Visiting Mr. McCormick in Greenville

I love independent bookstores.

I can get lost in them. I can spend hours upon hours in a good bookstore. Just ask my wife.

When I was a child growing up in Arkadelphia, we had Adams Bookstore on Main Street. Mr. Adams was more than willing to let a young boy roam the aisles of his store and stay as long as he wanted. That bookstore is long gone. It seems a shame that a town with two four-year universities isn’t the home of a great independent bookstore. I wish I had the funds to open one there. Alas, those funds don’t exist.

Mr. Adams’ story was remarkable. As a teenager, he was paralyzed in a high school football game while playing for the Arkadelphia Badgers. The community came together to support him and help him open a business. He paid the community back many times over by providing a quality bookstore for decades.

Speaking of independent bookstores, I wish I could get up to Blytheville more often than I do. The long drive from Little Rock is almost worth it simply to visit Mary Gay Shipley’s northeast Arkansas institution, That Bookstore In Blytheville.

Mary Gay started the store in 1976. It covers 2,400 square feet and has more than 25,000 books. There are rocking chairs to sit in. Good coffee is always available. It is, without a doubt, one of my favorite places in Arknasas.

During the four years I worked for the Delta Regional Authority, I was able to visit another favorite bookstore — McCormick Book Inn in Greenville, Miss. — on a regular basis. Business took me back down that way Friday, and I had a chance to drop in at 5 p.m.

Every town should be so lucky. McCormick Book Inn is an oasis.

Residents of southeast Arkansas (at least the ones who like to read) are familiar with this wonderful retreat and its highly opinionated owner, Hugh B. McCormick III. His wit and sense of humor are contagious. And he will tell you what he thinks. For instance, he believes that one of my favorite books, John Barry’s “Rising Tide” (an account of the Great Flood of 1927 with much of the story centered on Greenville), is an “atrocity.”

I love how the McCormick Book Inn website puts it: “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.”

“Intelligent insults.”

What a great term.

The store at 825 S. Main. St. in Greenville was opened in 1965. Mr McCormick describes 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.”

Southern Living, in turn, described it 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. ‘You know, Leland is the sticks,’ he tells us with a wry grin as a Leland customer pays for her books. The Mississippi Delta offers the ultimate Southern travel adventure — catfish and tamales, juke joints brimming with blues, colorful small towns and friendly locals who can’t wait to show you a good time.”

As you head east on U.S. 82, turn right on Main Street (away from the levee). McCormick Book Inn will be several blocks down on the right. If you reach the historic cemetery, you’ve gone too far.

In the back of the store is a small museum that Mr. McCormick has put together.

“My particular interest is the turn of the century of Greenville,” he says. “I’m also interested in the 1927 flood. I have a fairly large collection of Greenville photographs of the flood.”

As far as that term “deltalogy,” here’s how Mr. McCormick explains it on the store’s website: “As far as we know, we invented the term. … We needed a catchall word to describe the growing category of nonfiction and fiction books about the Mississippi Delta or by Deltans. Greenville’s own David Cohn wrote in his book ‘God Shakes Creation’ (1935): ‘The Mississippi Delta begins in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel in Memphis and ends on Catfish Row in Vicksburg.’ This flat, fertile, alluvial expanse extending 50 miles east from the Mighty Mississippi to the Yazoo River, running from its northern point along the bluffs of Memphis, 150 miles south to the hills of Vicksburg, is the land of the Delta. From ancient mound builders to blues culture, and the rise and fall of the rivers, and from agri-business to casino gaming, the Delta continues to capture the attention and imagination of folks around the world. The Delta is a place; a melting pot of people; a mythology and a reality. And we need a word for it all: deltalogy.”

The store has always been in the McCormick family. Hugh’s father, Hugh B. “Buster” McCormick Jr., retired from Chicago Mill and financed the store for his daughter, Mary, who had worked for a publisher in New York after graduating from college. The younger Hugh had to cut the weeds behind the old house before the store opened.

“I was in college, and that was my summer job that year,” he said in a 2005 magazine feature on the store. “The property goes all the way back to the cemetery, and I found all kind of stuff that had been dumped back there.”

“Buster” McCormick had the front of the house removed and replaced with windows. A local carpenter built the shelves and other interior fixtures. The two back rooms were added later. Young Hugh took over the store after graduating from college. He has now been running the place for almost 40 years.

“When it first opened, we were in the center of things between the residential and commercial areas, but now we’re sort of on the outskirts,” the current owner told the Mississippi Business Journal. “The commercial areas are all farther south now and we’re an island, sort of an oddity.”

The former house that’s now occupied by the store was built of cypress in the 1920s. Mr. McCormick told the business publication, “The old house reflects character, and I attempt to be a character. Folks from the big city find us charming. Yes, we’ve reached the stage of charming. We enjoy promoting Greenville as best we can. The literary history is positive and all the history of the area is rich. Greenville has produced a lot of writers, and people want to buy something associated with them.”

Long live McCormick Book Inn.

Long live other such independent bookstores.

What’s your favorite bookstore and why? Let’s start a list.

9 Responses to “Visiting Mr. McCormick in Greenville”

  1. Melissa G. Nelson says:

    You also love the one in Oxford, MS and Seaside, FL. We have way too many books in our house. I might have to ban you from buying more unless we get a bigger place.

  2. Kay Brockwell says:

    Haven’t been to McCormick’s. I must remedy that. I love Square Books in Oxford, and the Abraham Lincoln Bookshop in Chicago, and the Prairie Archives in Springfield, Ill.; used to love Mid-America Books in Memphis, a used bookstore, but it went away. Sigh. And Burke’s is a mere shadow of its former self, and Davis Kidd is barely distinguishable from one of the big chain places.

  3. rexnelson says:

    Kay: McCormick Book Inn is worth the drive to Greenville.

    Throw a walk through the historic cemetery down the street followed by dinner at Doe’s, and you will have a day to remember — Rex

  4. Kane Webb says:

    I visited Burke’s last weekend and was pleasantly surprised. It seems to have found new life in its new location, which, thankfully, is an old location. Burke’s is now on Cooper Avenue in Midtown occupying what used to be an old printer’s shop. It has the right feel for a bookshop. When it was still on Poplar, Burke’s seemed to be slowly dying. Poor selection. No energy. Tired. Now it seems revived.

    As for McCormick Book Inn, I love the place, love the owner and STILL love “Rising Tide”!

  5. Jack Rhodes, Jr says:

    Have spent lots of time and have many books from McCormick’s but haven’t been in years. Need to go. While growing up and through my college years the Venetian Inn Italian restaurant was next door. It was a small, Doe’s looking, place that was wonderful. You’d have loved it.

  6. rexnelson says:

    Jack: I wished I had experienced the Venetian Inn in Greenville.

    I now drive over to Lillo’s in Leland when in that area to get my Italian fix. It’s like stepping back into the 1950s — Rex

  7. Somebody just sent me the link to this sight. I’m gratefule because I’m not much of a web surfer and obviously wouldn’ve found it myself. Just want to say hello back at y’all and thank you for saying such nice things about us. 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’s 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. —Mary Dayle, Wife of Hugh

  8. rexnelson says:

    Mary Dayle: Thanks so much for your comment!

    Mr. Hugh always lets me buy a book or two as long as I listen attentively to that lecture.

    Your store is a treasure — Rex

  9. Mary Dayle says:

    Rex — It’s been a little more than a year since we traded notes. I have some news that I’m afraid you won’t like. After 64 years of business, McCormick Book Inn is CLOSING. Our last day of business will be November 30, 2011. Hugh’s 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. –Mary Dayle, Wife of Hugh

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