The Ozarks are odd–in a charming, fun sort of way, of course

How can I put this? The Ozarks are odd.

We pulled into Springfield last night and had a nice dinner with an old friend from Newfoundland days, who with minimal arm twisting agreed to meet us this morning and spend the day marauding through  bookstores. Rae met us at 9:30 a.m.  (a sacrifice for her, believe me) and we set off.

Rae's car was much admired as we journeyed.

And promptly ran into our first unfriendly bookstore manager. When I arrived at the typical-strip-mall location we were expecting the usual encounter of unusualness. To explain, about half to 60% of the bookstores we have visited are named Book Rack/Corner/Palace/Exchange and are 25,000 or so paperbacks tucked onto homemade shelving in a strip mall.

GOOD FOR YOU! we say, and since these places are usually staffed by the owner, we know their uniqueness lies not in what they offer or how they offer it, but in who is doing the selling. It’s part of the bookstore charm that owners tend to be colorful local characters, or sweethearts who just missed getting a social work degree, etc. We haven’t met two alike yet.

We bagged our first curmudgeon in this Missouri strip mall. Being the first, he seemed utterly charming, like gathering around the cage and going, “Oh, look! He’s doing it again!” when a gorilla flings poo.  Jack talked with the lad a bit longer than I did, since his Scots accent breaks down defenses, and by the time we left we knew that Cur (who was not that bad, as mudges go) and his family owned the store, they’d been there 20 years, and there were three other used bookstores in town, one run by a “real jerk,” and one by “Mr. Used Books; he wrote a book about running used bookstores, like 30 years ago.” (My ears pricked up.)

Warming to my husband, Mr. Personality also told us about “the secret store.” Apparently, if you are a good little customer and read all your classics, the community will let you in on an unmarked shop at the corner of a busy intersection. The store is in an industrial location and has no sign, but the faithful few know where to find “The Book Jungle.”

See, there’s no other way to put it: the Ozarks are odd. Charming, and fun, but odd. As we left that store, I said to Rae, “Wow. We’ve never met an anti-social used book store owner before. That’s really rare.”

Her bemused, one-raised-eyebrow look should have warned me, but we arrived at the second store convinced Cur was a one-off. At the door we were greeted by a sign that said, “No, we don’t have a customer bathroom. So don’t ask.”

It was the only greeting we got. Rae’s eyebrow made ever more sense as we shopped. Although spacious, this store boasted no overstuffed armchairs, no cozy corners, no warm lamps for reading. Another sign on the back wall said something to the effect of, “Put it back where you found it. If you can’t, why are shopping in a bookstore in the first place?” I nudged Jack. “Let’s get out of here.”

The college kid working with the owner couldn’t have cared less about our bookstore in Virginia, and we started to leave, but the owner looked up and said, “Where in Virginia? Never heard of that.”

We spent 15 minutes making bookstore small talk, and he warmed up enough to show us his $1,000 signed first edition of SE Hinton’s The Outsiders. As we left the store, Rae said, “That place has been here a long time. Now I know that he bought it six years ago, it’s starting to make sense. The personality of the store really changed then. Before, it was friendlier.”

Jack and I have often said, there are people who sell books because they’re books, and there are people who sell books because that’s what they ended up selling.

Okay, two weird bookstores in rapid succession. Now we’d had our quota.

Welcome to Redeemed, our first ever second-hand book dealer for Christians only. Redeemed, to be honest, was well organized and not leaning specifically to the “only Republicans are Christians” attitude we’d seen rather broadly displayed since reaching Springfield. Rae and I, folklorists to our cores, had already talked Jack’s ears off discussing which was the buckle of the Bible belt: Appalachia or the Ozarks. And I have to concede this point of honor to the Ozarks. I thought I’d seen a lot of “God is a white American who spends his weekends hunting” displayed in Appalachia, but we’ve got nothing on this town.

(Caveat the second: let me establish where on the mast my colors are nailed. In essence, I would die before giving up being a Christian, but I wouldn’t kill anyone over anything to do with any religion, period. If you ask me what being a Christian means, it comes down to He really was God’s Son; She really was a Virgin; It really was a Whale; and if you start the hymn, you must sing all four verses. After that, I’m flexible. I do, however, doubt very much that God is a white, English-speaking male.)

So lest you think I’m making fun of something that is the underpinning value of my life, we liked Redeemed just fine as a bookstore. Our big question was, how would a Christian bookstore decide which books to stock? They had a small classics section, in which Madame Bovary appeared, but not Dracula, Brideshead Revisited or Tom Jones. Was this happenstance? Sarah Palin’s books had pride of place in politics, but Barak Obama’s Audacity of Hope appeared on the shelf as well.

How would one run a bookstore based on an interpretation so specific to the shopkeeper’s personal beliefs? This was an interesting question for us. I’ve often said that, if you turn a book shop owner’s heart inside out, what you get is the shop. It’s a display of who and what the person is. Earlier in the trip, Joe’s shop was as messy and free-spirited as a VW bus parked at Woodstock, Joyce’s as neatly executed as a cross stitch pattern. The one TN shop we hadn’t liked sported low lighting and high prices, and once you met the owner, you knew it for a shyster’s dream. A Christian bookstore would be so hard to define, then to defend from its own clientele. How would one do it?

We would never know because the staff were too busy for us to feel comfortable approaching anyone; the place brimmed with people bringing in trade volumes–which made us think with a pang of our baby, back in Big Stone being looked after by the student Edward. The week after Christmas has traditionally been a time when people clean out closets, and we wondered if our back room were already impassible with this year’s dredgings.

Never mind; we have a week left and we’re going to live in the moment! Out of Redeemed’s parking lot we went, on to that secret location for The Book Jungle.

Oi vey. Now we know. Odd is Ozark normal.

This rat maze of a bookstore, with the lowest lighting I’d ever not been able to see in, was literally the size of our hotel room. Yet he must have had 20,000 books stuck in there – very neatly organized, too. If this shop had been a man, it would have buttoned the top button of its collar, not spoken unless spoken to, and known the exact distance to Mars, when the first silent film appeared in America, and how to get out if trapped in an underwater car.

Which pretty much sums up the owner, a man whose name we never got. Our conversation with him consisted of amiable fishhooks tossed out on our side (“Wow! You been here long?”) and grunts on his.

His prices were low – too low for him to have been using a computer. Had we been buying for our own shop, we could have scored big time, but we contented ourselves with a few real finds. It felt too much like taking candy from a surly infant.

Lunch with a couple of Rae’s college friends, and a final bookstore stop: ABC Books. Okay, put the cherry on the icing of the Odd cake: this was a secondhand bookstore where the front was Christian, the back full of paranormals and how-tos. And this shop did display personality, right next to the canners and the “how to survive when the electricity fails” pamphlets published by the owner. And advertisements for “Survival Series” shooting courses, tailored to “never shot before” wives and children.

I looked at Rae, a Missouri native. She grinned. “Welcome to the Ozarks.”

We bought a couple of fun titles there, and I look forward to planting my edible front yard when we get home.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “The Ozarks are odd–in a charming, fun sort of way, of course

  1. I always thought the Ozarks would be friendly, open, and welcoming. Maybe everyone was suffering from apres-Christmas indigestion?

    Your trip is excellent reading, Wendy!

  2. Twice bookshop owners outside Springfield but still in Missouri offered us hospitality: “Next time you come through, don’t stay in a hotel. Call me and you can stay with us.” Shop keepers in other states didn’t make that offer. So Missouri has some lovely people in it, and some unique culture, is all we can figure.

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