Two lovely women and their bookstores

We spent Christmas Eve Day in Memphis tracking bookstores. Of the eight listed, five still stood: three used, two new, one of these independent. We passed the grave of the abandoned Bookstar, which had been an offshoot of either B&N or Borders, not sure which.

Two lovely women in two wonderful shops were our total before heavy and no-longer-benevolent traffic sent these little country mice scurrying back to the hotel. First thing in the morning we made it to Burke’s Books, a shop of some twenty years in various locations across Memphis–including one the Internet directed to, an address its owner Cheryl said later was five years old. Gotta love the Net.

Cheryl and her husband owned the store, which was quiet when we arrived at 10, leaving her happy to chat. She also had chocolate chip cookies from the die-hard farmers market still running next door, so we got on well right from the start.

Interesting to us, Cheryl’s funky-decor, funky-location store is smaller than ours in square footage and stock, but doing considerably more business. (Well, it IS Memphis.) Hers is considered the matriarch of bookstores in town. All the people and sites we asked about books mentioned Burke’s.

She sells via several online sites as well, and as she said, “We’re not getting rich, but we’re not getting killed by the Kindle, either.” I told her the theory I’d written in The Little Bookstore, that e-readers were taking down the strong while letting the small, flexible, independent shops slip through the net. She pondered a moment, then laughed. “I think that’s exactly right. We’ll still be here.” She gave me a chin nod and tossed her jaw-length brown hair in defiance, the proud flash in her eyes as they met mine suggesting sisterhood.


We bought a book in one of the shops called The Case for Books, tracing new media that was supposed to replace the thing before it (Internet would kill TV, TV would kill radio, radio would kill singing get-togethers) and showing how it hadn’t, that such activities had altered yet not disappeared. There doesn’t have to be an either/or on e-books and live books. Paper pulp or electronic pulse, it’s still good stuff.

Feeling empowered, we left Cheryl’s shop as it began to heat up with about a dozen customers (in a relatively small space) including two dogs who were obviously shop regulars. (They headed straight for the how-to manuals; one was a Labrador, of course). She gave us her card and asked us to stay in touch, which we look forward to doing.

On to Booksellers at Laurelwood we drove, a place that had no less than three addresses listed on the Internet. Since one was very close, we tried there first, and hit the jackpot.

Of course, the place was packed. A packed bookstore. Selling new books. Jack said, as we stood, taking in the site of some hundred people buying up actual physical volumes, “On the one hand, this is bad because you won’t get to talk to anyone about doing a signing when your book comes out. On the other hand, just look at this. It’s still possible.”

I think there was a tear in his voice.

We browsed beautifully displayed shelves of Crane notepaper, expensive pens and glow-in-the-dark dinosaurs. (We had hit the children’s section.) There we met the blond firecracker Nicole, children’s manager and very sweet person. She finished helping a grandmother buying five copies of The Illustrated Mother Goose. Gran bustled off with an air of relief, and Nicole, turning, took in my diffident, “are-you-too-busy-to-talk” posture and said, “Now, what can I help you with?”

Fish or cut bait; the place was hooching. Remembering poor Richard back at Square Books, I simply launched: “Iwroteabookandit’scomingoutinOctoberit’sfromStMartin’sPressandit’saboutbookstoresandit’sfunnynothowtoandIwantedtotalktosomeonehereabout doingasigningwhenitcomesoutbutyallaresobusycouldIjusttakeaphonenumberandnameofthepersonIshouldcallandI’msorrytobeherethedaybefore Christmasbutwe’rehavingsuchfunvisitingalltheindependentbookstoreswecanstillfindintheSoutheastsowehadtostoptoday.”

She blinked, then laughed and put her hand on my shoulder. “NO problem. Wait right here.” She disappeared into the milieu, and came back a couple of minutes later with a card. “The events manager isn’t here but she and I and the general manager share an office, so we talk every day. Just email me when you’re getting set up. So it’s about bookstores?”

I gave her the briefest of spiels, but she asked more questions. I said something to the effect of we didn’t want to bother her on such a busy day, and she waved her hand in a “Pshaw, neighbor” kind of way.

“You should have seen this place yesterday,” she said, a tiny tremor shaking her slender frame (she was 5’3″, just not round). “I figure since I’m still standing, I deserve ten minutes to talk about books.”

We both laughed, standing as we were in a bookstore piled high with those items, but we understood each other very well. So I told her about all the fun we’d had setting up our store and the places we’d been visiting over the past five days. A faraway look came into her eye.

“The manager and I have actually been talking about doing a quick tour of independent new sellers around here,” she said.

“Well, email me and I’ll tell you which ones are still standing,” I blurted. She gave me an enigmatic look, and only then did I remember that the store I was in had narrowly escaped death that past summer.

Booksellers at Laurelwood was Davis-Kidd, part of the Joseph Beth family. Of course we all know JB went into bankruptcy, but as Nicole explained further, everyone thought the place would be reorganized and keep going. Through a series of shenanigans involving former employees, the Memphis store got left out of  a package deal bought by the former COO from under the owner, and it became its own store, spurning later offers to rejoin the “family.”

“Lots of people think we’re gone,” Nicole added. “We get calls almost every day from people who say, ‘Oh, you’re still open!’ Where are you?”

The bookstore’s population had by this time grown from one customer per ten feet to one per two, so we shook hands and said goodbye. Jack and I stood in line with a couple of volumes he’d found (on the bargain table) and waited about fifteen minutes to reach the man at the register–who kept ringing his bell for help, more in hope than expectation as no one came. The poor guy was sweating by the time we got a turn at the counter, his arms a blur of motion.

Jack smiled. “We run a used bookstore,” he said. “We dream about having this many customers.”

The man’s tired eyes held a smile as he said, “I’ll come work for you, then.” Then he surprised us. As he rang up the books he said, “What’s the name of your store in Virginia?” (He had seen Jack’s ID for his debit card.)

“Tales of the Lonesome Pine, and we call it The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap,” Jack said.

“It’s small?” he asked, and Jack gave him the five-second spiel on my book. The man held out our bag and made eye contact with me, giving one of those between-booksellers chin nods. “Good for you,” he said. “And good luck with your bookstore.”

As we left Booksellers at Laurelwood, I mentioned my surprise that such a busy person would take the time to actually listen to a customer’s casual remarks and ask questions.

Jack nodded. “That doesn’t often happen at big stores, and that was a big store.” (Huge, in fact. Cavernous, but stuffed to coziness with books.) “But it was a big bookstore, owned by a person, not a corporation, so the employees get to be themselves instead of having the debit machine ask ‘was your server friendly today?’. It all goes back to that McDonaldization of Society book we were talking about. People who get to be themselves, think for themselves, at work are happier. And people who work in bookstores know books. So he was interested, and even with that string of traffic, he was himself.”

Score one for independent bookstores. And I look forward to emailing Nicole a list of places she can visit in the New Year.

Dead downtowns are everywhere


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