Is there a more magical place?

Deborah Fagan Carpenter

Guilty! Sometimes I buy books from Amazon, and sometimes I read on a tablet. Hey, it’s fun to anticipate the arrival of a book in the mail, and then to rip into the package with excitement when it’s finally delivered. And, it’s pretty cool to be able to decide in the middle of the night to buy a book, and with one click, have it appear like magic on my tablet. Nothing, (for me) however, can compare to the feeling of walking into an enchanting bookstore whose shelves are brimming from top to bottom with imagination and information; wandering endlessly, reading the descriptions of book after book; examining inspired cover after cover; and then, exiting with a bag full of amazing stories waiting to be revealed. For a book lover, a bookstore, particularly an intimate, charming, locally owned one, is like a candy store for a sugar-loving kid.

Could there be a nicer place than a bookstore? The very first bookstore that I remember shopping in was on Canal Street in New Orleans, sometime during 1967. Although I can’t recall the name, and I don’t know if it’s even still in operation, being in that shop remains one of my fondest memories. For me, the energy in that room was profound and magical.

Can small, locally owned bookstores survive, or, at least co-exist in the digital world? Well, that depends somewhat on the ingenuity, creativity, passion, and perseverance of the owners—with perseverance topping the list. But, chiefly, survival is firmly in the hands of the community itself. There’s a bond of like-minded folks amongst shoppers at small bookstores, and, if enough readers in an area value that experience and feeling of connection, along with the assistance and guidance provided by the staff, there’s a chance of co-existence.

The staff members of small bookstores love books, and, they live for questions about them. While it’s certainly convenient and economical to shop for books on-line, nothing can compare to the personal attention offered by the knowledgeable owners and staff members of small bookstores. They’re almost always avid readers who love to discuss books, to impart little-known facts about authors, or to make suggestions when you’re not quite sure what you’re looking for. Sometimes, they get to know their customers so well that they’re aware of their reading preferences, and can, with reasonable confidence, suggest a new author or book for them.

Clearly, there’s no chance that independent stores can compete with the prices or inventory of Amazon, and they aren’t in the business of matching prices with them either. But, the one-on-one assistance that’s always available at bookstores can more than compensate for the difference in costs, and, books can be ordered from physical stores just as they can on-line, and often, if not usually, arrive the next day.

Square Books, Oxford, Mississippi

Mississippi, widely known to have produced some of the finest writers in the literary world, currently boasts a gratifying number of flourishing independent bookstores as well. Not surprisingly, college towns regularly support bookstores, but the support is much broader than merely students. Square Books in Oxford, a good example, is well-known nationally, and it’s so successful that they’ve been able to maintain Off Square Books, which sells lifestyle and leisure books, along with used and bargain books, and Square Books, Jr. for younger readers. Off Square occupies space in a unique building that’s available for rent for special events, which is obviously one of the means the owners of Square Books use to generate revenue. But, the original Square Books is the cornerstone of the operation, offering an endless variety of books.

Turn Row Book Company, Greenwood, Mississippi

One of the survival tools for bookstores is to have small cafés—or at least coffee bars—as part of the everyday operation, and that’s always been the case at Turn Row Book Company in Greenwood. The simple menu of paninis, sandwiches, salads and light desserts, not only offers the store’s customers a place to relax and enjoy a quick lunch, but it’s a great meeting place for friends, which of course brings people into the store.

Turn Row Book Company, Greenwood, Mississippi

The beautiful bookstore on Howard Street, once a department store, also houses an upstairs gallery of works by regional artists. But the shelves downstairs are well-stocked with not only a solid collection of books by Mississippi authors, but a broad selection of novels in varying genres, including children’s books. The headquarters for Viking Range is located in Greenwood, so, cookbooks are naturally a staple of the shop.

It’s not uncommon to run into an author at a small bookstore. On a recent visit to Turn Row, I was told that, occasionally, visiting writers, particularly a couple of well-known Mississippians, will, time permitting, visit with aspiring writers, giving them encouragement and direction. Not a personal touch one is likely to find on-line.

Turn Row Book Company doesn’t have to look far to find an author to encourage new writers though. The owner, Jamie Kornegay’s first novel, Soil, has placed him firmly on the list of outstanding Mississippi writers. “Mississippi has done it again, given us yet another brilliant writer,” said Tom Franklin, author of Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, about Kornegay.

Turning Pages Books and More, Natchez, Mississippi

If you want a book signed by an author, an independent bookstore is the place to find it. #1 New York Times Bestselling Author, Greg Iles, hasn’t forgotten the Mississippi stores that helped him launch his career, and even though his publishers set up a grueling tour for him when he has a new release, he gives generously of his time to them. Turning Pages Books and More, in his hometown of Natchez, is naturally on the list of stores where he always does a signing, and they maintain a full inventory of his novels.

The newly released Mississippi Encyclopedia is giving the state’s independent bookstores a fresh, new enticement to help bring in new readers. The comprehensive look at Mississippi’s people, places, history, literature, art and architecture, music, politics, religion, and folklife is being introduced at independent stores all over the state, including Turn Row Book Company in Greenwood and Lorelei Books in Vicksburg. Senior editors of the collaborative work will be on hand on June first and second respectively to sign and discuss the project that began in 2003.

Lorelei Bookstore, Vicksburg, Mississippi

Independent bookstores regularly host similar events that not only bring community residents together, but add “texture and character” to the area. Mississippi-born writer, Polly Dement put it beautifully when she wrote: “A community’s cultural life is its soul, and where independent bookstores can be found, they are at the heart of the community. As long as we pull books from the shelves of bookstores, whether to stretch our minds or make us laugh, we can rest assured that our communities are growing along with us.” The author of Mississippi Entrepreneurs wrote that passage specifically about Vicksburg’s Lorelei Books, but it easily applies to most locally owned bookstores.

I, for one, will continue to shop for books on-line from time to time, and I’ll continue reading on my Kindle—on and off—too. But, as the Lorelei Books’ website once stated, that won’t replace “books of paper and ink, sold in a brick-and-mortar bookstore, by human beings.”

 

Photos by Deborah Fagan Carpenter

7 thoughts on “Is there a more magical place?

  1. Joe Goodell

    Deborah : “Could there be a nicer place than a bookstore; can they survive?” No, and no; sad to say. Your splendid essay reads as an eulogy.
    I’ve visited the ones you mentioned: Oxford, Greenwood and Vicksburg, extended visits, I might add. They seemed healthy enough (at the time), but ….. Easy look-ups and low prices will be (are) giving Amazon the unrelenting take-over of a glacier.
    My home town is down to one B&K ….. I:-(

  2. Yancey Tallent

    Thank you, Deborah, for another great “thinking piece”. You always set my mind to wander.
    When I walk through the doors of Square Books, I am instantly captured by the titles and the artwork on the book covers. Each is so brilliantly thought through and layouts so cleverly designed that just by running my fingers across this rich slick paper, I feel like I already know what’s inside. It is forever amazing to me how many magical people have come from the same “Mississippiness” extending my roots far beyond blood. I think to myself, “These are all my people”… and I spill over with chill bumps and pride.

  3. Gary Wright

    Well described, Deborah. I feel the same way about old book stores. I particularly enjoy the smell of musty, old books. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Indeed, Doctor!!

  5. Mary Emma J. Allen

    Well said, Friend!! There’s nothing like walking into a bookstore, taking a deep breath for that “book smell”, and thinking, “I’m home”!

    1. Absolutely!!

  6. Randall O'Brien

    Yes! A kindred spirit!

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