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Marly Youmans

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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.

Corey, signing his latest book

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

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 and

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  • Eileen St. Lauren
    August 10, 2007

    A truly enlightening interview! Well-done, Marly.
    Still, God must be smiling that “mooncalf” is living out his destiny in such a marvelous way–answering his call and sharing his gifts with the world. Wonderful.
    Please do continue to “listen” to those voices with pen and paper in hand.

  • Susan Henderson
    August 12, 2007

    Thanks for stopping by, Marly.

Susan Henderson