parked to the side. Just as we are about to turn back, escaping the boonies, a figure emerges from the backseat of the van. A woman, tumbling out in the most ungracious manner, waving at us from across the lot. We park. As she hobbles along to the faded, creaky shop door, so do we.

            Venturing inside, I’m blinded immediately. The outside, all bright and sunny, is drowned out in this windowless building. Eyes adjusting, I see towers of books, stacked sideways on old mixed matched shelves. Sprawling in a maze-like pattern, the stacks form aisles barely wider than school desks, some you must even turn sideways to shuffle down. The literary Jenga stacks blot out the harsh fluorescents in the ceiling, making these aisles appear dark, even ominous. It’s smothering. The air is stale, and signs are everywhere. Some are neatly printed on white board, others are crude, scrawled with a Sharpie on cardboard scraps. These signs direct customers, telling us where to watch our heads and our steps, or clue us in on the vague organization system, which houses Brontë next to King and Twilight next to Frankenstein. My favorite signs, however, warn shoppers of the consequences for shoplifting: “Jail and Hell.”


The woman from the van, whom we come to know as the owner, is named Mary Judith Messer. She’s a chatty little lady, with clashing patterned clothes and darkly drawn eyebrows that do not match her thin, fading, bleached hair. In her deep Appalachian twang, she tells us her life story. Born and partially reared “deep in the mountains,” Ms. Mary was subject to gruesome poverty. Her father was an illegal moonshiner in and out of jail, leaving Ms Mary’s troubled mother to care for her and her siblings. Ms Mary eventually did make it out of her childhood, moving around when opportunity arose but ultimately returning home to the mountains she loved as a girl. She tells us this and more, before making her sales pitch: her own memoir Moonshiner’s Daughter. (see link) Moonshiner;s Daughter

With only an eighth-grade education and “help from the Lord,” Ms Mary has managed to turn her struggles into a solid piece of art, in a way that she said felt healing. My dad buys the book–no questions asked.

            I must admit, after hearing Ms Mary’s story, I feel guilty. At first glance I thought her store shabby, her demeanor odd, the situation eerie . It seems I severely misjudged both her and her books by their covers, a cliché I’d never imagined falling victim to. This woman, set up for failure at the early stages of life, has succeeded against all odds, not by luck, but by sheer will and faith. What I admire about her most, though, is how she has preserved her spirit despite hardship and used her love of literature as a tool to lift others.  

This love of literature is evident as I’m browsing through the shelves. The inventory is extensive: nonfiction, poetry, anthologies, classic literature, and all fiction genres. For any niche I can think of, there is a book to match it. Adding to the allure, the books serve as time capsules, with copies and special editions spanning decades. One shelf includes every low-budget romance novel produced in the 1970s, while another hosts economic textbooks from the 1990s. Admittedly, it will take some digging to find what I seek. But, all the best treasure is buried.

We leave the store with bags of books, promising Ms Mary “we’ll stop by again.” Back in the car, we sit in silence for a moment. Then, my dad, putting the key in the ignition, says, “Well, that was an experience we’ll never forget.”

© Chloe Rector - 3.28.24

Chloe is a junior at the College of Charleston, pursuing a degree in English (Writing Rhetoric and Publication plus Creative Writing)


Bargain Books can be found at: 1032 Mauney Cove Road, Waynesville NC 28786

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