Archive for February, 2012

Wiedower, Ruskey: New South Heroes

Tuesday, February 28th, 2012

The folks at Southern Living magazine call it the Heroes of the New South awards.

I don’t like the term New South, which has been around for decades and doesn’t carry much meaning.

But I like a couple of the jurors who selected this year’s recipients, and I love the fact that two of the people mentioned in the March issue of the magazine are having a positive effect on the Arkansas Delta.

As for the jurors, Bill Ferris of the Center for the Study of the American South at the University of North Carolina (a former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities) and John T. Edge of the Southern Foodways Alliance at the University of Mississippi are among the region’s brightest minds.

I don’t know the other two jurors — Gerri Combs of South Arts in Atlanta and Jim Strickland of Historical Concepts in Atlanta (I’m always reminded of the old Lewis Grizzard line that “Atlanta is what we fought the war to prevent” when it comes to that city) — but I’m sure they’re equally capable.

Now to the two people who are having such a good influence on the Arkansas Delta.

In the architecture category, one of three honorable mentions is Beth Wiedower, 35, of the Arkansas Delta Rural Heritage Development Initiative.

The magazine describes Beth, a Little Rock native and Hendrix College graduate, as someone who “rehabilitates rural towns through restoration of significant structures, such as the Johnny Cash boyhood home (at Dyess).”

Through personal experience, I can tell you that she does more than that. She builds pride among Delta residents and educates outsiders on what the region has to offer.

Just Sunday, on what would have been Cash’s 80th birthday, some of his children, grandchildren, siblings and lots of fans gathered in Mississippi County to celebrate the start of restoration of the boyhood home.

“He should’ve lived to 80,” daughter Rosanne Cash told Rolling Stone. “It’s hard. But it’s so uplifting to celebrate it this way rather than going to a dark place about how sad it is he isn’t still around.”

In the eco-preservation category, one of the two runners-up is John Ruskey, 48, of Clarksdale, Miss., who also operates out of Helena (see the Southern Fried blog post from last week titled “Buck Island and the Mighty Mississippi”).

Ruskey, who owns the Quapaw Canoe Co., shared runner-up honors with Mike Clark of St. Louis, who operates Big Muddy Adventures. 

Southern Living wrote: “Floating down the Mississippi, surveying its untouched banks, John Ruskey and Mike Clark feel most at home. Owners of outfitting and tour companies on the Mississippi River, they volunteer together to protect the largest river system in North America, including leading large-scale cleanups and canoe-building sessions. In 2011, they launched to document and protect the river’s last untouched wilderness.”

Wiedower’s Rural Heritage Development Initiative is sponsored by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and began to take shape in 2005 with funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

A 2007 story in the Arkansas Times described it this way: “While 10 of the participating Main Street communities flourished across the state in 2004, the remaining five, in the east Arkansas communities of Blytheville, Dumas, Helena, Osceola and West Memphis, struggled with redevelopment. That spring, Main Street Arkansas asked the National Trust to collaborate on an assessment of its Delta programs. The resulting report, on not just the five Main Street programs but the entire Arkansas Delta, was so voluminous and filled with such wide-ranging proposals that its authors saw fit to include, in the introduction, a credo from the famous urban planner and architect Daniel Burnham — ‘Make no small plans.’

“After using the report to get money from the Kellogg Foundation, the National Trust selected two regions to participate in a three-year pilot program: an eight-county swath of central Kentucky called the Knob region, and the impetus behind the program, the 15 counties that stretch along Arkansas’ eastern border and make up our Delta. The 15 Delta counties are Arkansas, Chicot, Clay, Craighead, Crittenden, Cross, Desha, Drew, Greene, Lee, Mississippi, Monroe, Phillips, Poinsett and St. Francis.”

Here’s how Wiedower explained her mission at the time: “We’re at the tail end of a 60-year out-migration. We’re what economists would call a very cold market — we’re not growing and we’re not building. In terms of preservation, that’s a good thing. If there’s no influx of money and there’s no growth, then typically there’s no money to tear down old buildings, and there’s no money to put up new buildings.

“We have a tremendous amount of our historic fabric still in the region. How do we use that and take our unique history and heritage and culture and use it for our economic gain? Certainly there is a place for a Toyota plant, but in addition, we need to be looking at our own regional flavor and what makes us as the Arkansas Delta unique and distinctive, not only for ourselves as residents but for potential heritage tourists and for potential businesses moving in who are looking at community and quality-of-life issues.”

Alas Marion never landed that Toyota plant for Crittenden County, but Wiedower has plugged along with heritage tourism, Delta-made and small business initiatives.

Building blocks include:

— The region’s rich music heritage

— The Mississippi River, agricultural and African-American heritages

— Two national scenic byways — the Great River Road and Crowley’s Ridge

— Historic sites such as Dyess, the Hemingway-Pfeiffer House at Piggott and the Lakeport Plantation at Lake Village

— Existing Main Street programs and other small towns that are trying to improve their historic commercial districts

Last year, former President Clinton’s Clinton Global Initiative committed to work with the Rural Heritage Development Initiative in helping entrepreneurs succeed in the Arkansas Delta.

As for Ruskey, he’s attempting to introduce people from across the country to the lower Mississippi River.

Writing for Adventure magazine, Kimberly Brown Seely described his mission this way: “For those of us raised on the great novels of Mark Twain, the Big River is a mythical thing, more imaginary than real. But here in this moment, the palms of my hands ache from gripping a wooden paddle; the river is bigger, faster and darker than I’d ever dreamed.

“It has been two days on the lower Mississippi and already the preconceptions I had — industrialized banks and polluted waters — have evaporated like a morning fog. Unlike the more northern reaches of the river, flanked by towns, cities and heavily developed farmlands, the lower Mississippi is still a wild sprawl: Forested islands and huge deserted sandbars rise out of eddies the size of several city blocks; a bend in the river can take 20 miles to hairpin back to almost the same spot.

“At the water’s edge a dense strip of deciduous forest harbors bears and coyotes, oppossums and beavers, and turtles and snakes. The 300 river miles between Memphis and Vicksburg are the most sparsely inhabited stretch of the entire river. And that’s the exact reason we’re paddling them.”

Ruskey’s Quapaw Canoe Co. bases its trips out of Clarksdale and Helena.

“John, in fact, is the Quapaw Canoe Co.: founder, outfitter, guide, canoe-carver, artist, musician and chef,” Seely wrote. “Should you be lucky enough to catch him on the phone one of the days he’s not paddling, he will, in no great hurry, get around to telling you that he can take you out on the river to explore by the day or the week — his only requirements being that you are willing to paddle and can deal with whatever nature dishes up.”

She went on to describe the lower Mississippi as a river that is “still hungry. The beast imprisoned within the Army Corps’ walls flexed its muscles once more in August 2005, breaching the levees and floodwalls outside New Orleans on the heels of Hurricane Katrina. The river is wild and random, we’re learning all too slowly; it never rests. Just like the Delta blues, the Mississippi moves — both languid and roiling at the same time.

“At the confluence of the Mississippi and the Arkansas rivers, you can see exactly where the two meet. The Mississippi flows brown on the left; the Arkansas flows green on the right. We paddle the seam, dragging a bare foot alternately on each side to test which is colder. The Arkansas is warmer and visibly cleaner than its muddy cousin. The two flow side by side for a long stretch, until the greenish Arkansas disappears altogether and the mud prevails.”

Such scenes are what John Ruskey has to offer visitors from across the country and around the world.

W. Hodding Carter, whose grandfather won the Pulitzer Prize when he owned the Delta Democrat Times at Greenville and whose father worked in the Carter administration, took a trip with Ruskey last spring during the Great Flood of 2011.

In an article he wrote for Outside magazine about the trip, Carter said: “Today the Delta is mostly a depleted, depressed region with a shrinking population. In Greenville, a painful number of businesses are boarded up downtown, and one-third of the population falls below the federal poverty level. Bad as these facts may sound, the river has fared even worse.

“As far back as I can remember, its definable features have been its muddied water and the irrepressible Mississippi funk, a suffocating melange of rotting mud, decaying fish, fertilizer and some unidentifiable industry byproduct that is probably best not dwelled upon, at least when you’re swimming in it.”

In a region that others have left for dead, Beth Wiedower and John Ruskey are building on existing assets and creating pride among Delta residents.

They’re both heroes in my book.

Buck Island and the Mighty Mississippi

Thursday, February 23rd, 2012

You likely missed the story back in late October, but it was a significant development for the Arkansas Delta.

On Oct. 26, there was a dedication ceremony at Helena that capped a six-year effort to protect Buck Island, a 1,500-acre island in the Mississippi River.

The American Land Conservancy, the Natural Resources Conservation Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission worked together to protect a valuable part of the Delta while also opening up the island for recreational uses.

Buck Island will be an anchor for the Lower Mississippi Water Trail. Ultimately, this trail could bring thousands of new outdoors enthusiasts to the Delta on an annual basis.

George Dunklin Jr., who chairs the Game & Fish Commission and is one of the South’s top conservationists, put it this way: “Buck Island provides an excellent and user-friendly way to enjoy the riches of the river like never before. We strive to engage more people in protecting and using our state’s natural resources. Buck Island and the new water trail give people exciting new ways to do so.

“For advanced paddlers and boaters, the 106 river-mile trip from Buck Island to … Choctaw Island Wildlife Management Area … is now possible, and this river trail should soon gain national recognition.”

It seems strange to refer to the nation’s largest river as “hidden,” but in a sense the Mighty Mississippi long has been hidden in plain sight from recreational users behind the massive levee system.

It took a guy named John Ruskey to start changing attitudes in the area.

Ruskey graduated in 1982 from a prestigious prep school in Connecticut, Choate Rosemary Hall. Founded in 1890, Choate now has about 820 students from grades 9-12 and costs more than $46,000 annually for boarders.

Most graduates head to colleges on the East Coast — Georgetown, Yale, Columbia, Boston College, Penn, Harvard, Tufts and the like.

Ruskey, now 48, took a far different path.

He built a 12-by-24-foot raft out of scrap wood and 55-gallon drums with the goal of floating the length of the Mississippi River with a friend.

Kimberly Brown Seely picks up the story from there in Adventure magazine: “The first day they caused a barge to run aground. The second day they had to pull out a crowbar and tear down the homemade shack they’d hammered together atop the raft (they realized it was acting as a sail, with the wind blowing them upstream).

“But eventually they got the hang of the rudimentary sweep oars they’d rigged and, flat broke, managed to run the entire river in five months, subsisting almost entirely on peanut butter.

“After his voyage, John majored in philosophy and mathematics at St. John’s College in New Mexico. By the time he reached 26 he was back in Mississippi, a blues nut who landed in Clarksdale carrying a guitar, an accordion and one backpack. He camped out on the banks of the river until he got a day job driving a tractor for a Mennonite farmer.

“John studied with master blues guitarist Johnny Billington, played the juke joints, taught guitar riffs to schoolkids and was hired as the first curator of the Delta Blues Museum. By then he’d begun making hand-carved canoes and paddling the river. And because in the South locals tend to avoid the river like an evil spirit, he had it all to himself.”

Years later, Ruskey would say this about the Mississippi River: “It sure has hit me in the heart. I followed the river downstream just like a lot of other people who have ended up here. I found out in 1982 when you get the mud between your toes, you’re not going to be able to kick it out.”

Ruskey also has extensive canoeing and kayaking experience on the other rivers of the Arkansas and Mississippi Delta — the Arkansas, the White, the St. Francis, the Yazoo, the Sunflower, the Black. It’s safe to say he’s the most knowledgeable guide in the Delta.

In 1998, Ruskey left the Delta Blues Museum and began the Quapaw Canoe Co. at Clarksdale, the first wilderness outfitting business along the lower Mississippi River.

From 2002-06, Ruskey oversaw the construction of three dugout canoes for the Lewis & Clark bicentennial reenactment and helped take those canoes up the Missouri, Yellowstone, Clearwater, Snake and Columbia rivers.

In 2007, Chinook elder George Lagergren asked Ruskey to renovate two traditional Chinook dugouts that now are housed at the tribal headquarters in Wilapa Bay, Wash.

This renaissance man is also a painter, writer and musician. In June 2008, he opened a new outpost at Helena., just beside the levee on Ohio Street.

“Our whole mission with Quapaw Canoe Co. is to get you out on the river and experience that awesome wilderness in the heart of our country,” Ruskey said at the time of the Helena opening.

One of the people who was most excited that summer day in 2008 was Tim Richardson of the American Land Conservancy. ALC had worked for years to establish the Lower Mississippi River Water Trail, a series of publicly owned islands and landings that would allow boaters, canoeists and kayakers to work their way down the river.

Richardson, with whom I dealt when I worked for the Delta Regional Authority, pointed to a similar trail along the Mississippi River between St. Louis and Cairo, Ill., with more than 25,000 acres of islands and shoreline under public ownership.

ALC purchased Buck Island in 2005. In 2010, ALC negotiated a conservation easement with the federal government to protect the native forests on the island. A year later, ALC completed a public access and conservation easement with the Game & Fish Commission to ensure the island would be available for public use.

“This has been a dream of ours for many years,” Ron Nassar of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service said last year. “The Mississippi River Delta is a … forested wetland, but much of it is behind levees. Truly, a treasure hidden in plain sight, Buck Island and the Lower Mississippi River Water Trail finally let the public begin to see the Mississippi they’ve been missing.”

Buck Island has 880 acres of forests and 620 acres of sand beaches. There are five miles of hiking trails on the island and a three-mile side channel.

The island is only a three-minute boat trip from the Game & Fish Commission ramp in Helena’s harbor.

Now, the Lower Mississippi River Water Trail has its anchor.

“As a local business owner, I can tell you firsthand that Buck Island is an unparalled resource for Helena,” Ruskey said. “People come from all over the world to experience the Mighty Mississippi. It has a very powerful draw, but people need a way to access it. With Buck Island and the river trail, they get to see the beauty of this place as never before.”

The NRCS used funds from the federal stimulus bill to conserve the island.

“Buck Island’s 880 acres of native trees are a critical part of its conservation value, and in time it will become an old-growth forest,” said Reed Cripps of the NRCS. “Migratory birds, deer, turkey, beaver, opossum, bats and many other wildlife find food and shelter here, and the trees provide refuge during major floods.”

The Game and Fish Commission’s Choctaw Island is 106 miles downstream. The mouths of the Arkansas and White rivers are in between.

Choctaw Island is not a true island, but it’s bounded on the west by the Mississippi River levee and connected to the mainland by a narrow isthmus. Choctaw Bar Island, meanwhile, is a true island in the Mississippi River that makes up about 2,000 acres of the state’s wildlife management area.

The Game & Fish Commission purchased Choctaw Island near Arkansas City in October 2001 for $4.5 million from Price Services Inc. of Monticello, a lumber company. It was the largest state land purchase since Arkansas voters had approved the one-eighth of a cent conservation sales tax in 1996. Also at the time, it was the only public land inside the Mississippi River levee in Arkansas.

Price agreed to sell the land for about half its appraised value. Since Price is a lumber company, the area had a history of timber harvest and management, though about 70 percent was bottomland hardwood or a pine-hardwood mix.

In September 2010, nine miles of nature trails, a paved parking area and an access road were dedicated. The trails are a birdwatchers’ paradise with bay-breasted warblers, golden-winged warblers, Philadelphia vireos, black-billed cuckoos and other migratory song birds all found on Choctaw Island. Least bitterns, king rails, common moorhens, roseate spoonbills, wood storks and black-bellied whistling ducks also can be found.

Bald eagles, ducks and geese flood into the area in the winter.

The Arkansas House speaker, Robert Moore, lives at Arkansas City and was instrumental in securing funds for the project. It’s safe to say that few people love the Delta more than Moore.

He’s also a big fan of what has happened upstream at Buck Island.

“The Mississippi is the lifeblood of the Delta, its people and its economy, but for too long people have been cut off from it,” Moore said. “With Buck Island and the water trail, people have a new way to see what this magnificent river and our beautiful state have to offer. It’s nothing less than a national treasure.”

John Ruskey learned that back in 1982. He discovered what even the natives had missed, the fact that there’s a lot to see and experience inside those levees.

A (Natural State) river runs through it

Wednesday, February 22nd, 2012

“There are places along the rivers of the Ozarks where large numbers of cattle have the banks eroded, muddy and bare, and every time the river floods, a load of soil and silt is carried from those places to fill the eddies below,” Larry Dablemont wrote last year. “It goes back a hundred years to a time when there was no other way to water stock, when cattle and pigs roamed and then, as their numbers increased, timber was cut and bulldozed along the streams to make more room for grazing.”

Dablemont, who writes lovingly about the Ozarks, is based out of Bolivar, Mo. According to his website, his grandfather “was an old-time river man who trapped, fished, built johnboats and ran a fishing camp. Following in the footsteps of his father and uncles, Larry began guiding fishermen in his grandfather’s johnboats when he was only 13 years old. He loved the outdoors from his early boyhood and began writing about the world he knew when he was in high school.”

Dablemont’s past includes stints as the outdoors editor of the Arkansas Democrat, as a naturalist for the Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism and as a naturalist for the National Park Service along the Buffalo National River.

While living in north Arkansas in 1975, he decided to become a freelance writer and has turned out thousands of pieces since then.

Dablemont wrote about a landowner named Jim Hacker who owns about two miles of river frontage along the Pomme de Terre River in southwest Missouri. He described Hacker as a “cattleman who saw there was a better way.”

Dablemont said that because of the steps Hacker took, his “river bottomland, in trees and grasses, is filled with wildlife, not only deer and turkey, but furbearers and rabbits and quail.”

Hacker said: “I have always loved to fish, and my wife and I float the Pomme de Terre as much as possible. I want to see it saved, and I believe it can be because nature is quick to heal itself. The river can recover from much of what we have done if we let it.”

Dablemont noted that there are “hundreds of us who love the rivers who would talk to landowners about conservation programs, and there are landowners like Jim Hacker who will testify to the wisdom and economics in doing what he has done. There are canoe clubs and fishing groups who would join me, I believe, in talking to landowners along our streams about stopping erosion caused by cattle and improving their land.”

Dablemont was writing about Missouri, but he could have been talking about Arkansas, a state blessed with thousands of miles of streams.

It’s an unseasonably warm late February (a welcome relief after the harsh winter of 2011), and our thoughts turn to an early spring. For many Arkansans that means being on the rivers, creeks, bayous and sloughs of the Natural State.

In thinking about north Arkansas, I think of trips along the Kings River, the Buffalo, the Eleven Point, the Strawberry, the Spring, the South Fork of the Spring, the Current and the Little Black.

And then there are the floatable creeks in the Arkansas Ozarks — the War Eagle, Crooked, Osage, Long, Myatt and more.

Coming out of the Ozarks and headed south into the Arkansas River Valley are the Mulberry River, Big Piney Creek and the Illinois Bayou.

There’s the magnificent White River as it transforms itself from a mountain stream in northwest Arkansas to a wide, slow Delta artery in southeast Arkansas.

In southwest Arkansas, there’s the Caddo, the Ouachita, the Little Missouri, the Cossatot, the Mountain Fork and more.

There’s Cadron Creek in central Arkansas and the Little Red River with its upper forks — the South Fork, the Middle Fork and the Archeys Fork. Big Creek flows into the Little Red.

There’s the Saline River and its upper forks — the North Fork, the Alum Fork and the Middle Fork.

There are the dozens of other streams I know nothing about but would love to experience.

Arkansans have been given so much that it’s incumbent on them to give something back.

One way to do so is through participation in the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission’s Stream Team initiative. The program began in 1996, and there are now more than 500 stream teams across the state.

You should consider joining an existing team or forming your own while adopting part of a favorite river or creek.

According to the Game & Fish Commission: “These teams conduct litter pickups, repair eroding streambanks on willing owners’ land, plant trees to restore degraded riparian areas, work with local leaders to better manage their watersheds and conduct a variety of other activities aimed at conserving one of the most valuable of Arkansas’ natural resources, its water.”

Those interested in participating should email Steve Filipek at or call him at (501) 223-6371.

“Stream Team members can adopt a stream, determine its current situation and plan a project based on the initial survey,” according to the Game & Fish Commission. “This is done with the landowner’s approval and technical assistance from program sponsors. Your imagination is the only limitation.”

Another way to give back is by becoming involved with the Nature Conservancy. The Conservancy has several stream restoration and protection programs across the state.

I had written earlier on the Southern Fried blog about the Nature Conservancy’s purchase of land along the Kings River in March 2010. In April 2011, the Conservancy added a 28.9-acre tract that includes a quarter mile of river frontage with bluffs, a sandy beach and a gravel bar. This tract connects two other parts of the Kings River Nature Preserve, forming an unbroken area along the river.

“The Kings River is a recreational paradise offering excellent floating and fishing with deep pools, overhanging trees, occasional rapids and towering bluffs,” the Conservancy noted in its 2011 year-end report. “Attesting to the stream’s beauty is the fact that in 1971 the General Assembly passed legislation to protect the portion of the river in Madison County, noting that it ‘possesses unique scenic, recreational and other characteristics in a natural, unpolluted and wild state.’

“The Conservancy’s primary purpose in acquiring the preserve, which spans more than seven miles on both sides of the Kings River, is to maintain the health and water quality of this Ozark gem.

“The river fosters a rich aquatic community, including 18 species of fish, crayfish, mussels, turtles and insects found only in the Ozarks, as well as one species of stonefly found only in the Kings watershed. Besides being a recreational treasure, the river is also an important drinking water source as it flows into Table Rock Lake to join the White River.”

Another important part of the Nature Conservancy’s work in Arkansas involves gravel road repairs that are used as demonstration projects.

“You may find it hard to believe that gravel roads are one of the biggest threats to stream health in Arkansas and around the United States, but it’s true,” the year-end report stated. “Unpaved roads, combined with heavy rainfall, can dump huge amounts of sediment into our rivers.”

In one 2011 effort, the Nature Conservancy partnered with the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service and the Arkansas Forestry Commission to hold a best management practices workshop at Clinton. The Conservancy has been involved in restoration projects along the Little Red River near Clinton.

The workshop drew more than 60 participants. There were foresters, private contractors, county road department employees, natural gas company employees and representatives of state and federal agencies.

The floods of last spring brought additional challenges. The Nature Conservancy worked in the aftermath of those floods to protect eroding banks and remove downed trees on streams ranging from the South Fork of the Little Red River to the Middle Fork of the Saline River.

As spring begins, enjoy our state’s streams.

But please remember to give back.

According to the Game and Fish Commission: “We’ve lost thousands of miles of free-flowing natural streams to damming, industrial and agricultural pollution and other activities. Recent studies indicate we’ve lost more than 25 percent of the state’s smallmouth bass streams this century.”

And as Larry Dablemont noted, “If we don’t do something soon, it will someday be too late.”

For sale: That Bookstore in Blytheville

Tuesday, February 21st, 2012

She began by quoting the famous verse from Ecclesiastes: “To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven.”

Instinctively, I knew what was coming from Mary Gay Shipley, owner of a Delta oasis, That Bookstore in Blytheville.

“It is now time for change,” she wrote. “It has been a privilege to serve you all these years. I am proud of the role That Bookstore in Blytheville has played in the life of our community.

“It is my sincere hope that someone or some group will come forward and continue TBIB in some fashion. I am not going anywhere and would be happy to help a new owner transform TBIB into their own vision.

“I believe the next few years will be exciting for independent booksellers who embrace the multiple reading formats and who are located in areas with a strong ‘buy local’ economy. It would be a fun challenge, if only I were a decade younger.

“And so I am ready to turn loose of That Bookstore in Blytheville and spend more time with my family. Thank you for the wonderful times.”

Will a buyer be found in the next several months?

I wish I were more optimistic.

Earlier this month, I wrote on Southern Fried about the death of McCormick Book Inn in Greenville, Miss., which closed its doors last November after 46 years in business.

In the post about McCormick Book Inn, I revised my Great Mid-South Bookstore Tour to cut out Greenville. It, of course, still included a stop in Blytheville.

Now, we may lose another Delta treasure.

It was Jerry Seinfeld who once said that a bookstore “is one of the only pieces of evidence we have that people are still thinking.”

Mary Gay turns 68 next month. I understand. She’s tired, I suspect.

It’s just like Hugh and Mary Dayle McCormick in Greenville.

Running a small business in a struggling Delta town is no easy proposition, no matter how special that business might be.

In 2009, TBIB was nominated for the Publishers Weekly Bookseller of the Year award.

Here’s part of the store history Mary Gay wrote in her submission: “In 1976, I opened the bookstore in my hometown of Blytheville because I saw a need. With only a tiny library and no place to buy books, a bookstore that would encourage reading and book conversations became my dream. My goal was, and still is, to create a good bookstore, not merely a store good enough for Blytheville, but a good bookstore.

“That goal is my inspiration and it is the mission that keeps us moving forward today. I believe that the person who does not like to read is the person who has yet to discover the right book. Because of that philosophy, bookselling at That Bookstore in Blytheville is very hands on. Our job is to help each person find the right book. Our passion is making readers by connecting people with books. Despite the market changes over the years, putting good books in the hands of readers keeps us excited and in love with our work.

“The economy in Blytheville has been marginal during most of our bookselling years. We have always operated in a community with both a low literacy rate and a low median income. When our local U.S. Air Force base closed in 1992, one-fourth of the population (and a greater percentage of our real readers) left. While TBIB has never generated high-volume profits, the store has grown from an original $3,000 investment to what it is today. We own our building and have no debts.”

Mary Gay has been a master at staying in touch with her customers. There’s a newsletter, regular email reminders, a nice website, traditional advertising and the underwriting of book-related programs on powerhouse public radio station KASU at Jonesboro and on AETN, the statewide public television network.

“TBIB understands that we sell a product offered free only a block away at the public library and often available at Walmart for about the same price we pay our suppliers,” Mary Gay wrote. “As a result, we are heavily dependent on customer service. But what is good customer service? For TBIB, customer service is about more than pleasantries and waiting on people immediately. It is about more than knowing our products. For us, service centers on knowing our customers.

“Books are very personal, and our business is to get to know our customers and embrace their reading choices and event interests. We serve with a positive mindset, and no matter who the bookseller might be, our customers know they are always speaking to another book lover.”

Awards earned by the store through the years include the Arkansas Business of the Year award from the Arkansas Times in 1996, the Chilcote Award for Extraordinary Service from the Arkansas Community Foundation in 1998, the Outstanding Philanthropic Corporation award from the Arkansas Community Foundation in 2002 and the Main Street Merchant of the Year award from Main Street Arkansas in 2006.

TBIB is in a former jewelry store location at 316 West Main St.

“That Bookstore in Blytheville specializes in Southern writers and books on Southern culture, with emphasis on the work of Arkansas writers,” Tom Williams writes in the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “A champion of literacy, Shipley also uses the store to promote reading among local schoolchildren. Children’s reading materials — and education toys and games — are located in the homey back room, complete with a stove and wooden floors. The back room also hosts reading groups, musical performances and author signings and readings. Authors sign their names on a series of wooden chairs; they often read from their work while seated in a rocking chair.”

A real highlight for me came back in 1993 when Mary Gay allowed me to sign a chair following the publication of my biography of Hillary Rodham Clinton, “The Hillary Factor.”

Williams notes how amazing it is for so many authors to visit a town the size of Blytheville.

He writes: “Locals may view the plethora of writers who visit Blytheville as fairly common, but it is quite remarkable when one considers that, since the early 1980s, the Mississippi Delta town of Blytheville has become a much-visited spot by writers from large and small publishing houses.

“Lacking the diversity and size of such cities as Jackson and Memphis — or the literary atmosphere of a university town like Oxford, Miss. — Blytheville hosts at That Bookstore at least one signing or reading per week with audience members from town as well as the surrounding areas, including nearby Jonesboro and the Missouri Bootheel. Among the hundreds of writers who have read or signed at That Bookstore are Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham Clinton, along with John Grisham.”

Mary Gay told Dan Broun in the 2008 publication “Ducks, Documentaries & Design” (a look at the creative economy in Arkansas): “We are still in business because of John Grisham.”

TBIB was among a handful of bookstores to have Grisham, an Arkansas native who at the time was unknown as a writer, for a signing following the publication of his first novel.

He has rewarded Mary Gay by returning time after time through the years to sign his books.

“The signings attract visitors to Shipley’s establishment from throughout the Southeast, and the autographed copies the author leaves behind are shipped all over the country,” Broun writes.

Broun titled the chapter on TBIB “The Divine Secrets of That Bookstore in Blytheville: How an Independent Bookstore Survives in the 21st Century Marketplace.”

He began the chapter this way: “When most authors announce their book tours, you can usually guess the stops: the big cities, of course, like New York, Boston, Chicago and Los Angeles, and perhaps some college towns with literary bents like Charlottesville, Ann Arbor or Berkeley. So you might be surprised to find your favorite author scheduling a stop in little Blytheville.”

Unless a buyer for TBIB can be found this spring, famous authors will no longer be stopping in Mississippi County.

Yes, things change. That doesn’t mean I have to like it.

Along the Cache River

Monday, February 20th, 2012

It begins along the Arkansas-Missouri border and meanders through east Arkansas until emptying into the White River near Clarendon.

The Cache River.

This Delta stream played the lead role in one of the great environmental battles in American history.

“Though the Cache River area was an important source of timber, the area was not as extensively cleared as were other parts of eastern Arkansas due to the river’s reputation for flooding, and major stands of native hardwood survived,” Guy Lancaster writes in the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “Because the Cache moves at a slow speed due to its low amount of fall per mile … the Cache River can overflow its banks after only a few inches of rainfall.

“Work on the river in northeast Arkansas in the 1920s and 1930s straightened the channel, even splitting the river into two separate ditches between Bono and Egypt. … During the flood of 1937, the Cache River was one of a number of eastern Arkansas rivers that spilled across agricultural land. Planters, landowners and businessmen long advocated for some form of flood control along the Cache, which had no well-developed system of levees.

“The Flood Control Act of 1950 authorized the Cache River-Bayou DeView Project, which was a plan to dredge, clear and realign 140 miles of the Cache upstream from Clarendon, 15 miles of the upper tributaries and 77 miles of Bayou DeView, the river’s main tributary. However, initial funds for the project, projected to cost $60 million, were not approved until 1969.”

Bill Alexander, the Democratic congressman from the 1st District, fought hard for the project. His opponents included the Arkansas Wildlife Federation, the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission and conservationists statewide who realized that a large percentage of the remaining bottomland hardwoods in east Arkansas were along the Cache.

Leading that band of conservationists was Dr. Rex Hancock of Stuttgart, a dentist and avid duck hunter.

“Conservation needs more than lip service, more than professionals,” said Hancock, whose organization was known as the Citizens Committee to Save the Cache River Basin. “It needs ordinary people with extraordinary desire.”

Hancock was born in July 1923 in Laddonia, Mo., a small town northwest of St. Louis. His father was a dentist. Hancock served in the Navy during World War II and graduated from Westminster College in Fulton, Mo., in 1947. He then went to dental school in Kansas City.

The thing that led him to Arkansas was his love of hunting. He first practiced at Huntsville and then moved to Stuttgart in 1951.

A lawsuit was filed to stop the Cache River project, but U.S. District Judge J. Smith Henley ruled in favor of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on May 5, 1972.

The Corps wasted no time. Clearing and dredging in the Clarendon area began in July 1972 even though Henley’s ruling had been appealed.

On Dec. 15, 1972, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals remanded the case to Henley, ruling that the Corps had not met the requirements of the Enviromental Policy Act in preparing its environmental impact statement. The court ordered construction stopped in 1973.

The environmental impact statement was approved in 1976, but funding was stalled in Congress. In addition to blocking funding, opponents of the project worked feverishly to establish a national wildlife refuge along the lower Cache.

Congress reauthorized funding in 1977, and three more miles of the river were ditched. A year later, a government task force concluded that ditching the river would be the single most damaging project to waterfowl and floodplain forest in the nation.

Funding ended, leaving a seven-mile scar along the lower Cache.

The Cache River National Wildlife Refuge, established in 1986, covers almost 60,000 acres and is now considered to be among the nation’s most vital wintering areas for migratory waterfowl. It’s also among the country’s last remaining tracts of contiguous bottomland hardwood forests.

These east Arkansas wetlands were recognized in 1990 by the 61 nations of the United Nations Ramsar Convention, an international treaty for wetlands preservation, as Wetlands of International Importance.

The Cache River ranks right up there with the Everglades, the Okefenokee Swamp and the Chesapeake Bay as far as environmental importance.

Last fall, the Nature Conservancy held what it billed as the Save the Cache Bash at the home of Hanke and Cathy Browne in DeValls Bluff to draw attention to its efforts to restore 4.6 miles of the river that were channelized upstream from Clarendon before the courts could step in.

Working with the Corps, the city of Clarendon, the Game & Fish Commisson, the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission and Ducks Unlimited, the Nature Conservancy hopes to make this a model for river restoration nationwide.

Mike Wilson of Jacksonville, who chaired the Nature Conservancy’s board in Arkansas, wrote in the organization’s 2011 year-end report: “We are opening a new and exciting chapter for the Cache River. The story of conservation in the lower Cache River and surrounding Big Woods of east Arkansas is one of ecological setbacks, protection victories and painstaking restoration.

“Many of you might remember the efforts in the early 1970s to prevent the channelization of the Cache River. We cheered when, after much hard work and a halt to the channelization that had already begun, the river was left to run its natural course. … It is up to us to carry on the extraordinary desire of so many conservationists who came before and to restore this iconic river.”

If you want to see what the Cache would have looked like if Alexander and the Corps had had their way, go north of Grubbs. It’s basically a drainage ditch.

In addition to its work to establish the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge, the conservation coalition was instrumental in the addition of 41,000 acres of Potlatch Corp. lands to the adjacent White River National Wildlife Refuge.

There has been steady progress since then.

“Through the Wetlands Reserve Program, tens of thousands of acres were reforested,” the Nature Conservancy writes in its year-end report. “All told, the Conservancy and partners have reforested more than 50,000 acres and safeguarded more than 130,000 acres in the Big Woods.

“While conservation strides have been significant, the work on the channelized stretch of the lower Cache remains incomplete. Now we have an opportunity to begin restoring natural meanders of the channelized river, helping to fulfill the vision of those who originally worked to protect the river. If successful, this stretch of the Cache will once again enjoy thriving fish populations and flourishing habitat that supports waterfowl and hundreds of other resident and migratory bird species.”

The Nature Conservancy correctly notes that the Cache “pays homage to and helps sustain the deeply rooted Delta river culture so cherished throughout Arkansas.”

On Aug. 17, the city of Clarendon entered into a project partnership agreement with the Corps to move forward with the restoration project. The Nature Conservancy is working with the city to raise the funds needed to complete the effort.

The cost of the project is $7.3 million. The Corps is contributing $5 million. The Nature Conservancy must raise $2.3 million.

The Conservancy notes: “Timing is crucial. … While design work on the project has been completed, the Conservancy must be certain that we can deliver our share of the funding before we begin construction. After coming so close to losing the entire river, we now have a chance to put the Cache back on course for future generations.”

Why is restoration so important?

The Nature Conservancy responds: “With channelization, the Cache basin’s productive aquatic habitats and richly diverse bottomland forests have declined. This harms millions of wintering waterfowl that flock to this area, black bears that roam freely in surrounding woods and prized sport fish that define the Cache’s waters.

“Returning the lower Cache to its natural meandering condition will slow the river’s velocity and reduce the delivery of sediment that damages not only the Cache but also downstream rivers and habitats.”

Back to Rex Hancock: Later in life, he was instrumental in documenting the presence of dioxin — a toxin known to cause cancer and birth defects — in the Bayou Meto.

The Arkansas Wildlife Federation named him its Conservationist of the Year in 1968. In 1981, the Game & Fish Commission renamed the Black Swamp Wildlife Management Area in Woodruff County in his honor. His ashes were buried there following his death in July 1986.

In 1993, Hancock was inducted posthumously into the Arkansas Outdoor Hall of Fame.

He no doubt would be pleased with the current efforts to restore the lower part of his beloved Cache River.

Dolly Brumfield: A league of her own

Wednesday, February 15th, 2012

I pass it each morning on the way to my office in downtown North Little Rock: A traffic control box at the intersection of Broadway and Maple near Dickey-Stephens Park with a painting on it that honors Dr. Delores Brumfield White from my hometown of Arkadelphia.

At North Little Rock’s Laman Library at 28th and Orange streets, there’s an exhibit running until March 18 titled “Linedrives and Lipstick: The Untold Story of Women’s Baseball.”

The exhibit features photos, game programs and postcards that focus on women’s baseball, dating back to the late 1800s.

That’s right, baseball — not softball.

Brumfield White played a role in that story.

On April 21 of last year, she was inducted into the Mobile Sports Hall of Fame in her native state of Alabama.

Tommy Hicks wrote in the Mobile Press-Register: “Walking down the street to a local playground and ballpark led Dr. Delores “Dolly” Brumfield White places she never dreamed of visiting and on an adventure she is still a part of. It was, she says, simply meant to be.

“Playing baseball at a Prichard diamond led her to a career in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. Then there was the time she stopped in a small Arkansas town to get gas and — by way of a telephone booth and a dare — wound up a few days later with a job she held for 31 years until her retirement.

“White ended up teaching in Mississippi because Alabama schools didn’t have organized sports for girls at that time and she wanted to coach. She went on to earn her master’s degree and doctorate at Southern Miss, which led her to a job interview in Arkansas.”

The AAGPBL was popularized by the movie “A League of Their Own.”

Brumfield White spent seven seasons in the league and finished second in hitting her final season.

The movie, which was released in 1992, was directed by Penny Marshall. The cast included Tom Hanks, Geena Davis, Madonna, Rosie O’Donnell, Tea Leoni, Jon Lovitz and others.

The film was No. 1 by its second weekend in July 1992 and ended up making (on a $40 million budget) $107 million in the United States and $25 million in other countries.

The “there’s no crying in baseball!” quote by manager Jimmy Dugan (played by Hanks) was rated 54th on the list of greatest film quotes of all time by the American Film Institute.

Although AAGPBL is commonly used to describe all 12 years of the baseball league, that name was only utilized in 1949-50.

The league was founded as the All-American Girls Softball League and was changed in 1943 to the All-American Girls Baseball League. The name was changed again in 1949 to the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League and was changed yet again in 1951 to the American Girls’ Baseball League.

Operations ceased in September 1954.

Chewing gum magnate Philip Wrigley owned the league from 1943-45. It was owned from 1945-51 by Arthur Meyerhoff. Teams were individually owned from 1951-54.

Just two teams — the South Bend Blue Sox and the Rockford Peaches — stayed in the same city for the entire 12 years.

Brumfield White decided to try out for the professional baseball league when she was just 13.

Hicks wrote: “Growing up in Prichard, White said baseball appealed to her, even though she was the only girl playing the game with neighborhood boys and even some older guys from the shipyards. Those shipyard workers told her about tryouts in Pascagoula for a girls baseball league, although at 13 she was too young. At 14, though, she got her chance and made the league.

“After baseball and earning her college degree, she went to Mississippi to teach because she also wanted to coach. She found a job with the help of an uncle. Later, she went to Arkansas looking for a job. She was heading to Monroe, La., for another interview, accompanied by a friend, when they stopped in Arkadelphia for gas. The city had two colleges and she picked the state school, Henderson State, and decided to make a phone call.”

Brumfield White told Hicks: “I told my friend, ‘I kind of like the looks of this place. I’ll see if they’ve got a job.’ So my friend dared me to call. I went to the telephone booth on the corner and looked up Henderson State. I told them who I was, and that I was passing through, and that I was looking for a job in my field and asked if they had a job in my field.

“The secretary said, ‘Yes, we do.’ She invited me up and said the president would be in any time and to come on up. I met with the president, talked with him, and he took me to the P.E. department and showed me around.

“He said, ‘If you’re interested in the position, send us your paperwork.’ I got home, sent in paperwork and within a week I got a call offering me the job. I’ve been here ever since.”

I realize now that I was surrounded as a child by true pioneers in the area of women’s sports — Delores Brumfield White, Bettye Wallace and Jane Sevier at Henderson; Carolyn Moffatt and Tona Wright at Ouachita.

In an extensive biography of Brumfield White that’s posted on the Henderson website, Fred Worth of the Society for American Baseball Research wrote: “In the spring of my first year on the faculty at Henderson, I went to an intramural softball game involving a couple of faculty teams. One of the teams was the one from ‘down the hill,’ the Health, Physical Education and Recreation faculty. Not surprisingly, they had a pretty good team.

“But the thing I remember most was not the players or even the game. One of the fans sticks out in my memory. As is common, there was one particularly vocal fan. What was not common, though, was the type of things said by this fan. Usually such vocal fans are using volume to hide the fact that they have no idea what they are talking about. This fan, a woman, was vocal but also knew exactly what she was talking about. This was my introduction to Dr. Delores Brumfield White, better known as Dee or Dolly.”

Brumfield White was born in Prichard, which is near Mobile, on May 26, 1932. The area produced or was the home of Hank Aaron, Willie McCovey, Cleon Jones, Tommie Agee and Satchel Paige.

In other words, baseball was big.

Worth wrote: “As was the case with many youngsters, Dee began to dream of being a baseball player. Such a dream was surely unrealistic — but something happened in 1942 that made it less far-fetched. As World War II began to demand a greater commitment in manpower, many minor league teams went out of business due to a lack of able-bodied players. To fill the void, Philip Wrigley, owner of the Chicago Cubs, decided to form the AAGPBL. His theory was that there were sufficient quality female players to satisfy the public’s desire to watch baseball. The league began play in 1943.

“In 1946, the shipyard workers heard about tryouts for the AAGPBL and encouraged Dee to try out. They even volunteered to drive her to Pascagoula, Miss., for the tryouts. Her mother was open to the idea of tryouts but was not open to the idea of the workers taking Dee. She said that if anyone was going to take Dee to Pascagoula, she would.

“Dee impressed league officials at the tryouts. Afterward she spoke to Max Carey, the league president and a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame. When Carey found out Dee was ‘almost 14,’ he told her she was too young. But he also encouraged her to continue working on her skills, encouraging her to join a local team. Returning to the Mobile area, Dee joined a softball team made up of women from the area military base.

“Not long after the end of the 1946 season, Carey contacted Dee, inviting her to join the AAGPBL. A few weeks later, a letter from Carey arrived, asking Dee to report to Havana, Cuba, for spring training in 1947.”

Her mother was not excited about the idea of a young daughter going to Cuba.

“One of the league’s players visited with the family,” Worth wrote. “She assured them that the players were well taken care of and explained the role of the chaperones that traveled with each team. This conversation allayed Mrs. Brumfield’s fears, and Dee was permitted to go.

“Dee left but, as she got on a train for Miami, homesickness hit very strongly. However, once she arrived in Havana, the focus on baseball made everything easier for her. The players were always under the watchful eye of their chaperones, as well as armed military officials in Cuba.”

She played in Indiana for the South Bend Blue Sox in 1947. The team was managed by a former Notre Dame assistant football coach named Chet Grant.

The league expanded to 10 teams in 1948 and split into two divisions. Brumfield White was traded to the Kenosha Comets in Wisconsin. She played for Kenosha through the 1951 season, when the team folded.

She spent the 1952 season with the Fort Wayne Daisies, who were managed by Hall of Famer Jimmie Foxx and won the league championship. Her last season in the league was 1953, again playing in Indiana for Fort Wayne.

Brumfield White attended college during the offseason and graduated from Alabama College for Women (now the University of Montevallo) in 1954. Her first teaching job was for two years at Shaw, Miss., in the Delta followed by seven years at Copiah-Lincoln Community College in Mississippi.

The move to Arkadelphia came in 1963.

On Oct. 13, 2007, the softball field at Henderson was named the Dr. Delores “Dolly” Brumfield White Softball Field.

She once told an interviewer: “I think that we as young women baseball players all those years ago sort of forged the way for girls today to be able to do the things they do. It makes me really proud to know that I had a part in making it easier for women to be involved in sports. I’m so proud.”

She has a right to be proud. She’s a remarkable woman.

Democrat vs. Gazette: The Great Newspaper War

Monday, February 13th, 2012

Walter E. Hussman Jr., who was inducted into the Arkansas Business Hall of Fame on Friday night, knew by 1977 that he had to change directions at the Arkansas Democrat.

The Hussman family had owned the afternoon newspaper in Little Rock for three years, and there were some tough decisions that had to be made.

Newspaper employees had voted to decertify four unions, and costs had come down during that three-year period.

Revenues, however, were flat.

And the handwriting was on the wall across the country for afternoon newspapers in two-newspaper markets.

Hussman approached Arkansas Gazette publisher Hugh Patterson Jr. with the idea of a joint operating agreement after having studied the 22 such agreements already in place nationwide.

Under the agreement he proposed, the Gazette would receive 100 percent of profits until it had made as much money as the year before.

Hussman thought it was a generous agreement. Patterson disagreed. He refused Hussman’s offer.

“I’ll never forget what he told me,” Hussman said during a recent visit in his downtown Little Rock office. “He said, ‘I can’t believe I would make any more money by doing this.’

“Our company had never failed at anything. We had entered the radio business in the 1930s. We had entered the television business in the 1950s. We had entered the cable television business in the 1960s. We really didn’t want to fail at this, either.

“I looked around at the strategies being used by afternoon newspapers in places such as Dallas, Chattanooga and even Winnipeg in Canada. I wanted to at least be able to say we had tried everything before giving up.”

At that point, Hussman made the bold decision to go head to head with the Gazette.

He said his father “reluctantly consented” but was not excited about the idea.

Walter Hussman Sr.’s tepid response: “Maybe it’s worth a try.”

In 1979, the Democrat began publishing a morning edition in an effort to reverse years of declining market share.

The newspaper also offered free want ads to non-commercial advertisers, doubled the size of its news staff and increased the size of the newshole by 58 percent. Front-page color appeared. Expenses subsequently soared.

“We caught a tiger by the tail that was bounding through the jungle, but he was going so fast we couldn’t get off,” Hussman said.

Those who underestimated Hussman did so at their peril.

When Editor & Publisher named Hussman its publisher of the year in 2008, his longtime right-hand man, Paul Smith, told the magazine: “Walter’s so polite and such a nice guy that some people perceive that to be a lack of aggression. He’s very aggressive. He just doesn’t telegraph it. And that makes him the most dangerous.”

In 1982, Hussman decided to increase the monthly subscription rate for the Democrat from $3.60 to $4.25. His veteran circulation director, Bill Taylor, told him: “If we do that, we’re going to go out of business.”

Despite the price increase, the newspaper’s circulation continued to rise.

A year later, Hussman increased the monthly rate to $4.95. Taylor again advised against the move. Once more, circulation increased.

In 1984, the price was increased to $5.75 per month, higher than the Gazette.

In April 1984, the Democrat produced its first profit since its purchase by the Hussman family in 1974. The profit was divided between the newspaper’s 352 employees.

Hussman had buttons made that said, “We’re In The Black.”

There was also a small profit in May 1984. Huge losses would follow in the years ahead, but that was a turning point in the newspaper war.

“I think the owners of the Gazette realized that once we made money, we weren’t going away,” Hussman said.

The Democrat had increased its revenues from $6.7 million in 1979 to $18.4 million in 1984. Daily circulation had increased from 53,671 to 76,199 in that same period. Sunday circulation had soared from 98,237 to 140,642.

Trying to stop the Democrat gains, the Gazette filed a federal antitrust suit against the Democrat in 1984. The lawsuit accused Hussman of trying to put the Gazette out of business. Hussman responded that he was only trying to remain competitive and that none of his practices were intended to run the Gazette out of business.

On March 26, 1986, a jury in the court of U.S. District Judge William Overton found the Democrat innocent of all allegations.

Hugh Patterson knew it was time to sell the newspaper.

On Oct. 30, 1986, it was announced that the Gazette had been purchased by the Gannett Corp., the nation’s largest newspaper chain. The sale would be effective on Dec. 1 of that year.

I was the Washington correspondent for the Democrat at the time. I can vividly remember getting a phone call from the late Ray Hobbs, one of my editors.

“Gannett just bought the Gazette,” he said. “We’re screwed.”

I crossed the river from Washington to Arlington, Va., to visit Gannett headquarters and come up with several stories on our new competition. Those of us who worked at the Democrat were scared about what the future held.

Hussman recently admitted to me that he was scared, too.

In fact, he met secretly in Shreveport with Gannett’s vice chairman at the time, Doug McCorkingdale, to propose a joint operating agreement that would preserve newspaper competition in Little Rock. Under Hussman’s proposal, one entity would put out two newspapers with the profits split 50-50.

As a native Arkansan, Hussman would run the new company. McCorkingdale listened politely to the proposal, but Gannett wouldn’t bite.

The newspaper war would continue.

“I knew I had a chance of losing everything,” Hussman said.

For five more years, the two Little Rock newspapers would bleed money.

In 1990, another landmark moment occurred when the Democrat passed the Gazette in Sunday circulation. Hussman threw a huge party downtown, bringing in the Temptations and the Four Tops to perform. Advertisers from across the state were invited.

The message was clear: There was a new leader in the newspaper war.

In March 1991, Hussman bought a vacation home in Vail, Colo.

Gannett’s McCorkingdale heard about the purchase and mentioned it in a visit with Hussman. Looking back, the Democrat-Gazette publisher thinks the home purchase had a psychological effect on Gannett executives, making them believe the Democrat was doing better financially than it really was.

“Buying that house in Vail may have been the best business move I ever made,” Hussman said with a smile.

Hussman only had to answer to himself and his family.

As a public company, Gannett had to answer to shareholders nationwide and explain its continuing losses in Little Rock.

Quietly, Gannett chose to pull the plug on the Gazette. Talks commenced in April 1991. An agreement was signed on July 3, 1991, at the Gannett headquarters in Virginia.

U.S. Justice Department approval was still required, and both sides had to remain silent. Phil Anderson, Hussman’s Little Rock attorney, was with him when the agreement was signed. The two men didn’t go into Washington and throw a Fourth of July party. They returned to Little Rock since Hussman had promised to take his family on vacation to a dude ranch in Wyoming.

He found himself fishing on a mountain stream on a clear day. After 17 years of heated competition, the newspaper war was coming to an end.

“I remember thinking, ‘Is this a dream?”’ Hussman said.

It wasn’t.

The final edition of the Arkansas Gazette was published on Oct. 18, 1991.

The first edition of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette was published the next day.

No one had come forward to make an offer to keep the Gazette alive.

“That was the first time in my life that I refused to talk to the media,” Hussman said of those long days in July, August and September after the agreement had been signed. “I was just not in a position to say anything.”

Hussman has remained bullish on the newspaper industry.

In 1998, he purchased the Chattanooga Free Press. That was followed by the purchase of the Chattanooga Times in January 1999. The two publications were then combined.

On May 1, 2008, he purchased three newspapers in Missouri.

Then in November 2009, the Democrat-Gazette and Stephens Media combined the operations of their publications in northwest Arkansas to form a new company, Northwest Arkansas Newspapers LLC.

In a September 2009 speech to the Chattanooga Rotary Club, Hussman said: “We’ve been in this business 100 years, and we think it will still be around 100 years from now.”

The Democrat-Gazette is one of the few newspapers in the country that still has statewide circulation.

“We’re trying to hang in until the bitter end on that,” Hussman said. “We’ve been willing to take a contrarian view on things because we were contrarians for 17 years during the newspaper war. That gave us the confidence we needed to hang in there for the long term.”

He earlier had told Editor & Publisher: “When you’re a state newspaper, your reputation is enhanced, and you’re a little more influential. It would be more profitable not to be statewide, but we look at it like a public service.”

So at a time when others are writing obits for the newspaper industry, Hussman and his team press on.

Here’s how Paul Smith put it in that interview with Editor & Publisher: “The key to understanding this newspaper is the 17 years we spent fighting for our own lives. We have had the benefit of having gone through some really tough times, and I think the difference is most people have never seen this kind of adversity. The only question for them was whether they could keep the margins high, not fighting for their lives.”

Walter Hussman: Newspaperman to the core

Friday, February 10th, 2012

Walter E. Hussman Jr., a man for whom I worked for almost a decade at the Arkansas Democrat and later the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, will be inducted tonight into the Arkansas Business Hall of Fame.

Though his media conglomerate includes radio, television and cable television operations, Hussman remains a newspaperman to the core.

“In 1909, my grandfather, Clyde Eber Palmer, was taking a train from Fort Worth to Florida with his new bride,” he wrote in a family history. “They got off the train in Texarkana to spend the night and while they were there, they decided they liked the town and decided to stay.”

In those days, trains did not run very often at night because of roaming livestock. That was the reason for the overnight stop at Texarkana. If they tired of Texarkana after a few days, the newlyweds knew other trains would be coming through.

“My grandfather paid $900 for one of several newspapers in Texarkana at the time, the Texarkana Courier, which he renamed the Four States Press,”  Hussman wrote. “He eventually prevailed against other competitors in the Texarkana market, and he ended up as publisher of the Texarkana Gazette.”

The Texarkana Gazette remains in the Hussman family to this day.

By the 1920s, Palmer was ready to expand across south Arkansas. He bought the Hot Springs Sentinel-Record, the El Dorado News-Times, the Camden News, the Magnolia Banner-News and the Hope Star. All of those newspapers except the Hope Star are owned by Hussman.

“One of my grandfather’s most noted accomplishments was establishing the first automatic teletypesetter circuits connecting a group of newspapers in 1942, the first use of technology to link newspapers instantly,” Hussman wrote. “This Palmer Circuit was the first of its kind in the United States and led to the establishment of such systems at other newspaper groups and press associations.”

In 1933, Palmer put the first radio station on the air in Texarkana. In 1952, he decided to put a television station on the air. He wanted the station to be a CBS affiliate since CBS was the top network at the time. When the Texarkana station went on the air, there wasn’t a television station in Shreveport.

An online history of the company picks up the story from there: “By 1960, Shreveport had become the larger market, and CBS decided to leave the Texarkana area and go to one of the Shreveport stations. This meant Texarkana could become an independent station, and there was no future in that.

“A deal was negotiated with NBC to become an NBC affiliate if Shreveport became the major market for the station. A new tower was built for this purpose. At that time it was the second tallest TV tower in the South. They called it KTAL for Texas, Arkansas and Louisiana. KTAL was also called K-tall because of the size of the tower. The large tower served the markets well by placing a good signal over both Shreveport and Texarkana.”

Born in 1911, Hussman’s mother Betty Palmer was the only child from Clyde Palmer’s second marriage. She attended the University of Missouri, where she met Walter Hussman Sr.

Hussman Sr.’s roommate would become a well-known figure in the newspaper business — Donald W. Reynolds.

“My mother and father were married in 1931, and after selling insurance, my father went to work for Palmer in the newspaper business,” Hussman Jr. wrote. “By then the Depression was two years old and many of our newspapers were in deep trouble, including the Hot Springs Sentinel-Record.

“After working for a few years in Texarkana, my father moved to Hot Springs to try to revive the newspaper that had been foreclosed by creditors. Since Hot Springs was a national park and a tourist destination, he came up with the idea of an annual ‘mail it away’ edition. Under this promotion, subscribers and citizens of Hot Springs would pay to have a copy of one issue of the mailed edition sent to friends and acquaintances around the country, promoting Hot Springs as a tourist destination. The section was a big success, helping the newspaper repay its debts and get out of foreclosure. My dad said the newspaper was thereafter consistently profitable.”

The Sentinel-Record continues to publish such an edition once a year.

During World War II, Hussman Sr. and Reynolds were the co-publishers of Yank, a magazine for U.S. troops. Operating out of Paris following its liberation from the Nazis, Hussman Sr. was in charge of procuring newsprint among other duties.

Walter Hussman Jr. was born in 1947. He was the third child with two older sisters.

“My father was determined to own his own newspaper and acquired an option to buy the newspaper in Midland, Texas, in 1949,” Hussman Jr. wrote. “However, Palmer offered to sell him one of his newspapers. In 1949, my mother and father bought the Camden News, and the family moved there when I was 2 years old and my sisters were 14 and 10.”

Had his father purchased the Midland newspaper, Hussman Jr. likely would have grown up in Midland with George W. Bush.

Clyde Palmer died in 1957, and Hussman Sr. became the president and publisher of all the Palmer newspapers.

The year 1960 was pivotal for the younger Hussman.

“My mother had talked my dad into taking a trip to Europe, and they took me out of school for nine weeks,” Hussman Jr. told me during a recent visit in his downtown Little Rock office. “That was unheard of at the time, but the trip was very educational. It was only 15 years after the end of World War II, and there was still bomb damage in places.

“My dad felt guilty that I had missed so much school in order to take the trip, so he enrolled me in summer school at Exeter.”

Hussman Jr. headed to New Hampshire to spend the summer at the prestigious Phillips Exeter Academy, taking courses such as algebra and Latin. When he returned to Camden in the fall, school officials wouldn’t credit him for the work since Exeter wasn’t accredited by the same regional accrediting organization as the Camden School District.

Never mind that Exeter is among the top prep schools in the world.

“It made my father mad, so he called Exeter to see if he could enroll me there for the 10th grade,” Hussman Jr. said. “They told him they couldn’t take me until the 11th grade.”

Hussman Sr., determined to get his son out of the public schools at Camden, enrolled him for the 10th grade at The Lawrenceville School in New Jersey, which had been founded in 1810.

At that school, Hussman Jr. was influenced by a young history teacher named Walker Blanton, a native of Marion, N.C., and a graduate of the University of North Carolina.

Though The Lawrenceville School is close to Princeton University and traditionally supplies the university with a large number of students, Blanton convinced 11 members of Hussman’s senior class to attend college at North Carolina.

Walter Hussman Jr. was among them.

As he neared his college graduation in 1968, Hussman decided to attend the Navy’s Officer Candidate School since he had a low draft number. He came back to Arkansas for his physical in February 1968 and was told that his skin was exceptionally dry and that he needed to see a dermatologist. Dry skin could lead to dehydration in the Southeast Asian jungles, you see. Because of his condition, Hussman never passed the physical.

Instead, he applied to the journalism school at Columbia University in New York but was turned down twice. He entered the business school at Columbia, obtaining his master’s degree in 16 months.

Hussman decided he wanted to be a business writer for one of three magazines — Forbes, Business Week or Fortune.

He landed at Forbes.

“I was having fun in New York when my father called after less than a year at the magazine,” he said.

Hussman’s two older sisters weren’t involved in the day-to-day operations of the family media business, which had grown to include not only the newspapers but radio stations, a television station and cable television franchises. His father invited him to return to Arkansas and help run the family business. If he declined the offer, the elder Hussman, 63, would consider selling the company.

So it was that Walter Hussman Jr. became his father’s administrative assistant in 1970. The company’s cable television system — serving Hope, Camden and Prescott — had become operational. Resort Cable was being built in Hot Springs. Hussman Jr. spent part of his time in Vicksburg, Miss., helping get a cable system off the ground there. There also were cable television franchises in east Texas at Kilgore and Longview.

Back home in Camden, it was discovered that the general manager of the Camden News had been embezzling money from the company and using it to build a swimming pool at his home.

Hussman said: “My father told me, ‘You’re going to run the paper until you find somebody else to run it.’ You know, I had always wanted to be on the writing side of the business because that’s where I thought the creativity came in. But I found out that you could be just as creative on the business side.”

It was an important lesson. Hussman has never ceased to be creative with his business tactics.

In 1973, he moved from Camden to Hot Springs to become the vice president and general manager of the Palmer Newspapers.

Just a year later, the company purchased the struggling afternoon daily newspaper in Little Rock, the Arkansas Democrat.

At the time, the Democrat had a daily circulation of 62,405.

The morning newspaper, the Arkansas Gazette, had a circulation of 118,702.

The Democrat’s previous owners had been looking for a buyer for months. Hussman Sr. was skeptical but decided to make the purchase with a major condition: He would give it three years. By then, there would have to be progress or the company would pull the plug on the Democrat.

The Hussmans paid $500,000 down along with a note of $3 million to be paid over 20 years at 7 percent interest.

At the ripe old age of 27, Walter Hussman Jr. was a newspaper publisher in the state’s capital city.

“I thought at the time that I really knew a lot about the newspaper business,” he says. “I didn’t realize how little I really knew.”

The Great Newspaper War would soon begin.

We’ll tackle that subject next week.

Forrest City’s Raoul Carlisle: The original original

Wednesday, February 8th, 2012

My friend Brett “Stats” Norsworthy of Forrest City, who co-hosts a daily sports talk show on WHBQ-AM in Memphis and is somewhat of a Memphis sports legend himself, describes the late Raoul H. Carlisle as the original original.

Carlisle, who was born in December 1897 and died in November 1980, was indeed one of a kind.

In the first half of the 20th century, a man representing the tiny Times-Herald in Forrest City became one of the best-known sportswriters in America — at least among other sportswriters and athletes. Readers outside of St. Francis County might not have known who he was, but those in the sports world knew him well.

Carlisle made sure of that.

He was everywhere — the Triple Crown races, the World Series, championship fights and always the Sugar Bowl. Like me, it seems Carlisle had a special place in his heart for New Orleans.

Carlisle came to mind earlier this week when I was reading an online column by Peter King of Sports Illustrated about his trip to the Super Bowl.

“Interesting being with Randy Moss (the announcer, not the pass-catcher) Sunday for NBC on the pregame show,” King wrote. “Told me a great story. Moss, of course, is a big horse guy.

“‘I’ve been to 31 of the last 32 Kentucky Derbies,’ he told me while we waited to go on TV Sunday afternoon outside the Giants hotel. ‘The first one was amazing. They have a seniority system in the press box, and I knew one of the veteran writers, a guy from Arkansas, who was going to watch it off the TV monitor because he couldn’t see that well. So he told me I could use his seat, which was No. 2 in the press box. A great seat. But he said, ‘I better take you down and introduce you to the two guys next to you so they don’t think you’re stealing the seat.’

“‘He takes me down, and I meet the two guys. He said, ‘This is Dick Young.’ Then, ‘This is Red Smith.’ Wow. I was 21. They were the two guys who’d covered the Derby the longest. I’ve been to every Derby since then but one and never had a seat quite that good.'”

So Red Smith of The New York Times had seat No. 1.

Who was this Arkansan with seat No. 2?

Raoul Carlisle of Forrest City.

Four years earlier, in 1976, the folks at Pimlico in Baltimore had begun something known as the Old Hilltop Award. The award was designed to pay tribute to members of the sports media who have covered thoroughbred racing “with excellence and distinction.”

The first two honorees?

Red Smith and Raoul Carlisle.

After reading King’s column, I began an email exchange with my former Arkansas Democrat colleague Randy Moss, who now lives in Minneapolis and does on-air work for NBC and the NFL Network.

Randy was born in Hot Springs in 1959. I was born down the road in Arkadelphia in 1959.

We first came to know each other when I began covering Oaklawn on a regular basis in 1979 as the sports editor of the Daily Siftings Herald in Arkadelphia. Randy already was making a statewide name for himself, having been picked out by Arkansas Gazette sports editor Orville Henry to be the newspaper’s handicapper and racing correspondent.

Moss asked Henry to let him cover the Kentucky Derby in 1980, but the man known as OH declined to pay for the trip. Instead, he called the public relations director at Churchill Downs, Edgar Allen, an old friend of Henry’s from the days when Allen worked at The Nashville Banner. Allen had gone to work for the Banner in 1942 and been named sports editor of the newspaper in 1967 by the legendary Fred Russell.

Allen arranged for Moss to gather quotes and write notes for Churchill Downs with the track footing the bill. While in Louisville, he also would file stories for the Gazette.

It was on Derby day that Carlisle gave up seat No. 2 to his fellow Arkansan, choosing to watch from a television monitor inside the press box.

“It would be the only time I got to use Raoul’s seat,” Moss says.

On Nov. 22, 1980 — less than seven months after giving up his seat to Moss –Carlisle was killed when his vehicle was struck by a train. He died a month short of his 83rd birthday.

Carlisle was famous in his older years for approaching young sportswriters like me in the Oaklawn press box and telling story after story. He would carry a scrapbook with him to verify that he actually had done all the things he talked about.

Searching the Internet, I ran across a short letter to the editor from Carlisle in the May 23, 1960, edition of Sports Illustrated.

He wrote: “I have known Gentleman Gene Lambert for over 30 years and have never known him to be called or referred to as ‘Piggy’ before. A clear faux pas.”

I have no doubt Carlisle did know the major league pitcher, who had been born in 1921 in Crenshaw, Miss.

I also found a story about the Jan. 1, 1958, Sugar Bowl that mentions Carlisle. Ole Miss beat Texas, 39-7, that day.

Here goes: “As the game wound down, ballots were passed out in the press box for the vote on the Most Valuable Player. All 166 media voters placed Ray Brown as their choice for his quadruple-threat performance. Raoul Carlisle, an Arkansas newspaperman who had covered every Sugar Bowl, commented to Pie Dufour as Brown dropped into his end zone to punt.

“‘He’s the greatest performer in Sugar Bowl history.’

“Pie noncommittaly answered, ‘He certainly is one of the best.’

“As they talked, Brown took a high snap and, before he could boot the ball, saw a Texas end boring in unopposed. Brown bolted, circled right end and began steaming for the Longhorn goal 103 yards from where he had been standing.

“‘That proves Brown’s the best,” Carlisle was screaming in Dufour’s ear to make himself heard over the din of the crowd.”

By the way, don’t you love the name Pie Dufour? There’s something special about New Orleans names.

Charles L. “Pie” Dufour, who died in 1996 at age 93, wrote almost 9,700 installments of his column “Pie Dufour’s A La Mode” for the New Orleans States-Item and the Sunday edition of the New Orleans Times-Picayune from 1949-78. He was the author of almost 20 books.

And he was yet another friend of Carlisle, the guy from Forrest City who turned up everywhere.

The famous Arkansas sportswriter Jim Bailey once described Carlisle as a “fellow who isn’t very easy to explain in a few words.”

Carlisle began attending sports events across the country as a young man, getting credentials through his work at the Times-Herald. In the 1920s, it wasn’t as difficult to get credentials to major events as it is these days. Carlisle spent a lot of time on trains going to and coming from sports events.

“By the time media requirements began to tighten, Raoul had been grandfathered in,” Moss says.

On Jan. 1, 1980 — the day Alabama played Arkansas in the Sugar Bowl (the Crimson Tide won its second consecutive national championship that day) — The Tuscaloosa News had a front-page blurb for an inside story. It read: “Raoul Carlisle has seen his share of Sugar Bowls — all 46 in fact — and can keep you entertained talking about them.”

I was in New Orleans covering the Sugar Bowl for the Siftings Herald in the week leading up to that game.

Everyone had tired of Carlisle bragging about his “dear friend” Bear Bryant. We were betting he didn’t even know the Alabama coach.

Just before a joint news conference with Arkansas coach Lou Holtz, Bryant walked into the room. To our amazement, he strolled over to Carlisle and gave him a hug.

“He really does know everybody,” Bailey said that day.

Steve Cady of The New York Times mentioned Carlisle in a 1975 article, noting that he was covering his 57th Kentucky Derby. That means Carlisle would have seen Sir Barton and every other Triple Crown winner.

With Carlisle having died in November 1980, there was no one to sit between Smith and Young on the first Saturday in May 1981.

“With their eccentric but gentlemanly buffer gone, Young was moved into the No. 2 seat at the Derby next to Mr. Smith, his archrival who Young had actually criticized in print,” Moss says.

One more story, this one about Moss and Henry. Moss (who jumped from the Gazette to the Democrat following the 1982 Arkansas Derby) had asked Henry to let him cover Louisiana Downs in the summer and fall. Moss said he would pay for an apartment in Bossier City if the Gazette would keep him on the sports staff and allow him to handicap and write stories from the track.

Henry declined.

“He told me I needed to get out of covering horse racing because every racing writer he ever knew wound up being a drunk and a compulsive gambler,” Moss says. “He said, ‘Football is your future. That’s where you need to be.’ Now, Orville’s gone and, lo and behold, I wind up working for the NFL Network and doing some football for NBC.”

Thus Hot Springs native Randy Moss found his way to Indianapolis last week, covering the Super Bowl for NBC and telling Peter King about the 1980 Kentucky Derby.

And thus Randy and I began telling stories Tuesday about Forrest City’s Raoul Carlisle, the man who once knew everyone in sports and seemingly was everywhere at once.

Death of a bookstore

Tuesday, February 7th, 2012

The message was posted to this blog back on Nov. 11.

It was a busy time for me, and frankly I missed the message when it first appeared.

It was from Mary Dayle McCormick in Greenville, Miss., and it contained sad news.

“Rex: It has been a little more than a year since we traded notes,” she wrote. “I have some news that I’m afraid you won’t like. After 46 years of business, McCormick Book Inn is closing. Our last day of business will be Nov. 30, 2011. Hugh is retiring, and there’s not another Hugh in the family. So if you want to visit one more time, come quick. And yes, the place is for sale.”

Dang it.

I missed it. I would have made a special trip in November had I known.

I would have lingered in the store, visiting with Hugh McCormick, Mary Dayle’s husband. I then would have gone to the historic cemetery next door and wandered around (pausing, as always, at the Percy family plot) before finishing with dinner at Doe’s.

Great independent bookstores are becoming a rarity, especially in small towns in the rural South.

When I was growing up in Arkadelphia, we had Adams Bookstore on Main Street, where I would spend hours at a time. It’s long gone.

Now, McCormick Book Inn — that Delta treasure — is a memory.

Hugh McCormick once described it this way: “Our floor squeaks under worn rugs and the wooden bookshelves sag a bit. The rocker by the fireplace is often occupied by a regular browser, and our ‘bookstore smell’ is authentic.”

And Southern Living once described the place like this: “People come from all over the Delta to visit Greenville’s McCormick Book Inn, with its terrific collection of what they like to call deltalogy. Half the draw is owner Hugh McCormick, who not only recommends great books but also knows everything about everybody in the Delta. He also has a wicked sense of humor.”

The store’s website noted that “books may be 10 percent cheaper at one of those big fake friendly places, but you receive our genuine bookstore ambience and management’s rants/intelligent insults only at McCormick Book Inn.”

You have to love a place that promises “intelligent insults.”

I first wrote about McCormick Book Inn on this blog back in May 2010.

Mary Dayle wrote back: “We love hometown folks, but it’s a particular thrill when y’all come in from all over the place with news of the outside world, despite bringing in y’all’s otherwise ignorance of the Truth As Mr. Hugh Sees It. Come back. The coffee is still on, the chairs haven’t fallen apart and we look and smell about the same. Hugh might even let you buy a book after his lecture.”

The back of the bookstore was a museum devoted to Greenville and its rich literary heritage.

I miss it already.

Here’s how The Associated Press led off its story in November: “A neighborhood gathering place, the only spot in Greenville to get a Sunday New York Times, a stop for visiting writers and tourists and a Greenville Main Street landmark since 1965 is shutting its doors.”

It was indeed a neighborhood gathering spot. I didn’t know their names, but there were always regulars who would be sitting in the chairs when I would stop in, usually late in the afternoon during the years I was working for the Delta Regional Authority and killing time until a dinner meeting at Doe’s.

This is part of what Wally Northway wrote about the store’s closing on the Mississippi Business Journal blog: “Once hailed as one of the nation’s great centers for literature, Greenville’s cultural heritage has sustained yet another big blow with the announcement that McCormick Book Inn will shut its doors. … The privately owned bookstore has been a gathering place for both writers and readers since 1965. Now, an important bridge between Old Greenville and New Greenville will be no more.

“I grew up right down Main Street from McCormick’s in the 1960s. A quick bike ride, and I was immersed in literature and history. I just loved everything about the place. I never had more than a quarter in my pocket, but the McCormicks were so gracious and kind. I was always encouraged to come again. And I did. I wanted to learn more about these prominent local writers and artists and their work. Bern and Franke Keating? Ellen Douglas? Shelby Foote? The Carters? Who were these people?”

Northway said it was “painful to see” the hurt in Hugh McCormick’s eyes when he said that if things didn’t change, the store wouldn’t survive.

Northway went on to write: “One of Greenville’s most dubious decisions was rejecting Delta State University. City leaders said they didn’t want the college riffraff. The city of Cleveland was more forward thinking, and it should come as little surprise that its public school children surpass the rest of the Delta academically. They have a great repository of knowledge and culture right down the street, just a quick bike ride away. Meanwhile, Greenville cannot even keep a little private bookstore open. It is, I feel, a barometer. The city is going nowhere but backward.

“I remain an avid reader today. I also have a deep, abiding love for my hometown. A lot of the credit for that goes to the McCormicks and their store. Thank you Hugh and Mary Dayle McCormick for your passion and commitment to seeing Greenville move ahead while honoring its past.”

Sadly, you can knock Greenville off the list of stops for my Great Mid-South Bookstore Tour.

Here’s how you now do it:

1. Start here in Little Rock with the excellent breakfast at the Red Door at 8 a.m. Head up Cantrell Hill for the 9 a.m. opening of WordsWorth Books & Co. and spend an hour in the store.

2. Drive to Blytheville for a late lunch at Dixie Pig and then spend an hour or two in the afternoon at Mary Gay Shipley’s Arkansas landmark, That Bookstore In Blytheville, which has been downtown since 1976.

3. Head to Memphis. Spend the night out on Mud Island at The River Inn at Harbor Town and have dinner there at Paulette’s. Have breakfast the next morning at The Arcade on south Main Street (an old Elvis hangout). The Arcade has been around since 1919 when it was opened by Greek immigrant Speros Zepatos. After breakfast, go over to Burke’s Book Store, which opened in 1875. That’s right — 1875, not 1975. The store is now in the funky, artsy Cooper-Young neighborhood.

4. Drive to Oxford, Miss., and have lunch at the Ajax Diner on the square, Eli Manning’s favorite spot to eat. Spend a large part of the afternoon at Square Books, which was opened in September 1979 by Richard and Lisa Howorth.

5. Go to Greenwood, Miss., from Oxford and spend your second night on the road at The Alluvian in downtown Greenwood. It’s one of the top hotels in the South. Have dinner at Lusco’s (make sure to get the pompano). After breakfast the next morning at the hotel, spend time just down Howard Street at Turnrow Book Co. Have lunch at The Crystal Grill before leaving Greenwood.

6. Head to Vicksburg and check into Anchuca, a classy bed and breakfast inn. Go over to Cedar Grove for dinner for this third night on the road. After breakfast the next morning at Anchuca, spend your morning at Lorelei Books on Washington Street. Have fried chicken for lunch at Walnut Hills before driving home.

If you love independent bookstores, fine food and the South, make this four-day trip.

We mourn the passing of McCormick Book Inn while wishing Hugh and Mary Dayle the best in retirement.

Long live WordsWorth, That Bookstore In Blytheville, Burke’s Book Store, Square Books, Turnrow, Lorelei and all the independent bookstores like them.