A Writer Tells Her Story Of Redemption And Hope In Appalachia
Mandi Sheffel spends just about every day waiting on customers in her bookstore, the Read Spotted Newt. She says it’s Hazard’s first independent bookstore. The mid-century modern-style building with a big welcome sign hanging on the powder blue bricks sits at the foot of a mountain.
Sheffel was born and raised in Knott County in Appalachia. She and her husband and son live in the neighboring Breathitt County and her bookstore in Hazard is close by in Perry County. She said one of the main reasons she enjoys this area is the people.
”Everybody feels like family. And everybody’s connected in some form or fashion,” reports Sheffel.
She believes the biodiversity in Appalachia is like nowhere else in the United States.
“If I need a minute and to gather my thoughts and to kind of get in a headspace, I literally can just walk up the mountain behind my house. I just don’t think you get that everywhere. I don’t think it’s that easy everywhere,” said Sheffel.
But it hasn’t always been so easy for the 40-year-old. She’s a recovering addict who’s been clean for 15 years. She started experimenting with alcohol at age 12, started using harder drugs at 16, and said at age 17 she was introduced to oxycontin.
”I watched it absolutely destroy every mind around me. Some of the best people that I know were just taken in by this drug,” explains Sheffel.
At age 25 with the help of family and a detox program, Sheffel said it wasn’t easy, but she was able to get clean.
There are multiple layers to her story including finishing college and getting a master’s degree. She worked for an environmental consulting firm, got married and had a son. But in 2013, her cousin who was more like a brother to her was murdered. She said she was deep in grief.
“And then I also had this irrational fear that I was gonna forget our childhood memories. So I started writing. Anything I could remember that involved my childhood, I started putting down,” said Sheffel.
Years later in 2019, she met well-known Kentucky writer Gurney Norman at a poetry reading in Hazard. Sheffel said Norman asked to see what she was writing.
“I sent him what I had. I can only imagine what it looked like. It was a journal. It wasn’t intended for anybody else to read. So, he gets back to me within two hours. He said you got a really distinct voice I think this is something you need to pursue,” said Sheffel.
Inspired by Norman, Sheffel went to a writers' workshop at Hindman Settlement School. She was amazed by the writers she encountered there and felt there needed to be a place for the community to gather and showcase its work.
“I left there thinking that it was unfortunate that we had all these talented writers in the region and there wasn’t even a bookstore here to promote their work,” said Sheffel.
On January 28, 2020, Mandi Sheffel opened her bookstore the Read Spotted Newt but had to close the doors two months later due to COVID. She wasn’t able to have any in-person shoppers March, April, or May.
”But this community rallied around me and this bookstore. They did pick-ups. I was literally selling books out of the front door,” explains Sheffel.
She said her store is part of the revitalization of Hazard. She’s been able to reopen the store at a larger location. At her bookshop, she provides local art, books, and gifts. She hosts authors and holds book clubs. She feels like the revitalization parallels her story which she calls one of redemption and hope.
Sheffel says so much has happened since she’s opened the Read Spotted Newt. She’s on the board of the Appalachian Arts Alliance. She recently received attention for an Op Ed she wrote in response to Alan Maimon’s book, “Twilight in Hazard”, a book, she said covers many of the struggles in Appalachia. Sheffel said she respects Maimon and his journalism but it’s frustrating for the narrative about her home to frequently be one of the hard times.
”I think a lot of people wonder why people are getting upset when these facts are true. And I think what tends to happen is, there’s a single narrative that gets told about Appalachia,” said Sheffel.
She’s part of a team of people working to revitalize the area. Since 2018, over 30 new businesses have opened in downtown Hazard and the Read Spotted Newt is one of them.
Mandi Sheffel has started her memoir. It’s a collection of vignettes about her recovery and her life growing up in the area.
“We as a population have to say, ‘when do progress and perseverance become newsworthy’? And I think for us, it’s now,” reports Sheffel.
Sheffel encourages folks to come and draw their own conclusions about the region. She doesn’t believe you’ll find better people anyway.