by Pat Holt
Friday, May 24, 2002
THAT BOOKSTORE IN BLYTHEVILLE: A TALK WITH MARY GAY SHIPLEY - PART II
Tucked away in the Northeastern corner of Arkansas, That Bookstore in Blytheville has not only survived economic adversity (three Wal-Marts, a struggling downtown, the closing of the local military base), some would say it's become one of the shinier pieces in the literary mosaic of independent bookstores across the land.
Oh, it's got that folksy Southern atmosphere, all right. Customers are invited to chat or relax in rocking chairs next to the wood stove in the back, sipping a cup of the store's own blend of coffee, Special Edition - unaware that every inch of space has been analyzed and accounted for to keep That Bookstore thriving.
Yet as is true with many veteran booksellers, owner Mary Gay Shipley started out with little more than a love for books, a sense of mission and a big heart. Sitting in the big playroom of a children's section near that famous wood stove and rocking while talking with curious visitors, Mary Gay recently talked about the early days of That Bookstore in Blytheville.
"Contrary to all those business books that say you need to know what you're doing, bookselling is something I've just fallen in to. Part of it came out of what happened when I was newly married and teaching math to 10th graders.
"I love 'em at that age - they've just come out of junior high school, where they were the big cheese on campus - now they're nuthin' - they can't drive yet, they're confused about parents, peers and teachers. But oh, the potential. In my math classes, I felt, teaching could really be fun.
"Still, when a lot of us as young married couples would get together every Friday night, we would just froth over the Vietnam War. They opened up the bars early for us to come and complain and bitch and holler. It was a great release but after a while, I got tired of it. There wasn't anything we could do - my husband and I had already been through military service and were out - but it was a very angry time.
"We started talking about things we didn't have in Blytheville and wished we did, and the one thing that kept coming up was a bookstore. The library we had was maybe the size of a living room, very tiny, with an opinionated librarian who not only said what she thought you should read; she only let you check out the books she recommended.
"Meanwhile I used to tell my mother a lot of things that happened in school because I didn't want to complain about 'em down in town. It was a hard time because they were trying to integrate the schools, and I thought they were doing it all backwards. The idea was first to start with the older kids so we can have chaos, instead of starting with the younger kids who haven't formed as many perceptions; then let's take everything away from the African Americans, so they don't have their schools, school identity, school colors or school mascots any more, and let's just ram them into our school and make them really happy.
"What we had was not violent unrest but undercurrents of unrest, and I think my mother was probably looking for something for me to do that would get me out of that whole situation. I was having a lot of migraine headaches because I kept wanting to take the kids on excursions out of school. This meant I had to talk to my department chair, which was fine - he was somebody I went to high school with and thought my ideas were great. But then I'd have to talk to the administrator in charge of instruction, who wanted to know if I had gone through the protocol and gotten all the preliminary work done, and then to the superintendent, and by the time I got all their permissions, I didn't have energy for the project.
"So we kept talking about a bookstore. But we weren't sure if the community wanted a bookstore or could afford one, so we decided to start out with a paperback exchange off Main Street, because this was a very cheap way to begin.
"The first week, some junior high kids came by and talked to us about science fiction, which you could not buy anywhere. A little store down the way had a few Louis L'Amour novels, but you couldn't find anything else. So we called up a wholesaler, got a whole wall of science fiction books, and we've just sort of grown from there."
This idea of "just sort of" growing into one of the most prominent bookstores in the country began, then, by learning about customer tastes on a paperback-by-paperback fashion. Soon military spouses from the local base came in to buy paperbacks by the handful to send to their service personnel overseas.
"After a while, people started asking about new books, and we put up a few displays at the front of the store - some hardcovers, some paperbacks. That worked, so we put up some more. Pretty soon we were pushing those paperback exchange books to the back of the store."
By this time That Bookstore in Blytheville had moved to its present location on Main Street, where the "march of the hardcovers" was proving that the store could survive and even flourish without the paperbacks. Getting the used books out of the store was another matter, however.
"In early 1991, the base wives were coming in more frequently, and you could tell they had no idea what to look for. They they needed a *lot* of books. So I said, 'Are you shopping for your husband who's going off to the Gulf War?" and they said yes, and I said, 'Well, I would love to give all these paperbacks in the back of the store.' We got rid of I can't tell you how many thousands of paperbacks, because by then the military was taking tankers and B-52s to the Gulf, so it didn't matter how many tons of books they took over there.
"Years later, I got to talking to a military author at Book Expo. 'I'm sure that you don't know this,' I said, 'but you you really helped me change the look of my store by having that little war over there.' It was true. We opened up the wall at the back of the store and got about 500 more feet of space for Children's Books. We kept pouring all the money into the store."
I've heard so much about Mary Gay Shipley's support of new authors - like the unknown writer of legal thrillers named John Grisham - and thought her store had become the center of a feverish writing community. Not so, it turns out.
"I think there may be a writers community here, but so far it's been bubbling under the surface of Arkansas. When authors come here from Georgia or North Carolina, they know what every other Georgia and North Carolina author is doing, and they talk about it.
"I've always wondered where is that group of people in Arkansas - why don't I sense them? I can see some, but there's not that critical mass yet where they sense each other. There are a lot of people trying to write things, and they do have a community, but it's not connected to bookstores yet - they're more on their own.
"But this is something I feel is missing and I would like to see develop, so we're not so invisible. We're really seen."
What a joy to be alive in Mary Gay Shipley's time! You just know it's only a matter of time before that great Arkansas school of turn-of-the-century writers will begin to emerge, thanks largely to an indefatigable bookseller who believes in local authors and, miracle of miracles, knows how to sell them, book by book, customer by customer.
DOROTHY BRYANT'S MISSING LINK:
OK., Dorothy Bryant doesn't have a missing link. This is my fun way of apologizing for not including the link to Dorothy Bryant's chapter on Hannah Arendt in the book we are serializing, "Literary Lynching." (Remember if I do this again, you can always go to the home page at http://www.holtuncensored.com, click on "Literary Lynching" and find the list of current chapters there.)
NOTE TO READERS: Memorial Day is our traditional company-wide Picnic Day, so we'll see you next Friday with "Best Laughs of the Month" (what a treasure trove!).
Dear Holt Uncensored:
What's the deal with Book Sense now charging publishers whose books have been picked for the Book Sense 76? I know $1500 per title on the cover and $800 per title inside the Book Sense newsletter isn't very much (compared to $110,00 for the latest Borders' foolishness!), but for small publishers, it could be a lot.
And what happens to a book if the publisher can't or won't pay the fee? Even though independent booksellers have chosen the book and ranked it in the order it appears, does it drop out if not paid for?
Holt responds: According to Carl Lennertz of Book Sense, this is not a new policy and it's not even a requirement. So no title, once chosen, is in danger of dropping off the list. Perhaps confusion began when the formal explanation of this policy was dropped off the current Book Sense flier for space reasons. It reads:
"These 76 books have been chosen by the independent booksellers of America and the staff at Book Sense, after which publishers were approached for promotional funds to help underwrite the ongoing Book Sense marketing campaign. Books appear here whether or not the publishers have agreed to participate, but many have, and we appreciate it."
I love that wording - so thoughtful, so welcoming, so community-minded. It says to publishers, "Help us, if you can, to continue this great way of spreading the word about many of your books." It does not take the chain-inspired approach and say: "Pay us or we'll kill you." Since small press books make up one-quarter to one-third of Book Sense '76 picks, I can't think of a more vital list for all of us in the book industry to support however we can.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
We found out a few days ago that the "official state website" for Iowa - www.iowa.gov - has a link right at the top of the home page to amazon.com! It says, "Looking for books about Iowa or other great Iowa products? Click here now." You click and you pop right into amazon.com.
We think that someone setting up the website created this link, not necessarily amazon.com itself. We don't know if they are an affiliate, though. No matter what, driving business to amazon.com and OUT OF THE STATE is incredibly short-sighted [to say the least] for the state's very own official website. Take the business away from your own hometown retailers AND take sales tax revenue away from your own government, right on your own state website. How clever!
ABA is drafting a letter to send to the Iowa governor's office. We at UMBA are in the process of letting UMBA bookstores in the state now about this. Several do know, as one of them alerted us in the first place, but we need to get to the rest.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
A former bookseller in your Letters column wrote: "Despite the world-class customer service that we practiced and believed in, the customer is often wrong. ('Do you have Tequila Mockingird?' Honest! It happened.)
I'm sure that I'm not the only one who's going to point this out.
TEQUILA MOCKINGBIRD (and I'm assuming Howard Cohen meant "bird" rather than "gird") is a mystery novel by Paul Bishop, a rather good one at that.
What I learned in my years of retail bookselling is that oftentimes customers know more than you think, that in fact our customers are among the most knowledgeable and smartest people you'll meet. Which is, of course, what makes this business so rewarding.
Holt Uncensored provides this forum for the free and uncensored exchange of thoughts and ideas from writers of all callings. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of Pat Holt or the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association.
"Holt Uncensored" is an online column by Pat Holt
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