Here’s how the entry in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture begins for That Bookstore in Blytheville: “With its straightforward name and the legacy of a legendary proprietress, That Bookstore in Blytheville might be Arkansas’ best-known bookstore. In the early 1970s, Mary Gay Shipley, then a schoolteacher, saw a void in her hometown and opened a paperback exchange store affiliated with a Memphis group called The Book Rack. The bookstore has remained at 316 W. Main St. since 1976. Though locals called it ‘that bookstore’ for years, the store did not become officially known as That Bookstore in Blytheville until 1994.”
Back in February of 2012, I thought That Bookstore was a goner.
Shipley had decided, just prior to her 68th birthday, to retire. She was looking for a buyer, and I doubted a buyer could be found for such a business in a struggling Delta town.
In 2009, That Bookstore had been nominated for the Publishers Weekly Bookseller of the Year award. Shipley wrote in her submission to the magazine: “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. … 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. 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.”
Shipley told Dan Broun for a 2008 publication that Broun wrote on the creative economy in Arkansas: “We’re still in business because of John Grisham.”
That Bookstore was among a handful of stores to have Grisham, an Arkansas native, for a signing following the publication of his first novel. He rewarded the store by returning time after time through the years for book signings.
Broun wrote: “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.”
In 2008, an Associated Press travel writer listed That Bookstore among nine destination bookstores in the country, putting it in the company of The Strand in New York.
That same year, Main Street Arkansas named That Bookstore in Blytheville as its Main Street Merchant of the Year.
AY magazine’s list of Arkansas’ 12 most powerful women had Shipley on it.
How on earth, I wondered at the time, would we find someone with the business savvy, determination and marketing ability of Mary Gay Shipley to run a small business in downtown Blytheville?
She said she would part with the 2,400-square-foot building for just $35,000. Shipley also said at the time that she had spoken to Grisham and that he had agreed to “continue to support the store with the new owner.”
In November 2012, Shipley announced that there was a new owner — a 22-year-old nonfiction writer from Mountain Home named Grant Hill.
Hill loves books. He loves writing. But the pressures of running a small business proved daunting for such a young man.
“I had been talking to my folks and doing the math — and checking my blood pressure — and came to the conclusion that I needed to look for a way to, in a sense, minimize any damage to the bookstore and my own health,” Hill told the Courier News at Blytheville in a frank interview in December of last year. “I hadn’t really even told anybody that I wanted to sell the business, and Chris Crawley came in like two days later. Chris and I have had a working relationship since I moved here, and he has done work with the bookstore and me. He said, ‘I’d like to talk to you about us possibly working out a deal to buy the bookstore.'”
Within two weeks of that conversation, Crawley and attorney Yolanda Harrison had purchased That Bookstore in Blytheville.
“I talked with Mary Gay about it, and she really understood that my goal was to see this store succeed, for the community not to lose the store, however that had to happen,” Hill said. “I knew it had to be someone else who would be more prepared, and particularly since it’s a couple, which doubles the amount of work that can get done. I was always committed to seeing the store succeed. I knew with Chris and Yolanda that I had found someone who could do that. That’s why we moved so quickly.”
On Good Friday, as a group of us ate our way through the Arkansas Delta (see the previous two Southern Fried posts), we stopped by the store.
We walked in, and Crawley immediately called out to us, “Come on in and make yourself at home. We have some fresh coffee on.”
It was almost as if Mary Gay Shipley were back in charge.
I introduced myself to Crawley and learned his story.
Here’s part of that story in his own words: “I am a Blythevillian. My birth was at Dr. Fairley’s clinic in Luxora. My parents were Sol and Girtie Crawley. They were sharecroppers, and later my father built houses for people who could afford them. I had eight siblings — five sisters and three brothers. I have one sister left in Milwaukee and one sister in Blytheville. I’m the last brother standing.
“I attended Robinson Elementary School, Lange Elementary School and an assortment of schools as my mother’s Alzheimer’s and dementia became more than anyone should have to bear. At age 11, I went to Wrightsville School for Boys before the foster care system relegated me to Poplar Grove near my school in Marvell, where I graduated with honors. From frequent visits to see my family in Blytheville from the time before I was 16 in early 1976 until October 2012 when I was 52, the Book Rack and later That Bookstore in Blytheville figured strongly in my development and focus.
“Prominent in my memory are Mrs. Harrison, my first-grade teacher; Mrs. Wiggs, my fifth-grade teacher; Mrs. Butler, my seventh-grade teacher; Mrs. Rowland, my junior high school principal; Mrs Nichols, a high school teacher; and Mary Gay Shipley, the owner of the bookstore. There were other teachers and books. Together and collectively, they were the cause of it all.”
Crawley said he “took the first thing smoking” out of Arkansas the day after his high school graduation at Marvell. He moved to Milwaukee. He attended Marquette University and later graduated from the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee. Crawley went on to obtain a master’s degree from Cardinal Stritch University, a small Catholic school at Milwaukee. He did employment policy, staffing and technology work in Milwaukee before moving to Los Angeles to work as a talent manager. After three strokes due to toxic black mold infestation, Crawley moved home to Blytheville.
“I came back to Blytheville to die, but God had other plans for me,” he said.
Books always provided a refuge for Crawley.
“My love affair with books began at an early age,” he said. “Reality was sometimes bleak and seemingly proscribed. I loved books because they gave me options. They piqued my interests. Even when I was avoiding school, I could often be found reading one of my favorite books. Even in my young teens, I thought owning a bookstore would be a little piece of heaven. … I see the bookstore as a mechanism to uplift the town’s spirit.”
Crawley described himself as a “resurrection, restoration and renovation project inspired by God. I want to be a resurrection, restoration and renovation project for That Bookstore in Blytheville and the surrounding communities. I want to improve the look of the store inside and out. I want to increase the inventory, expand product offerings beyond books, bring back the high-quality authors for book signings, conduct new author forums, reintroduce national book tours to Blytheville, present live music, host book and poetry clubs, grow the event calendar, have children’s reading hours, rebuild the website, increase the level of social media interaction and more.”
It’s an ambitious agenda for a man who thought he was coming home to die.
“I want to make the bookstore a place where people will visit and say, ‘That Book in Blytheville is wonderful. It’s more than just a bookstore.'”