Goin' Farther South
Burke's Books since 1875 in Memphis.
By Karen Wright
To continue my tale from last month, we arrived in Natchez, Mississippi, to visit an old girlfriend who lives in a delightfully restored townhouse built in about 1840-something. She is originally from a very old, historic, New York family and her furnishings and paintings complement the place beautifully. My favorite was a wonderful picture of a hunting hound painted in 1790!
We were treated to a Mardi Gras parade sans the bare breasts and crowds of obnoxious drunks, and it was great fun. I came back with so many beads around my neck I could hardly hold up my head. They'll make great presents for everyone at home. We also ate in a restaurant called "Mammy's" which was shaped like a woman in a big skirt and the top of the building had her blouse and head with a scarf on it. It was, I guess, deemed politically incorrect, so the black face of the Mammy had been bleached white. Puleez! It is a part of history and it was charming. The food was quite good.
So, I said to my friend Peggy, where is the best bookstore in town? She replied that Turning Pages was her favorite. This seems to be the year for booksellers to move their stores and "Turning Pages, Books and More," was no exception. It is a sweet little store owned by Mary Emrick and located in a grand Victorian house in a nice, but not very populous area of Natchez. We talked to Mary and her part time assistant and ex-librarian friend, Donna Harrison.
The store is in the process of moving to another part of town with more foot traffic. The upstairs, which is where the used books are normally sold, was bereft of books with only a few boxes of cast-offs to be seen. The downstairs was very nicely arranged with new books, many of which were by local and southern authors. There were lots of really groovy kids' books. The selection, because of the move, was limited, but the quality was excellent and the "More" in the store's name included interesting book paraphernalia as well as antiques, art work, some jewelry, and the like, but was mostly books.
We talked about how Mary got started. In 1991 Mary was at a point where her kids were nearly grown, volunteer work was losing its charm, and books had always been a big part of her life. "A friend and I decided to open a bookstore," she said, "and later, my friend moved to Florida and I stayed here, so the store has been here sixteen years, part of that time under a different name."
She told us that she sells new books and previously read books, but no collectibles. "When we get moved over to Franklin Street, we may not carry used books anymore as we have the same square footage as we have here, but not as much storage space."
As part of their business, Turning Pages has lots of events for authors, lectures, and art classes for the public. Mary said; "We have an art teacher from a local school that comes in and gives the classes. We also just finished a Natchez History Conference, and all this helps with sales."
Goin' Farther South
Mike and Pat Hutter at Spanish Trail Books, Biloxi, Mississippi.
"Do you do book shows," I asked, "local or ABA or anything?" Mary noted that, "There are not any close by but sometimes we go to SIBA (Southeastern Independent Booksellers Assn), and we have been to Atlanta a couple of times. We don't go too often as it's hard to get away from the store, it's expensive to travel and stay in hotels, but when we do go, we don't go to sell books, we go to learn about upcoming new books. We sell at library conventions and do well with that."
I asked my standard question about the future of the book biz: "Someone came into the store the other day," Mary answered, "and told me that I was a dinosaur because people are downloading their books off the internet today. I know there are other people in the world who don't want to sit at a computer all day. I can't do that with an article, much less a book. I have to sit down with a book, relax, and turn the pages, then put it down and pick it up again later."
She agreed with me that there would always be folks like us who would rather go into a store and check out the new stuff and the covers. Donna said also that, "Lots of times it takes customers longer to order books online than it does for us to get them for them. You know, hard to find books."
Mary said, "We are not under anyone's warehouse, like Bookland or Books-A-Million (two large chain retail stores in the Southeast). Those stores don't get to order any of their own books, the warehouse just sends them books they think they need and they can only get them shipped on certain days. We can order on Sunday and get them by Wednesday. I think that's pretty good."
I asked Mary for a pearl of wisdom for us independents: "Hang in there and keep reading, keep pushing those books, get the kids to read." Donna agreed; "You have to get the children reading."
We wished Mary and Donna the best of luck with their move and off we went to Memphis, Tennessee. We went to the famous Peabody Hotel for a pretty good tapas dinner and meandered around a bit before we returned to our own, somewhat more modest accommodations. I asked friends in Memphis which bookstore they liked best. No question, they both said, Burke's. We liked it too!
Corey and Cheryl Mesler were both at the store. Burke's Bookstore in Memphis had been in continuous ownership by three generations of Burkes from 1865 until 1970. "My wife and I bought the store in 2000," said Corey, "we are the third owners since the Burkes sold it."
Corey told us that they do a lot of internet and they are one of about three bookstores in town. I told the Meslers that of all the stores in town, they were the ones recommended most highly. Burke's is moving also, to another area of town called the Cooper-Young District, where there is much higher foot traffic. It is one of those small, charming areas in the middle of a big city where there is lots of gentrification going on and where there are lots of interesting stores.
Goin' Farther South
Mrs. Lambert at Lambert's in Hot Springs, Arkansas.
"What do you think the general direction of bookstores will be in the future?" we asked. "The Internet has taken a lot of our business away, and Barnes and Noble has, also," Corey replied. "When we bought the store in 2000 we bought it based on the year 2000's sales figures which, after 9/11 and the internet, just plummeted. One of the reasons we are moving is because our mortgage is too high."
Burke's is located on a very busy four-lane street, but foot traffic is minimal and the neighborhood is rather seedy at this point. "This was a great location at one time. There were more shops here and a health food store across the street, which was great, but they have since closed. Unless people are driving directly to us, they won't know we are here. When we get to the new store we are going to do night hours again and the place moving in next door to us is a coffee shop and "desssertery"…we are really thrilled; it couldn't be better. We had an abysmal 2006, but it looks like our luck has turned."
We told him we hoped so, and wished him the best. We trucked on down the road to spend several days with a friend at Horsehoe Lake, Arkansas, near Memphis. Also near Memphis are acres and acres and acres of RVs and small trailers that FEMA bought for hurricane victims and, because of Federal red tape, were never distributed to those in need; they are being auctioned off by the thousands to dealers. Our tax dollars at work.
After that break, we headed down to Biloxi, stopping two days in Hot Springs, Arkansas, former home of ex-President Bill Clinton. We dumb-lucked into one of the best and least expensive barbeque restaurants we have ever been to; McClard's. The story is that the family owned a trailer park in the 1920s and one of their tenants couldn't pay his rent. He offered the McClards "the best barbeque sauce recipe in the world" in exchange for rent. They tried it and they agreed. They have owned the establishment for all this time, and it is still run by family. We sat in Bill Clinton's favorite booth and this is one of his favorite eateries. They love him there and we saw lots of Clintoniana everywhere.
And, we found a bookstore the likes of which I've never seen before. Lambert's Swap Shop (please see the picture, it is worth a thousand words) was a large building jam-packed, I mean JAM-packed, from front to back with knick knacks, old pairs of shoes and basically bad books of every type, shape, and size including racks of bodice rippers, stacks of common, modern fiction, Reader's Digest books, and books of every type and genre on shelves and in crumbling cardboard boxes and milk cartons and grocery bags, all stacked in precarious piles that one knew would come crashing to the floor if one rooted around. It was one of those places where you had to leave your bags at the desk, not because they were worried about shoplifters, but because if you carried it, you would knock over every other stack of books. In fact, I found this out the hard way when I dislodged one stack of paperback war novels to find a lovely hardback copy of Longfellow's Hiawatha from 1898. It was probably the best book in the place. I paid too much for it, but I have always wanted to read it and it was so very pretty, with color plates, etc. All in all, I bought about 10 books and I had to do a bit of fast-talking to get a dealer discount, but I suspect the $60 I spent might be the biggest sale they've had in months. I did, however, find a couple of scarce, cheaply priced flower arranging books that my good florist customer in Georgia will want, and that will probably make up for my weakness. It was hard to believe that anyone could have accumulated that many mostly worthless books in one place.
Goin' Farther South
The Mesilla, New Mexico bookstore on the plaza.
The people were very nice. Mr. Lambert was the man who made the prices and his wife watched the store when he was out. When one of them was in the store the other either had to stand up or leave, because there was only one uncluttered chair. Because they are not computer literate, nor have they ever considered being, their prices are extraordinarily high for the quality, which was extraordinarily low. It took us two hours to wander around, because in order to get to the bookcases, one had to move boxes and bags of paperbacks and assorted junk. You know how you always think that if you just could get to the back of that shelf, there would be a jewel? Well, I don't think that this would be the case at Lamberts. I hate to say anything negative about independent book dealers, so let me just say nothing more.
We left for Biloxi a day later and were there for a month. I was struck dumb by the damage from Katrina. Our friends who live in Biloxi said the town from the waterfront in about four blocks is about 58% gone and there are huge chunks of flat lots that were once covered with homes, out-buildings, businesses, and the trappings of humanity. These buildings are not just wrecked, but gone. The dozens of stately homes from the 1800s, including the home of Jefferson Davis, first and only President of the Confederacy, were primarily located along the oceanfront. Most were either wiped out or taken down to framework. Five and six story hotels and casinos are now pitiful shells of tangled metal and plastic. Even now, a year and a half later, there are mountains of debris in fields where there were once homes, there are FEMA trailers everywhere, and many people are still homeless.
We found Mike and Pat Hutter at Spanish Trail Books, a scant four or five blocks from the ocean front in Biloxi. We were relieved to find that they were terribly lucky in that the water from the surge stopped about six feet from the back door of the shop and even their big glass windows survived. Spanish Trail is a wonderful bookstore. It has a mezzanine around the top of the store and the original pressed tin ceiling. The store is neat as a pin, with the books lined up to the edges of the oak shelves. They have thousands of wonderful, classic and modern books on the shelves. He carries an incredible number of very old, good condition, paperback classics of all genres all neatly arranged and packaged in cellophane envelopes. He has some interesting ephemera and posters and lots of select, modern, first edition literature. The prices are a bit high for dealers but if you are just looking for books for your own collection, give them a call in Biloxi.
Goin' Farther South
Pat Hutter, co-owner and Mike's wife, said they have been in Biloxi for about 30 years now, once coming from southern California where they previously owned bookstores. I asked her if she missed California. She said she missed California some, but not what California has become with the overpopulation, the influx of ticky-tack housing, and the destruction of greenspace. She said that with air conditioning in the summer, she liked Mississippi just fine.
The Hutters both said that, in addition to the problem of very light foot traffic, they have found it very difficult to get new books since the hurricane struck. Many private libraries (weep!) were lost to Katrina and Rita, and it is nearly impossible to find good books anywhere close by. It is a crying shame, because this is a really nifty bookstore which may be able to continue to stumble along, but which will need a lot of help to do more than that. If you are in the neighborhood, stop in and see the Hutters. They are very nice folks and very knowledgeable book dealers.
Though Spanish Trail is the only used, non-Christian bookstore I found, we did a quick walk through the Biloxi Books-A-Million; what my husband calls one of the Godzilla bookstores. It was chock full of new books, mostly new arrivals, and a really good selection of top selling authors' paperbacks and hardbacks, a lot of kiddy books, and many non-fiction books that will soon be remainders, I think. I bought a couple of new Southern Sci-Fi authors (I'm addicted), but otherwise found nothing particularly interesting. The sign outside says 40% off, but when you get to the check-out counter, you find it is actually mostly 10% with a few older books at 40%, so look out.
We spent our month working industriously on the boat then began the journey home. It was pedal to the metal most of the way but for a quick stop in one of our favorite towns, Mesilla, New Mexico. It is a quaint little adobe town, very historic for its place near the Mexican border and for the fact that Billy the Kid was sentenced to hang there. The Mesilla Book Center is on the plaza in old town. They specialize in Southwestern Americana, of which they had a good selection, and lots of kids' books, Indian art and craft books, and various Navajo and Chimayo objects d' arte including beautiful rugs and some wonderful silver jewelry. The owner, Mary Bowlin, has had the store for forty-one years. She and her little dogs are focal points when one walks in the store. Her son-in-law works there and it seems to be a mostly family operated store. The folks were very nice and it was a really nice end to our bookstore tours. We got back to Nevada, once again without stopping in Las Vegas, and are now rushing to get caught up from two months of goofin' off in the south. Ta, ta, y'all.