My summer travels brought me to the small town of Marion, tucked in the mountains of southwestern Virginia. My partner, Roberta, was doing genealogical research and we had some old family sites, the library, and a cemetery to visit.
The town holds literary interest, because it was here that Sherwood Anderson, author of Winesburg, Ohio (1919), lived while working as a newspaper publisher and editor during his later years. But the evening we arrived, we were weary. Our only order of business before dinner was touring Main Street, not doing research of any kind.
We emerged from the General Francis Marion Hotel and ventured across the street to a quirky looking shop called Appalachian Mountain Spirits. Although it was closing time, co-owner Scott Schumaker, a large man with a gentle demeanor, said we could look around while he took care of some paperwork. Roberta wandered off. I got no further than the cages of kittens near the front door.
They were all up for adoption, and I was transfixed. A couple of black and white kittens and a solid black one were vying for my attention. A beautiful gray cat lay fast asleep. In another cage, a tiny silver tabby tucked her chin into her chest and dozed. She was the one I had to hold, and Scott Schumaker obligingly unlatched the cage and placed her in my hands. I wanted to slip her in my pocket and take her with me everywhere.
That was what I wanted but not what I did. The store was closing, and Roberta and I left, murmuring our goodbyes to Scott as we headed outside and down a couple of doors to a nice, down-home restaurant called the Wooden Pickle.
Although Roberta and I had never been out of each other’s earshot during our visit to Appalachian Mountain Spirits, it turned out we’d had completely different experiences there. After learning what she had discovered while I was cooing over kittens, I resolved to return the next evening and conduct a mini-interview for this blog.
So here’s my conversation with Dana Schumaker, co-owner, with her husband, of Appalachian Mountain Spirits, 112 E. Main St., Marion, Va. As you read this, imagine kittens mewing in the background:
HH: How long have you been here?
Dana: Two and a half years.
HH: What is the purpose of the store?
Dana: We are a distillery with an ABC store and a whiskey tasting room, so we have locally made artisan wares in the front, the ABC store is in the middle, and our still is in the back.
HH: Tell me about these cats up front. What’s going on with all the kittens?
Dana: Well, I have been an animal rescuer for 20+ years. When we opened this store in Marion, I decided that I wanted to support the local shelter, since it is a very high-kill shelter, and I have [found homes for] kittens and adult cats since last September, and we are approaching about 300 adoptions.
HH: Who’s adopting all these kittens and cats?
Dana: A lot of locals. And believe it or not, I’ve actually had someone from as far away as Ohio adopt a cat, so even people who are traveling are getting them as well.
HH: Do people come in for the whiskey and stay for the cats, or vice versa?
Dana: It goes both ways. We have people come because they heard that I have cats and they end up going to the back and trying the whiskey. Some people come in for the whiskey and fall in love with the cats.
HH: Where are you from?
Dana: Originally from Orlando, Florida.
HH: What drew you to the little town of Marion?
Dana: The mountains. My husband and I knew that we wanted to move to the mountains, and we especially wanted to be close to the AT [Appalachian Trail]. We hadn’t decided where, and someone directed us to southwest Virginia, and we fell in love with Marion and moved here.
HH: What was this building before it became your business?
Dana: It was an Amish goods store and prior to that, I’ve been told, it was a bookstore, a photography studio, a jewelry store, and a Rose’s department store.
HH: Wow, that’s lots of different things. Do you have plans for things you might add to what you sell here or other things you might do?
Dana: We want to do something with the upstairs. We just haven’t decided what yet. We’ve thought about having a cigar bar or a private whiskey club. We don’t know.
HH: But, plans in the works?
After the interview, I went to the back of the store, past several shelves of moonshine and the whiskey tasting bar, in search of Roberta. She was talking to Scott, who had hooked up a guitar made from a cigar box to an amplifier. It took a little doing, but he got it to work and the sound was lovely.
Roberta bought that guitar. When she plays it, now that we’re back home in our corner of Virginia, I’m sure I’ll think about the Schumakers and the whiskey and the cats.
I’ll think about the new kitten, a tall black and white one, that had arrived just an hour before our second visit to the shop. He’d been found behind an old factory where they used to make Buster Brown shoes.
When Dana Schumaker let me hold him, he stood completely still in my arms. Hoping. Waiting. If I could’ve taken him home, I would’ve named him Sherwood and given him my whole front lawn.