Indie Bookstore Owner Corey Mesler and the-fall-from-paradise interview.
Cheryl and Corey Mesler at Burke’s Books
Burke’s Books of Memphis, founded in 1875, has been caught “between the rock and the whirlpool” for the past year. Owners Cheryl and Corey Mesler have struggled to free themselves from a burgeoning debt, recently going public with their difficulties in an attempt to save the store.
Now Marly Youmans talks to writer and bookseller Corey Mesler about the golden age of bookselling, his more than 30 years in the business, 9/11, the internet, book-browsing, Memphis, human nature, Fredric Koeppel, love, and destiny.
Corey, you started working the book trade when you were still in your metaphorical short pants (at the tender age of 18, or maybe it was 8); can you give us your sweeping, masterful overview of what has happened to book stores and the art of book-browsing since then?
All changed, changed utterly. A terrible unbeauty has been born. There were so many small independent bookstores back in the innocent 70s, small places springing up like mushrooms after a literary rain, even in a backwater burg like Memphis. We didn’t know we were living in a golden age of bookselling. I could write a book about what I’ve seen, what I’ve loved in the business and lost. But, more immediately, what is germane to what has happened to our little enterprise recently, there are two deadly factors that have spelled doom for us and others. After 9/11 Americans’ shopping habits changed. What do you do if you are afraid to go out? You shop from home. And the second thing that was happening in this brave new century was the extraordinary rise of the internet. Really, right after 9/11 our foot traffic dropped off dramatically. And it hasn’t ever come back. Our bookstore is a browser’s paradise, being made up of half used and antiquarian stock and half new books. One really can’t have that same sense of discovery buying online as one can have poking around our dusty shelves. Suddenly, you find yourself holding an old William Trevor novel. Who is William Trevor you ask? How did this book find its way into my hand? I was only looking for the Updike book with “A&P” in it. Do I need more Irish writing in my diet? A whole thoughtful process happens. Now, maybe I am deluded and this way of life, of social and intellectual life, is dying and people don’t really need open bookstores, don’t really care about intellectual discovery. Maybe they’d just as soon order all of Dan Brown’s books from Amazon because everyone else is doing it. If this is so, if people don’t need storefront bookstores any longer, I need to know so that I can order my strychnine.
It is no new news to many that your “landmark bookstore” has fallen into debt. What have you learned about Memphis, publicity, and human nature by asking people to help save Burke’s Books?
That most people are generous and full of love. Even people who didn’t frequent Burke’s – well, where were they anyway, all those people who used to frequent Burke’s – stopped in or called or sent money. You never know whose life you have touched. I call it the It’s a Wonderful Life epiphany.
Why should it be important to the community of Memphis to preserve Burke’s Books?
First, there is the question of supporting locally owned, independent businesses, a thing that is good for the community. Keep your money in your own community. The Big Boys in NYC or Seattle or Chicago aren’t helping your local economy much. And you’re aiding local proprietors who will in turn stay in your community and spend their money there and on and on. It’s the right thing to do. Then there’s the question of what a bookstore means to a town. It’s more than a retail establishment. It is a place of learning, a place of gathering, a place where the life of the mind is nurtured and celebrated. We must nip in the bud all this anti-intellectual nonsense that is pervading our little country. Books are sacred, even the most profane books. Books are the utmost product of freedom of speech and the highest exemplar of man’s restless and inquisitive brain.
Do you plan to change the way you do business? (Are you being forced to crochet doilies, sell only used books, have a cute little tea shop, etc.?) And what can friends of the bookstore do to help out?
We must change something. But we will not sell doilies or even coffee. Friends can help by buying books from us. Help us keep the idea alive that books are important, will always be important. Paper, boards, glue, and a mysterious alchemy: books.
What do you think has been singular and special about Burke’s Books? And, just to be perverse, what do you think is singular and special about a big box chain bookstore?
About Burke’s: we are one of the few stores anywhere which mixes new and used books in nearly every section of the store, creating a right lively assemblage of reading material in every nook and cranny. And Burke’s has always specialized in local histories and writers, a role and responsibility we take seriously.
About Big Box chain bookstores: nary a thing.
Do you think that the decline of book traffic in Memphis has anything to do with cutbacks in book coverage at The Commercial Appeal (I miss the thoughtful and well-read Fredric Koeppel as Books Editor!) and elsewhere?
Oh yes indeedy. This has been a terrible development in Memphis. I understand that book review space is down nationally, but, here it seemed even more crucial, that Sunday page all about books and real books. Fredric Koeppel was carrying a holy flame; he was, gosh, championing literature! How to sell books where they are not valued – that’s a scary proposition. The CA has opted out of the culture of reading: while giving lip service to things like literacy drives, they deep-sixed their book reviews page. If you really believe in literacy you might, you know, honor books.
Is marketing and promotion less a mystery to the author who is also a bookseller?
No, it’s all a crapshoot. I have no idea what works and what doesn’t, which makes me the equal of everyone in every publicity department at every publisher.
You’re the bookseller; where do you go for ideas about what to read?
Customers, book review rags (what few are left), friends, book jackets and covers. Oh, plus I hear voices.
Last week I wrote, “Besides, you have to love a guy like Corey Mesler who would be so astonishingly foolhardy as to be a poet, a short story writer, a novelist, and a bookseller. That’s somebody living on the front quad of risk! Then there’s Cheryl, bookseller, mother of two, spouse-of-Corey: undoubtedly among the intrepid of this world.” It seems just as true this week. Despite Walmart and bookstore chains and web stores, you both go on striving to make a little world that words in good order and people can inhabit together. In the face of havoc and hard times, can you say something about why you chose such a life – why you choose it still?
It chose me. When I was 18, a mooncalf, a dope, I didn’t know anything about books. I didn’t even know that they came out in hardback and then a year later in paperback. I didn’t know Updike from Upjohn. I didn’t know Proust rhymed with roost. So, why was I led to apply at my neighborhood Waldenbooks? God thumped me on the back of the head, and said, here, mooncalf, here is your destiny.
Oh, and, thanks for the love.
COREY MESLER is the owner of Burke’s Book Store, in Memphis, Tennessee, one of the country’s oldest (1875) and best independent bookstores. He has published poetry and fiction in numerous journals including Rattle, Pindeldyboz, Quick Fiction, Cranky, Thema, Mars Hill Review, Poet Lore and others. He has also been a book reviewer for The Memphis Commercial Appeal. A short story of his was chosen for the 2002 edition of New Stories from the South: The Year’s Best, published by Algonquin Books. Talk, his first novel, appeared in 2002. Nice blurbs from Lee Smith, John Grisham, Robert Olen Butler, Frederick Barthelme, and others. He has a new novel, We Are Billion-Year-Old Carbon, just out from Livingston. His latest poetry chapbooks are Chin-Chin in Eden (2003), Dark on Purpose (2004), Short Story and Other Short Stories (2006) and The Agoraphobe’s Pandiculations (2006). His poem, “Sweet Annie Divine,” was chosen for Garrison Keillor’s The Writer’s Almanac. He also claims to have written “It’s my Party.” Most importantly, he is Toby and Chloe’s dad and Cheryl’s husband. He can be found at www.coreymesler.com.
MARLY YOUMANS was reviewed by Corey Mesler, once upon a time, in The Commercial Appeal. Afterward, they became penpals. Marly’s most recent novel is The Wolf Pit (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2001 Shaara Award.) Her most recent fantasy for young readers is Ingledove (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2005.) Her first book of poems is Claire (Louisiana State University Press, 2003.) She is a Southerner huddling with husband and three children in the frozen wilds of New York. You may find her in at www.thepalaceat2.blogspot.com and www.marlyyoumans.com.
Your answers to my q: What’s so great about indie bookstores?
Thanks to those of you who asked how my son’s rendition of “Hot Crossed Buns” went at his school concert this past Monday. I can honestly say it was so excellent that I cried. Four more weeks of school, and then the Hendersons are off to Africa. You can take this as a gentle warning that my blog will soon be on hiatus for the summer. But more of that later because you guys had a lot to say about indie bookstores and here’s your chance to be heard.
On Monday, I asked the question, What is the value of independent (verses chain) bookstores? Here’s what you said in response to my question and in response to the difficult times Burke’s Books owner Corey Mesler is facing:
“Hot Crossed Buns” so Rocks!
And in many ways those very buns represent the essence of a good indie bookstore. Here’s how, in case you’re not seeing it:
If you’ve ever had the good fortune to stumble upon a fresh baked hot crossed bun, you can’t just eat it and be done with it. It’s just not satisfying until the person standing next to you sinks his teeth in there and gets a taste of what you’re all worked up about. Once the other person has taken a bite, and the connection is made, then the hot crossed bun truly comes into its own.
Small bookshop owners tend to love books the way I love hot crossed buns (and books). I can’t live until everyone I love read what I just read (or ate). This is the whole purpose of reading and eating baked goods. It’s all about making that connection with another person that I just don’t see happening in a huge department store. Don’t get me wrong, I’m more than grateful that B&N buys and sells my books. I just think that when a small bookshop owner recommends something I’ve written, it tastes better.
- Stephanie Lessing, author of MISS UNDERSTANDING
Indie bookstores don’t have to follow bottomlining accountants who know as much about literature as Fox “news” know about facts.
- EminemsRevenge, author of JEW GIRL
The biggest problem I have with the chain bookstores is the mass-market corporate-think that goes into the inventory they carry. A group of execs in some high-rise somewhere decide what is sold, pushed, marketed, etc. It becomes a chicken vs egg argument: do they push the books that sell well (or that they “think” will sell well), or do the books sell well because those are the ones they push? My conclusion: It’s literary MacDonalds.
Indie bookstores are usually owned and operated by people on site, people who read, people who talk to people who read. They are intellectually organic. It is important that we all make every possible effort to do our business with the indies, however indies need to find ways to compete for mall space with B&N and such (location, location, location), because the convenience of the chains is a killer.
- Aurelio O’Brien, author of EVE
The value is this: That indy bookstores are the only places for people who truly love books. Not people who read – because there’s a difference b/w booklovers and people who read. Indy booksellers treat books and booklovers better than the chains because they view each customer as an individual and not part of a demographic. Once during Xmas, I bought gifts from Amazon: a book on gay spirituality, another on Gene Kelly, and two musical soundtracks on CDs. Guess what recommendations I got from them for the next six months. Indy bookstores allow for browsing, even the tiniest, and they have, I like to think, what a good 12 step group has: singleness of purpose. They don’t want you to drink coffee/eat muffins/buy CD’s, along with picking up the latest from the NYT list. They want you to find a book you’re going to take home and not part with.
- Tom Williams, editor of the ARKANSAS REVIEW
Indie bookstores tend to take chances that the big guys won’t. Great selections of authors with smaller reputations, brilliantly obscure art books. and Places like Powells and The Tattered Cover are wonderful places to find the Banned books shelved prominently. I’ve found the indies to really care more about literacy than booksales. Think Blockbuster VS. Some random art house video store.
Lately I’ve noticed that a great many indies are participating in the BookSense program. a means by which they all recognize one another and offer gift certificates that can be used at all participating indie bookshops. Somehow or another I just lost my thread of thought on that one. But, it sounds pretty neat, Huh??
- Lance Reynald, author of the GREAT AMERICAN NOVEL IN-PROGRESS
I’m about to embark on a self-funded book tour, hitting ONLY independent book stores from Tennesee to St. Louis and Ohio, Pennsylvania and down the east coast. I’m convinced that the way for new writers to break through is by doing this exact same thing. These are the stores where they are going to be given the attention and treatment that they deserve. And if more authors did this, the “little guys” would have a lot better time trying to keep their heads above water.
- Frank Daniels, author of FUTUREPROOF
First, let me tell you what’s NOT good about big box bookstores: my local B&N will only stock one copy of my book. Much as the staff would like to carry more, they are powerless to do so; all of the buying is done from some mysterious Central Ordering hub by faceless buyers. Want your book displayed on the front table? Your publisher has to pay for that. Want your book to face out on the shelf? Your publisher pays for that, too. I like going into a bookstore and checking out little-books-that-could that earn their place on front tables and Staff Recommends shelves by virtue of their own greatness, not because of payola.
- Noria Jablonski, author of HUMAN ODDITIES
The creaking of scuffed hardwood, the photos of visiting authors, the passionate staff, and the existence of a tab.
- Sidney Thompson, author of SIDESHOW
We really appreciated this cry from a bookseller’s heart. We have our own lament. For the first time in thirty years, our used store, in downtown London, Ontario is cutting its hours and letting staff go as well. We agree with Corey that our foot traffic has substantially decreased. We’ve also noticed that the cult of the “top ten” of anything has substantially increased (I blame Letterman) so that readers only want the “sure” thing and are afraid of browsing on their own. They even ask us the most dreaded question in all of bookselling, “I don’t know what to pick, can you recommend something?” We hate this because, invariably, they dispute any choice we present to them. I have never had someone read a book I have recommended because they seem not to know what it is they like beyond it having “to be a really good story.” This is different from someone who loves books, they want to discuss other reads and look upon any book we reference as perhaps something that might pique their curiosity as per our conversation. Real readers don’t need recommendations. Perhaps it is our time to go, but I truly see us as a time capsule of cultural tastes, a mini-museum if you will. At some point, it will be inevitable that the internet will be compromised by power outages due to our dwindling resources, but by that time, we’ll all be gone. And everyone will be sitting at home looking at blank screens and coiled cables.
Sigh . . . .
- Teresa of CITY LIGHTS BOOKSHOP.
I just read Rachel Donadio’s NYT article “Promotional Intelligence.” Apparently there is only ONE literary fiction buyer for B&N’s 799 stores–one woman, Sessalee Hensley, decides the fate of us literary types. Eek.
- Noria Jablonski, author of HUMAN ODDITIES
The hegemony of television has given us the decline of the book, as well as a non-president with a Book of Revelation agenda, and the kinds of non-students in public schools I taught for years. This writer (above, from Canada) defines to whom the old appeal of print endures:
” . . .This is different from someone who loves books, “
is identifying the sort of reader independent booksellers rely on today to survive. This may be a reader who expects the fast cuts, the “hooks” and the “cliffhanger” prompts found on television, and after which a book today often must be modeled to sell. “The Da Vinci Code” is such a book, without a strong ending, unfortunately.
Anyone (and I see many social critics writing this) who proclaims the vital health of books based on the number being published has not talked to booksellers like those commenting here.
Anyone who reads Samuel Johnson, W.G. Sebald, Primo Levi or Jane Austen as I do does not expect a sort of “tv aura” from those writers.
God bless the independent booksellers and the real readers who sponsor them.
- Kasper, painter and book illustrator
As someone who grew up in Memphis and once lived around the corner from Burke’s, I can honestly say that I know the Meslers and their store are what they seem. So the next time you’re in the bluff city, don’t spend all your money buying Memphis Grizzlies T-shirts or Elvis dollar bills or barbeque pork sandwiches. Buy a book or two at friendly Burke’s Books. In fact, if you happen to be driving through town on June 12, come see and hear me and buy a copy of SIDESHOW, or two copies of it!
So that’s why Fredric Koeppel hasn’t been returning my emails.
- Sidney Thompson, author of SIDESHOW
Thank you for the interview with Burke’s Book Store. I met Corey and Cheryl last fall on my book tour and will see them again this summer. They are wonderful people with an amazing, eclectic store. Save our indies!!!!
- Ronlyn Domingue, author of THE MERCY OF THIN AIR
This question seems to be on a lot of minds lately. Just in the past couple of weeks there was a column in the Village Voice called “Do bookstores have a future?” by the writer Paul Collins (Sixpence House: Lost in a Town of Books); an op-ed in the Memphis Daily News called “Why Go Independent?” by Corey Mesler, co-owner of Burke’s Book Store; and the salvo that apparently started the latest round in this ongoing battle, a piece in Slate magazine by George Mason University economics professor Tyler Cowen called “What Are Independent Bookstores Really Good For?”
As you’d expect, no shortage of booksellers, publishers, writers and readers have weighed in to respond, including Jessica Stockton of McNally Robinson Booksellers in New York City’s Soho neighborhood, whose popular “Written Nerd” blog offered the perspective of someone on the frontline with a posting called “Blogs, Books, and Anti-Indie Backlash.”
I mention these items because I think anyone who feels that they have a stake in the issue – personally, professionally or both – should read each of them and join in the conversation. Not being an industry insider myself, I can only offer the perspective of someone who, as an admitted book addict, has visited countless bookstores – independents and chains alike – and has even parlayed his obsession into a grassroots movement to promote indie bookstores as a group travel niche.
So, from a qualified consumer’s point of view, here are just a few of the positive attributes that independent bookstores offer, compared to what the “big box” stores and mega-retailers lack:
1. Well-read booksellers who know the industry and can make informed recommendations — rather than retail butterflies who float from job to job, year after year, without ever learning their trade;
2. Hometown entrepreneurs who are committed to the health of the local economy – unlike corporate drones who answer to the “home office” three states away and only have the bottom line at heart;
3. Owners who know your name, your reading interests and your favorite authors – and don’t need to ask every time you’re rung up if you want to be on “the mailing list”;
4. Books that are personally selected by the owner or booksellers – instead of by a handful of anonymous individuals who decide what half the country gets to read; and
5. A community gathering-place where neighbors can have a conversation, hold a meeting or browse in relative tranquility.
Let’s not forget, too, that the economics of independent business in general is healthier for communities over time since the chains rarely deliver on their promises of job creation and expanded tax revenue, and instead ship most of their dollars out of town.
In the end, you simply can’t put a price tag on the intrinsic value of indie bookstores, whether you’re talking about their role as protectors of free speech, as an enduring symbol of community-based entrepreneurship, or as the place where so many people – generation after generation – have fallen in love with books.
I’m not suggesting that anyone boycott chain bookstores. They have a right to exist like any other business. But as I always tell the participants on my “bookstore road trips,” if you want the indies to stay open, you need to support them. Otherwise this country could lose something that no bottom line – no matter how rich – can ever buy back.
- Larry Portzline of BOOKSTORE TOURISM
Thank you, everyone, for your comments.
Now here’s a little trivia I bet you didn’t know about Burke’s Books: Jim Hanas, a great writer you might know from McSweeney’s, GQ, One Story, Salon, Village Voice and Modern Humorist, used to be an employee there. If you want to hear why it was his “best job ever,” or if you simply want to hear about his George Saunders and Michael Jackson sitings, click on over to Encyclopedia Hanasiana.