We got back from our two-week cruise across the back roads on Monday, and by Wednesday we were sitting at our bookstore’s front room table, tapping our fingers dolefully and talking about all the great plans we had to implement ideas we’d gotten on the road….
… and wishing desperately we were still on it. Happy though we were to be home, by golly, there’s just something about the call of the open spaces – or the open bookstores – that won’t let go.
So when my dentist rang up to remind me of an appointment in Knoxville, TN, Jack jumped at the chance to come with me and spend one more day exploring bookstores.
For those unfamiliar with Big Stone Gap, we are about three hours from Knoxville, where my parents live, where I went to college, and where I found a dentist who understands me. People have asked, “You really travel all that way?” When we lived in Scotland, I still made annual trips to Dr. Emert. When you find the dentist who does you right, you stick with him or her for life.
So off to the parental abode we did go, afoot and lighthearted on the open road – okay, Interstate 81 – once more. Dental duties dispatched, we set our GPS for the first of four independent bookstores we’d found on the Web.
And struck gold. Union Avenue Books was a delightful little family-run shop–and I’m not using little as a diminutive. Small in space, Union stocks new and used books side by side. The owners, which include Flossie and her daughter Bunny (yes, I did ask if she had a brother named Peter; yes, she did smile politely as if she’d never heard that before) only take used books of current vintage and relevance. They started the shop in June, relocating from a less central location. Now they are right downtown in one of the nicest foot traffic sections, and across the street from Pete’s, a popular eatery where we’d lunched with our friend Margo Miller that day. GOOD MOVE!
Their well-lit store with tables at grazing height offered an eye feast; careful attention had been paid to details of placement and display. I am a sucker for a pretty bookstore, but also, I love it when the shop owners are nice people. No way was I leaving Union without buying something, because for their part, mum and daughter chatted about our shop in Big Stone, asking how we were doing, for the title and theme of my book, all the questions you want a fellow bibliophile to ask!!!
Problem was, we’d bought so many new books the previous two weeks, I had a hard time finding one I didn’t already have, but finally spotted Wade Rouse’s book about city boys moving to the country; I like Rouse’s humor.
It’s actually a phenomenon we see in our own shop, but also experienced on the other side of the counter during our road trip, the make-or-break nature of the sellers. I had no idea what a difference personality could make to sales. When we were on the road, twice I came across a particular title that interested me, but both times in a shop where I didn’t care for the owner. In one, the guy was all “MY SHOP” with no “and what do you do?” We’re neither of us complete egotists, Jack and I, but we do like a little give in our take.
In the other shop, the owner simply didn’t care that we were there; working on some vital task, he ignored us, and when we tried to make conversation, he gave an impatient nod and went back to his computer screen. So I didn’t buy the $25 book I’d had in my hand.
Instead, I bought it at Puddnhead books, that nice shop in St Louis, some days later. I even mentioned the near miss to Jen, the children’s manager who rang me up. She laughed. “Attitude makes a difference, believe me,” she said. Having just spent ten minutes watching her tirelessly help a small boy with the attention span of a lightning bug pick out a present for his older sister, I could concur. Jen was born to sell books.
So were Flossy and Bunny – and, presumably, Mopsy working in the back someplace (sorry!) – and so was John, who owned the next store we visited, N Central Books.
Having gone to school in Knoxville, I remembered North Central as the place where my musician friend Maria Williams played some of her early gigs as a bassist. It had been, at that time, the type of place from which aspiring musicians escaped as quickly as possible. “Dives” would have been too upscale a description for some of the fleapits we frequented.
How pleasant it was to see my own adopted hometown’s cheerful reinventing of itself, complete with banks, pizzerias, and the secondhand bookshop of John and Molly. The place looked very like Glover Books, where Queen Thea had reigned. As conversation ensued about our shop and how we never knew what to do with the antique books that were John’s bread and butter, and our road trip, I mentioned Glover’s.
John’s face lit up. “John Glover is one of my dearest friends!”
Turns out John had helped John get started, several years before. John rolled his eyes as I gave an exuberant depiction of my brief but meaningful relationship with Thea. “John loves his dogs,” he said, holding back a snort.
John and Molly intend to come up and visit us, to see what our antique situation is and advise or haul away, as appropriate. We’ve also given each other a list of regional books that would be of more interest in one shop than another. Networking – it’s like friendship for businesses. It’s a lovely thing when it works, and we really liked the way John and Molly worked.
And then, we went to McKay’s.
(Actually, we’d found one other bookshop listed, but its address lay on Papermill Drive, not so far from the superstore every bibliophile in Tennessee–and Virginia, and Kentucky–knows and loves/hates. A quick check with Flossie confirmed that Bent Books had gone out of business last year. Short wonder, with a 200,000-book warehouse down the road.)
Jack and I are big fans of independent bookshops, used or new. We don’t like the unfair advantages chain stores have, and we don’t think corporations are human–in any way you wish to read that. We’re not big on big.
But we’re not rich. And we have been poorer than we are now. When we were, we bought our clothes at Goodwill and our underwear at Wal-Mart. Now that we have a little $$$olvency, we stay out of Wal-Mart as much as possible. We try to keep our money in the local economy, and when we can’t, we try, from our remote area, to find a seller on the web who is a small business in his/her region.
See, Jack and I can’t figure out this local thing completely, because McKay’s is a four-store chain, started by a husband and wife many years ago. Their business model grew successful as their marriage failed. They split the “children” in the divorce, and the stores are still independently owned.
And sucking the life’s blood out of everyone else’s bookshop. They’re huge, and they’re not playing ball with anyone else. John said he takes popular paperbacks his store collects and trades them, incognito, in for first editions the McKay’s staff don’t recognize. He tried to work with them, but they weren’t interested. Truth be told, their model is “volume over accuracy.” They don’t treat rare books as special; their prize haul is the one-day-old Rowling or Cornwell or Patterson. We once pulled two books out of their free bins (where they dump those they refuse and the bringers don’t want to haul away again) and sold them for $75 and $90. (You have to know what you’re doing, but that is MOST satisfying, I can assure you!)
So you tell me, is McKay’s part of the evil machine, The Man, the dreaded 1%? Independently owned, they sell books at reasonable prices to people who might not be able to afford them otherwise. They have just about one of everything. Their staff are nice.
But they’re a warehouse, the Wal-Mart of second-hand bookstores. Their nice staff won’t help you find a book, just show you where the store maps are. And they’re huge, so huge that nobody can keep up with them, and they don’t have to be nice to any other book sellers.
How did they get huge? By doing it right.
What is that, folks? Honestly, I don’t know. There’s such a big difference between hating people who’ve made good in life – I’m sure you read some of the diatribes against one-percenters in the social media, saw the champagne toasters on youtube – and hating people who’ve made good in life by hurting other people. When are these different? I’m neither a socialist nor a capitalist; I dream a world where everyone thinks winning is best when it’s shared, but I’ve known many people who don’t value anything unless they took it from someone else who wanted it.
When is a local store a local store? I don’t know. What I do know is that I bought about 20 books in McKay’s, some of them my favorite genre of memoir and selling for 75 cents each. And I saw several books that I’d paid full price for during our Booking Down the Road Excursion: Dewey’s Nine Lives, Sweater Quest, So Many Books, So Little Time….
Not for one minute do I regret buying those books at retail in those small stores across the country. But I can afford not to regret it. I sold a book I wrote, and part of the advance is what paid for our two weeks of (fairly inexpensive but not free) fun. In essence, I was tithing back to a community that has given me much.
So I’m not sure about this “shop local, shop small thing.” In McKay’s case, the two aren’t synonymous. But their winning means other shops in the region are losing. And that is not a happy thing.
Don’t you just hate it when the good and the bad are tangled up together? Give me a white hat/black hat Occupy fight any day. In fact, give me Sara Henderson Hay, a bookseller who died in 1987. She wrote a series of poems fracturing famous fairy tales. In the one on Jack the Giant Killer, she voiced the giant, watching as Jack got a ticker-tape parade for stealing the harp, goose and beanstalk. The giant’s final observation is, “How requisite to every fairy tale/ a round-eyed listener who asks no questions.”