The Great Delta Bookstore Tour

I’ve led my own version of the Great Delta Barbecue Tour several times. You can never get enough barbecue, after all.

I’ve also led my version of the Great Delta Tamale Tour (I hope you saw the feature on AETN regarding that memorable trip with Kane Webb and Bill Vickery).

Next, I want to do the Great Delta Bookstore Tour.

There’s something special about independent bookstores. And we’re blessed with some fine ones in the Delta. Along the way, we can also eat barbecue and tamales. A man has to eat while visiting all of these bookstores, right?

Here are our stops:

1. We’ll start in Blytheville at perhaps my favorite bookstore of all, Mary Gay Shipley’s That Bookstore In Blytheville.

Mary Gay opened her store in 1976 in historic downtown Blytheville. There are 2,400 square feet of space and about 25,000 titles in stock.

As her website points out, “Browse while sipping a cup of coffee. You can relax in a rocking chair next to a wood stove, engage in conversation about the book you’ve just read or enjoy a spontaneous reading of the new favorite children’s book of the day.”

Sounds like heaven.

2. We head south from Blytheville and cross the Mississippi River to Memphis. The destination is Burke’s Book Store, which opened in 1875. Its oldest book in stock is from 1866: Two volumes written by Bayard Taylor titled “Northern Travel: Summer and Winter Pictures.”

Cheryl Mesler and her husband, author Corey Mesler, own Burke’s. They are only the fourth family to have owned the store in its 135 years of existence. Bill Burke was the third and final member of the Burke family to own the store. Diana Crump (got to have a Crump in there somewhere when you write about Memphis) owned the store from 1978-84. Harriette Beeson owned it from 1984-2000.

“Independent bookselling is never an easy thing to do, but we love it,” Cheryl recently told the Memphis Flyer.

The Flyer goes on to report, “The Meslers met in the store when both were staff members in the late ’80s and bought it in 2000. Though Burke’s has carried a variety of products over the years — toys, newspapers and literary journals and magazines — the Meslers have expanded what they feel is at the core of the business: buying and selling used books. … Their devotion to old books has served them well, as has the store’s most recent move, from a building on Poplar at Evergreen.”

The move to the funky, artsy Cooper-Young neighborhood gave them foot traffic again. People spend hours browsing there.

“Though they do stock some new books and magazines, it’s the couple’s attention to customer service that is a focal point,” the Flyer reports. “Burke’s carries textbooks for three local private schools, devotes an entire section to Southern writers and buys all their used books from people in the community.”

“I have no fear that the printed word is going to go out,” Cheryl says. “My husband says it’s the perfect little invention. You can’t improve on that.”

3. Our next stop is Square Books in Oxford. OK, OK, I realize that Oxford isn’t in the Delta. It’s in the north Mississippi hill country on the edge of the Delta. But it’s close enough for our purposes. The town square in Oxford is quite simply one of the best places in the South to spend the day.

Square Books was opened in September 1979 by Richard and Lisa Howorth, who had worked for two years at the Savile Bookshop in Washington, D.C., before returning to Richard’s hometown.

Here’s part of the history as published on the Square Books website: “While the Square Books customer base was centered in the Oxford and university community, the selection and display of books was focused upon literature about Mississippi and the South. Customers were pleased to find such books as a hardover edition of ‘Let Us Now Praise Famous Men’ or Shelby Foote’s ‘Civil War,’ books that at the time were not commonly available in a retail setting anywhere. Square Books also hosted book signings and readings as soon as the store opened. …

“Around the same time Square Books opened, Bill Ferris came to Oxford as the first director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture, immediately creating great enthusiasm for academic and cultural interest in the South and Oxford. Ferris was a great friend of Square Books and was key in bringing such writers as Toni Morrison, Allen Ginsberg, Alex Haley and Alice Walker to the store for readings and book signings.

“Willie Morris became writer in residence at the university in 1980 and also was a great friend to the bookstore who brought to town William Styron. … In 1981, Barry Hannah moved to town, a writer who was to literary fiction as Morris was to literary journalism. Hannah had an enormous effect on his students — Donna Tartt among them in those early days — and many writers came to town to visit Hannah and thus Square Books.”

The store expanded to its current location, the former Blaylock Drug Store, in 1986.

4. Returning to the real Delta, the next stop is Turnrow Book Co. on wonderful Howard Street in downtown Greenwood. You should spend the night just down the block at the Alluvian Hotel, visit the Viking store across the street and make an appointment at Viking’s spa while you are there. There also are antique stores and furniture stores on Howard Street. Head to Lusco’s for dinner and let them pull the curtain on your booth.

5. Head next over to Greenville and McCormick Book Inn. I discussed this delightful store in a previous post that I hope you’ll read if you have not already done so. While you’re in the store, make sure and ask Mr. McCormick what he thinks of John Barry’s “Rising Tide.”

6. Go south on U.S. Highway 61 to Vicksburg and spend some time at Lorelei Books on Washington Street in the historic downtown district. Stay at one of the bed-and-breakfast inns in Vicksburg to end your tour — Anchuca or Duff Green perhaps.

I’ll close with something that’s posted on the Lorelei Books website. It’s part of what novelist Howard Frank Mosher wrote about independent bookstores:

“A good independent bookstore always puts good books and good customers ahead of the bottom line. Interestingly, by doing so, passionately and knowledgeably, many (though, sadly, not all) independent bookstores have managed to stay in business in this economically depressed era when even chain stores are suffering.

“Of course, one of the reasons that chain bookstores are having their own difficulties is that many of them do not place a top priority on books and customers. In fairness, though, I have to say that, from time to time, in chain stores, I meet very independent booksellers who love books and respect customers and like to match them up.

“Good independent bookstores — like Tolstoy’s families — are all different. But they are very happy places. When I walk into one, the colorful jackets of books that are my old friends or may become new friends excite me the way walking out of the dim concourse of a major league baseball stadium onto the bright, geometrical familiarity of the diamond below excites me.

“Good independent bookstores are always welcoming. Customers are invited to browse. Booksellers make time to talk about — books! Go into any university English department at the end of the day. All you hear is people grousing about poor students, parking restrictions, pay freezes. Booksellers should be so lucky. Still, they’re as enthusiastic about Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Committed” and the new Raymond Carver collection at the end of the day as at 10 a.m. They just plain love books.”

At all of the above stops, you’ll find people who indeed love books.

These are six excellent independent bookstores in six historic, interesting towns.

Happy travels and happy reading.

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3 Responses to “The Great Delta Bookstore Tour”

  1. I do believe Square Books is as close to heaven as I’ll ever get on this earth.

  2. Hey Rex … You are added as a link on the DD blog page. Can you do the same for us? Also, do you have Jay Grelen’s email address? Cheers!

  3. Mike Dugan says:

    Any bookstore worth it’s salt will have a good section of baseball books and a selection on southern football. If they have that I am happy and will return many, many times. After all, along with politics and food both speak to the well being of any southerner. My books are my among my closest friends.

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