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Death of a bookstore

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.

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