Jack (my husband) and I decided to take a small portion of my book advance and see the world – or, specifically, see a bunch of secondhand bookstores and small towns on back roads stretching between Virginia and Kansas, then back again. So we’re headed down through Tennessee to Mississippi, then back up to Arkansas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri, across to Indiana and Illinois, then back down through Kentucky to home sweet home again.
We concocted this silly scheme because we wondered how many towns still have independent bookstores new or used. Looking them up on the Internet, we have plotted a course and set off in pursuit of little bookstores everywhere. And in the interest of being as local as possible, in our earnest Civic Hybrid that gets great gas mileage, we are only eating at restaurants that are not part of a chain. That’s been rather fun to keep up with; it’s amazing how challenging it is to plot one’s meals without a paper cup containing a straw…
But it can be done, and so it shall be! Stay tuned…..
DAY ONE: No sleep ’til Pikeville
We left my parents in Knoxville and headed down the way toward Athens, where our first bookstore was plotted. We found it with little difficulty; a giant “GOING OUT OF BUSINESS” banner helped. The store is giving up the ghost after a year under the new owners, who’d bought the place from someone who’d had it two years before them. Following more of a Hastings model, they also took games and DVDs et al, but it didn’t help when time came to pay the rent…. Family illness settled the matter for them, and we benefited from their 1/2 price closing sale and shared commiserations.
We’d intended to head down to Signal Mountain, but waning daylight sent us straight to Dayton, home of the infamous Scopes Trial. There Jack found a music store and disappeared for several hours, so I wandered the streets looking at the sidewalk timeline of the trial, and searching for a public restroom. I finally found a nice one in the General Store run by Tim and Janet Culver. Exiting the rest room, I was looking around the shop for something useful to purchase by way of a “thanks,” and Janet began chatting with me. Finding out we were bookstore owners on a casual mission of “know and be known,” she showed me the book she and her husband had self-published in 2000, documenting the trial. Their book quotes documents verbatim, with interpretation between to bridge the narrative gaps.
“We published this ourselves, then found out we couldn’t get distribution because we didn’t have enough clout. It would just about break even if we paid for distribution, so we’re sitting on cases of these,” Janet explained. The tourism draw they’d expected wasn’t a fast enough outlet to disseminate the books into a reading public, so she was interested in doing an event with our bookstore later. We exchanged cards and she slipped a complimentary copy of the book into my bag with my purchase.
This became a pattern we would see repeated in other towns; they might not have a bookstore, but they had a local author or authors who had self-published works specific to the area.
Although the Internet disavowed all knowledge of a bookstore in Dayton, Janet told us a new one had started up on the bypass, and we soon located The Book Barn, just three months old. The place was huge, and held few books for its size, but as the young lady working told us, its owner had finally fulfilled his lifelong dream of having a used bookstore, so what else mattered?
From Dayton we ambled across little grey map lines toward Pikeville, TN. Since the road from there to McMinnville was touted as a scenic wonderland, we pulled into a cheap motel – emphasis on cheap – and called it a night.
Here’s an observation on that whole “shop local” thing: it works great for everything except overnight lodging and gas stations. In fact, according to a book we (Jack and I) have been reading, the whole standardization movement in retail circles (The McDonaldization of Society) began with motels, in an effort to ensure uniform service and cleanliness. Well, I want to be a localvore, but I cop to liking my motels without dead things in the bathtub.
DAY TWO: Pikeville to Franklin
We snail crawled out of bed the next morning and realized we’d crossed a time border at some point the day before. Jack was up before 7 a.m. I treated him to a rousing chorus of “Oh the World Must be Coming to an End” before departing in search of coffees. (There was no machine in the room; did I mention the motel was cheap?)
I followed a shoal of pick-up trucks wallowing through town, and sure enough they led me to the only diner open at that hour. I parked my Civic Hybrid in their midst and walked through the soft morning rain into the diner, filled with men in billed caps blazoned with seed logos, all staring out the window at my poor little 52-mpg car, slouched between two huge Ford trucks.
The waitress walked past me to a local who came in behind me. I sat down at one of the red diner counter stools as if I owned the place and swung back and forth, smiling at the men in the caps, back to the counter at the waitress, back to the men in the caps. They grunted and returned to their coffee.
A second waitress appeared and did a double take at seeing me, then came over and–I am not making this up–whispered, “Do you need something?”
I whispered back, “If you do coffee to go, yes.”
“One?” she mouthed.
I held up two fingers. Oops. This looked like a peace sign. The men in the booth frowned, eyes hooded beneath their cap bills. I swiveled swiftly back to the waitress. She rolled her eyes toward heaven and poured coffee into two huge Styrofoam cups.
The coffee was cheap, piping hot, and really, really good. I departed, juggling two large cups, my wallet, and the key to my electric car. Outside, two men in seed caps stopped as they were entering the restaurant, and one stepped over.
“Here, honey, lemme get that,” he said, and held the coffees while I opened the door.
Fortified by human kindness and caffeine, we hit the road to The Book Rack in McMinnville – except that, like half of downtown McMinnville, it wasn’t there. Empty store fronts, closing down sales in two of the remaining places, and an abandoned theatre that a local told us they hoped to convert to an opera house and revitalize the downtown.
Driving in, we’d seen expensive houses, lots of healthy-looking landscape nurseries, horses grazing–plenty of evidence that McMinnville had some wealth in its citizens, if not its coffers, so its downtown dead zone puzzled me. On we drove to Murfreesboro.
I’ll always think of Murfreesboro as “the great paper chase.” We stopped at a Habitat for Humanity resale store and asked if there were any bookshops about. “Several,” the nice man working the counter said, and gave us directions to one. We misunderstood or misfollowed them, one or the other, because we wound up in the town square, where an upscale tobacco shop, a discount shoe place, and a bail bondsman sat side by disjointed side.
Okay, score one for not having planned communities. The nice man at the tobacco shop said there were no bookshops in Murf except “the ones at the mall, that Million Books place.”
Ah, thank you. But at another store, we got directions to “The Paperback Place,” which turned out to be where that sweet Habitat man had been trying to send us. It took three tries at going the right way on College Street, but we finally found “The Book Corner,” at the edge of an all-but-deserted strip mall. The owner, a thin man with three rings on one ear lobe, chatted amiably with us between keeping up with customers and escorting his young daughter from her special bookhouse room to the bathroom and back.
He’d bought the place, a labyrinthian twist of romances, mysteries and celebrity biographies, back in May from a woman who’d been its owner 16 years. She had bought it from the original owner, who had started it some 42 years before. We told him his was the first place we’d seen where the owner was working the store, and he shared our surprise at this.
“How can they afford to do that?” we both wondered openly.
Between valuing drop-offs for credit, helping me find the rest room, reckoning up a swap deal for two customers, answering his phone and looking after his daughter, we chatted about subjects near and dear to bookstore owners’ hearts: how fast the romances piled up, whether swap deals should require 50% cash equivalency, how long it takes to break even on rent each month. Our bookstore doesn’t require rent, but his did, and this too was a pattern we would see repeated on our journey: people who have to pay rent have to paddle their little boats much faster.
We left that pleasant shop and hit the backroad highway again, headed to Franklin, which boasted the tenth largest income per household in the nation, and two independent book sellers. The Book Den, owned by Joyce, was a delight–and the most orderly book shop we’d ever seen. Her paperbacks lay sideways so the titles were easily readable, and since she only took hardbacks of current bestsellers, these rested comfortably between stacks. She’d thoughtfully tacked up series chronologies and families next to favorite authors (Lee Child, Nora Roberts, et al). She kept abreast of the latest publications, and one wall of her shop sported new books based on middle and high school reading lists and local tastes in Christian fiction.
It only took a few minutes chatting with Joyce and her employee to see how proud Joyce was of her shop, and rightly so. She radiated confidence and vitality as she explained how she’d bought it in 1995 from its previous owner, hired one of her best friends to help her, and settled in to a second career.
Joyce was the first of the shop owners to mention Kindles. She feared them. “I used to have people come in every two weeks, now they come in once every three months or so, and they tell me they’re reading on their Kindles now, so they’re just coming in for things they can’t get that way.” She shook her head. “I hope they leave me standing.” She shrugged, and showed me how she’d planned her store’s layout so men wouldn’t have to pass romances to reach westerns.
Charmed, we left Joyce’s Book Den and made a quick pop-in to Landmark Books, just a couple of miles down the road. This was more of a first edition and rare specialty books kind of place. Once we spotted Bill Frist’s Healing America on a shelf for $38 (signed first edition) we figured there wasn’t much more to see. This is one of the books the Christian Appalachian Project dumped by the boxful into Wise County some three years back. We’ve made purses, birdhouses, planters and other less useful things from them, but a couple hundred still circulate. Au revoir, Landmark Books.
Tucked into an inexpensive chain motel with a coffee machine, wireless, clean pillowcases and working heat, I luxuriated in the bathtub under the sun lamp and counted our many blessings.What a difference a $10 price differential makes…..