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.