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Bound & Determined

Kathy Patrick’s realm as a small-town hairdresser reaches far and wide through her Pulpwood Queens book club

In October 1999, Kathy Patrick received one of those phone calls we all dread. A corporate downsizing eliminated her job. Not just any job—her dream job. Patrick, an avid reader, represented book publishers. She met authors. She got to travel—New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles. And it paid well, with bonuses, insurance and profit sharing.

That’s not the sort of position easily replaced when you live in a small town like Jefferson, population 2,106, tucked into the northeast corner of rural Texas. Especially if you are more or less married to the town, as Patrick was. Her husband had a good job. They owned a lovely home. Their two children attended the local school. They belonged to a church. Relocating was not an option.

In short, that phone call represented disaster.

So Patrick did what any sane person does under such circumstances. She went to bed. She read novels and watched TV. She ate chocolate—lots of chocolate.

Then, after a long week in hiding, she rose from her bed like Lazarus and started over.

Now, 14 years later, she looks back on that time and all that’s happened since and marvels: Who could have predicted the striking chain of events that ensued?

For an opening salvo, Patrick launched Beauty and the Book, likely the first—and as far she knows only—combination beauty shop and bookstore in Texas. Right there in tiny Jefferson.

Then she started a book club. Because Northeast Texas is pulpwood timber country, she dubbed it the Pulpwood Queens of East Texas. Six people showed up for the first meeting. Not bad. Eventually, 550 Pulpwood Queens’ chapters spread across the U.S. and overseas with more than 2,000 members.

How’d that happen? Momentum, Patrick says. It just kept building and never stopped.

Bob Phillips showed up in 2002 to film a segment for his syndicated TV show “Texas Country Reporter.” People called afterward, saying, “We want to start a chapter, too.”

That same year, ABC contacted Patrick who, along with 60 local Pulpwood Queens, appeared live on “Good Morning America” from Jefferson. Diane Sawyer and Patrick talked about hair. Big hair. Also, books. And more people called.

So did Oprah. Which is how Patrick ended up on Oprah’s cable TV network Oxygen. “I appeared on the show ‘Dallas Style’ with a new singing group out of Houston called Destiny’s Child,” she recalls with a laugh. “Beyoncé. She’s gone a little farther than me.”

No question, the Pulpwood Queens were on a roll. Grand Central Publishing released Patrick’s book, “The Pulpwood Queens’ Tiara-Wearing, Book-Sharing Guide to Life” in 2008. In the book, Patrick tells the story of her remarkable life journey. She offers tidbits of philosophy, such as, “When gathering with girlfriends, leave your diets at the door.” She also makes a strong pitch for literacy, a cause she is intensely devoted to. “Get America reading”—that’s the club’s official mission statement.

Nowadays, an annual January extravaganza called Girlfriend Weekend attracts authors and Pulpwood Queens from afar for an event combining a book festival, author discussion panels, costume events and a Saturday night dance called the Hair Ball.

There’s also the literacy project with Dolly Parton, the prison project in Alaska, the group trips to visit literary sites in Europe and, well, the list goes on and on.

Not that every idea comes to fruition. A talk show that publisher Random House wanted Patrick to host on cable TV, for example, got sidetracked to the Internet, where it languished. But that sort of thing’s to be expected when someone’s pushing the envelope. And Patrick is, if anything, a trailblazer. She’s a born risk taker.

A Book Club Goes Viral

In the beginning, Beauty and the Book was located in the Patrick home on the forested outskirts of Jefferson.

“After I lost my job, my sister suggested I go back to doing hair,” Patrick recalls. “When I was younger, I went to Crum’s Beauty College in Manhattan, Kansas, and became a hairdresser as a way to put myself through [the] university.”

So a former workshop adjacent to the house became a beauty shop. Because she loves books, the beauty shop also became a bookstore. In January 2000, Patrick opened for business.

By March, she decided to start a book club for women. While pondering names, she remembered a beauty contest she entered as a teenager, with calamitous results. “Hey, I can’t help it if I don’t have a waistline,” she says. “This is how God made me. So I figured we’d crown ourselves ‘beauty-within queens’—The Pulpwood Queens. Our motto would be, ‘Where tiaras are mandatory and reading good books is the rule.’ And we would be inclusive. Anybody could belong. Education, religion, economic background—none of that would matter.”

Club members indulge in a playful signature look: tiaras, hot pink T-shirts, rhinestones and leopard-print accessories, including jackets. Women secretly love leopard print, Patrick says, but need “permission” to wear it in public.

Finally, to encourage wider book club participation, she created an auxiliary group for men called the Timber Guys. Younger folks can join the Splinters (teenagers) and Pine Cones (children).

As the Pulpwood Queens received increasing media attention and the number of chapters skyrocketed, Patrick found herself hard-pressed to keep track. Early chapters mushroomed across Texas and Louisiana then began appearing as far away as California, Virginia, Alaska and even overseas. Much of her communication with the members is through email and social media—Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

“It’s hard to keep up,” she concedes. “Of the 550 or so chapters, about 20 to 25 are really big. Some start, and I don’t hear from them again. I hear from some every day. There may be as many as 3,000 members now. It’s growing so fast.”

Because her days are hectic with running a small business, Patrick reads at night. With so many members, the Pulpwood Queens can create a buzz about books and influence sales, so publishers send her titles to consider. Each month she chooses two Pulpwood Queens Book Club selections and a bonus book, plus a book each for the Splinters and Pine Cones. These are posted on the Internet and announced on social media for chapters everywhere to see.

Patrick is especially proud of the Pulpwood Queens’ efforts to promote literacy. Reading, she says, is key to a healthy, productive life. So whether it’s participating in Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library initiative or making speeches to civic organizations, Patrick works to push literacy to the forefront of public concern.

The Pulpwood Queens chapter in Golden, Colorado, collects books and delivers them to an American Indian reservation in South Dakota where the schools had no library. The Anchorage, Alaska, club helped start a chapter in a state prison for women. To raise money to buy books, the prison chapter sells a self-published “Crook Book” with recipes prepared solely by microwave, the only cooking device allowed in the prison. The South Louisiana chapter raises money to buy books and Bibles for schoolchildren in Nicaragua. The Katy chapter raises funds to promote literacy in the Houston region.

Patrick is moved that these Pulpwood Queens are committed to serving others. “It is,” she says, “inspirational.”

For the most part, Patrick tries to ride herd on all the activity from Beauty and the Book while adding highlights, juggling phone calls and selling books. Her home-based shop proved too small, so she moved to an old renovated Gulf service station in Jefferson. It isn’t a large space, either, with two stylist stations nestled among shelves stacked with books and knickknacks, walls covered with framed art and mementoes, and cluttered counters overflowing with a multitudinous array of merchandise. For years, within the near chaos of the shop reigned a busy atmosphere of celebration: Life is a feast, enjoy it!

Then disaster struck again.

Starting Over Once More

In 2013, Patrick’s marriage of 25 years came apart. As with that phone call in 1999, she didn’t see it coming. Her life unraveled overnight. In the subsequent divorce, she and her ex sold their home in Jefferson, and she closed her beloved shop. It was a crushing experience.

For month after month, Patrick felt disoriented. She describes herself as being paralyzed with fear.

Then one day she decided, Enough! She rose from her bed like Lazarus yet again. She moved herself and Beauty and the Book 60 miles west to the town of Hawkins, just north of Tyler, where she is a member of Upshur Rural Electric Cooperative.

“I’m 57 years old and starting over,” she says. “It’s scary. But life is about change. And it’s how you snap back that determines whether you have a purposeful life.”

Part of snapping back has been taking the position of youth minister at the First United Methodist Church in Hawkins. She has a van and a budget and takes kids on at least one trip a month. She likes her new community. It might not have Jefferson’s rich history, she concedes, but it’s a fine place all the same, and full of good people.

She also still has Beauty and the Book. And the Pulpwood Queens, Patrick says, continue to thrive. She continues to help book lovers start even more new chapters—one of them in Hawkins.

And as always, her imagination is in overdrive pondering new projects. One is a program called the moveable feast, a monthly literary luncheon with an author as guest speaker. Another is starting a writing center, a retreat where aspiring writers can spend time with established authors to learn about the storytelling craft. Then there’s Hollywood.

“I’m working with a producer in LA who is pitching a major motion picture based on the Pulpwood Queens,” Patrick says. “Something like ‘Steel Magnolias.’ Possibly followed by a TV sitcom.”

An ambitious idea, surely. The kind Patrick likes. There’s risk involved, but what good venture is altogether safe? Once upon a time, Beauty and the Book was a mere idea. And the Pulpwood Queens Book Club was only a notion.

So, Hollywood. Not a bad concept, actually. She’s thinking about it. Check back in a year or so.

Because with Kathy Patrick, you just never know where the plot will go.

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Former Texas Co-op Power editor Christopher Cook lives in Prague, Czech Republic and in Mexico. His website is christopher-cook.com.

You can learn more about the Pulpwood Queens and Beauty and the Book at beautyandthebook.com.