Box of books by Lucy Mercer.
I’ve loved bookstores since I was a little girl, so it's no wonder I would grow up to work in both independent and chain bookstores. The small town in upstate South Carolina where I grew up had a Carnegie library, but not a bookstore; we drove to the next county to visit Pic-a-Book ,the store where I purchased my Nancy Drew mysteries, the ones with the Titian-haired (and sometimes blonde) sleuth on the cover, hunched behind a corner, flashlight in hand. I bought my first cookbook at Pic-a-Book, a paperback copy of "The Winnie-the-Pooh Cookbook." My mother allowed me to make quiche-like Cottleston pie from the book, even buying the frozen pie crust to put the egg and ham filling in.
Mom saved my books, giving them to me when my girls were born – brittle, brown Dell Yearling copies including Michael Bond’s Paddington Bear, and other favorite childhood books, "From Anna" by Jean Little, "Her Majesty Grace Jones" by Jane Langton, "Summer of the Swans" by Betsy Byars (a fellow South Carolinian).
Traveling on our annual summer vacations, we would inevitably find bookstores to visit, particularly in my grandparent's hometown of Nashville, Tennessee. Nashville is home to many publishing houses, and the largest book distributor, Ingram Book Company (well, really Ingram is in Larvergne, just south of town, but close enough). My copy of “From Anna” came from the Baptist Bookstore there. How on earth I can remember where I bought a book 40 years ago, still feel the bare linoleum floors because the book was on the bottom shelf, how can I remember that and still be fuzzy about the moment my second child took her first steps? It’s cemented into the folds of my brain. When I’m an old lady, I will wear purple and recount the bookstores of my childhood.
I return to Nashville every few years, driving my mom around the town she grew up in. We visit the Frist Museum, and we drive through the Brentwood she used to know when it was farms and not business parks. And we inevitably hit a few bookstores. There was a nice Borders in Brentwood, now gone. And there was Davis-Kidd, gone this year as well. We travel south of town to Franklin, one of the sweetest little towns on earth, and home to a charming indie bookstore, maybe someone can help me with the name. I purchased a copy of a Jeanne Ray hardcover there. (Jeanne Ray’s “Romeo & Julie” is a funny mid-life romance, kind of in the Mary Kay Andrews vein. Ray is also the mother of NYT best-selling author and Nashville resident Ann Patchett, who will open her own independent bookstore in Nashville soon.)
Further south of Nashville, in Chattanooga, is a warehouse of books, McKay Books. It is a used-book emporium, a Sam’s Club-sized warehouse chock-full of books. It is probably the most organized used bookstore I have ever been in. Books are arranged neatly on the shelves according to category. I will add that it smells ok in there – if you frequent used bookstores, you know what I mean. None of that sharp scent of must, dust and mildew that leaves me searching through my purse for tissues.
Near Atlanta, I can mention the bookstores that used to be –the old Oxford Books, a grand old lady in a brownstone on Peachtree Street. Well, there were many incarnations of Oxford, including the one that sank the chain, a remodeled car dealership on Pharr Road. There, I attended a dual book signing with National Book Award finalist Bob Shacochis and Southern cookbook author Nathalie Dupree, who had more in common than one might originally think, at least in the realm of food and storytelling.
I met local authoring hero Pat Conroy there, signing “Beach Music”and Terry Kay, a Georgia author mostly known for the beloved “To Dance with the White Dog.”
Probably my best Oxford Books memory is the signing for“Midnight in the Garden of Good & Evil” with author John Berendt and the Lady Chablis. While waiting in the line, I began talking with the well-dressed woman next to me. She was about 40 and blonde and seemed to know a lot about The Book (as Savannahians calls it). As it turns out, she was Joe Odom’s ex-wife. If you know the book, Joe is the piano-playing lawyer and tour guide, a bit of a con man, and most certainly a rapscallion. The ex-Mrs. Odom was mentioned briefly in the book, and she signed my copy on the page. That particular edition is not a first, but it’s my best association copy – Chablis, Berendt and Joe Odom’s ex-wife. Berendt is a low-key fellow and Chablis is not – she was absolutely gorgeous and when my turn came to have my book signed, I complimented something about her, I truly do not remember what, and she told me she liked my brooch. How cool is that?
The Old New York Bookshop in Midtown Atlanta was something of a hangout for local authors – the friends of the owner were given hand-crafted pottery coffee mugs with their names – they were kept on shelves and windows throughout the store, a small cottage which I’m pretty sure is no longer there.
Books and the bookstores they come from are intertwined. And in some cases, the bookseller and the book are intertwined. Do I really know or care where the can of soup on my pantry shelf comes from? Or the shoes in my closet (for the record, no Manolos, no Jimmy Choos. Maybe if fashion footwear was my weakness and fetish, I would feel differently)?
This is what sticks in my craw about the e-reading age - the impersonalization of acquiring books. It used to be a dance, a flirtation, a journey, an adventure, a treasure hunt. You had to ask the right questions, go to the right place, pay the right price. It’s all point-click-pay now, with all the pre-packaged adventure of a Harlequin romance. It’s a zipless world, resigning readers to the tried-and-true, the sure thing, the one book you’ve got to read because the machine tells you to.
A final story on bookselling, then I’ll let you be. This one has to do with a time when I was buying a book. One morning after I dropped my daughter off at preschool, I noticed an estate sale at one of those retirement communities populated with elderly residents living in duplexes. As weak as I am around bookstores, I'm just as bad when I see an estate sale sign. I pulled in and walked through the house of the woman who had recently passed away. She had once been a lady lawyer in town, and the apartment was filled with barrister bookcases, notable antiques, and lots of hardcover books. I noticed the excellent condition of the books right away – when you sort through used books for a living, you notice things like that. It's like bank tellers spotting a counterfeit Franklin note.
I filled my arms with a stack of a dozen books and sat in a soon-to-be sold armchair for a look-see. I opened the first, a novel by the North Carolina author Kaye Gibbons, and noticed that the owner signed the flyleaf with her full name “Margaret…..” and that I had known her. I looked through the remaining books, all by local and Southern authors. Lewis Grizzard, Terry Kay, a few others, some signed by the author, all signed by the owner. I realized right away that I had sold most of these books to Margaret.
I couldn't let those books go to another home, so I bought them all. I had sold them to my customer and then I bought them back. It's the circle of life.
When I pass, will my girls look around my house and say, well, we can get everything we want to read on Kindle, let’s just pack these up and give them to Goodwill? Or will they greet guests at the door, tell them to look through the books and take a few that they will like? I hope the latter.
Text and images copyright 2011, Lucy Mercer.