VOL. 121 | NO. 95 | Thursday, May 4, 2006
A Closing Chapter for Burke's?
By Andy Meek
SAVING AN INSTITUTION: Corey Mesler has asked the community for financial help to save Burke's Book Store, which he and his wife, Cheryl, bought in 2000. The 131-year-old independent bookseller has seen sales decline because of superstores and online retailers. -- Photograph By Andy Meek
In the winner-take-all, Texas hold 'em competition that is the world of retail, how many small bookstore owners can say they have a credit card slip signed by actor Gene Hackman lovingly taped to their refrigerator?
Corey and Cheryl Mesler, owners of 131-year-old Burke's Book Store, can.
While corporate giants like Barnes & Noble sprawl across the book industry's landscape with the weight of one of Tom Wolfe's massive novels, the Meslers' shop has kept the well-worn charm of a classic.
Dotting the wall are photos of John Grisham, who drops by about once a year for standing-room-only book signings. Signed copies of Shelby Foote's "The Civil War: A Narrative" are scattered around the shop. Signings were rare for the local author, who died in June.
"There's a little bit of a pride thing in (asking the community for help) because we felt like a failure, even though we knew it was happening everywhere."
- Corey Mesler
Owner of Burke's Book Store
All that and more made it heart-wrenching for the Meslers when they recently typed out a desperate plea and sent it to their mailing list of 3,500 customers and friends.
"Burke's Book Store is in financial trouble," the Meslers wrote about the store they bought six years ago. Sales at Burke's are down, they said, lamenting the rise of superstores.
"In short, we are not generating enough revenue to pay our bills. ... We're looking for a way to save our store."
Magnet for big names
A local television news crew came by this week to film a segment on Burke's, and someone asked Corey if he thought a comparison to the Tom Hanks movie "You've Got Mail" was appropriate. In the film, Hanks plays the manager of a giant book retailer, one that ultimately drives a small, nearby bookstore out of business.
"I'll tell you what it's closer to," Mesler said later that day. "It's more like in the movie 'It's a Wonderful Life,' when you had Bailey Brothers Building and Loan - the small, family-owned business that had the big heart - versus Mr. Potter, running the banks and levying enormous amounts of interest. That's us. We're Bailey Building and Loan."
Pages in Burke's History:
- Opened in 1875 by Walter Burke Sr.
- Originally on Main Street
- Moved to 634 Poplar Ave. in the 1960s
- Moved to its present location, 1719 Poplar Ave., in 1988
- Bought by Corey and Cheryl Mesler in 2000
The band REM has shopped at Burke's, and Gene Hackman dropped by a little more than a year ago at the suggestion of a Peabody Hotel employee. It's the comforting vibe of the independent bookseller - a retail rarity - that draws them. Burke's supports local writers, Corey said, and has a well-read staff who are able to recommend great titles.
A changing industry
If you've spotted a growing collection of books for sale in places like Kroger and Walgreens or ever rush-ordered a book from Amazon.com, you've seen firsthand the reason why Burke's is in bad shape.
These days, fewer people apparently have the time to curl up with a good book. And the Internet, Corey said, has made browsing independent bookstores hopelessly out of date.
"See that gentleman browsing in the poetry section?" he said, gesturing to a corner of the store. "He's a rare bird."
Cheryl said massive changes have shaken the industry in the past few years.
"People are reading fewer books, fewer books are being sold, and that smaller number is being sold at more places. You can go to a place like Walgreens and get a bestseller at 40 percent off."
If that poetry shopper represents a dying species, the Meslers are preservationists of the highest order. The couple - who refuse convenient, mail-order services like Netflix in favor of local businesses - said they wrote the letter to remind Memphians how much of a cornerstone Burke's has become. Between 50,000 and 55,000 volumes fill the store. One of the oldest is a signed Yeats manuscript.
"It was really hard, and Corey had to push me to send this letter out," Cheryl said.
"There's a little bit of a pride thing in that," Corey added, "because we felt like a failure, even though we knew it was happening everywhere."
Part of that sadness comes from the fact that so many personal milestones for the husband-and-wife team happened in the 3,000-square-foot bookstore at 1719 Poplar Ave. Corey was working at Burke's when he met Cheryl, who had come to buy a book about Leonard Cohen. The couple began dating two weeks after Cheryl started working at Burke's, and they held their wedding reception at the store.
Neither owner has much in the way of a Plan B. For Cheryl, working at Burke's was the first job she got out of college. For Corey, the book business has been his passion since age 19, and he's recently published his second novel, "We Are Billion Year Old Carbon."
With their love of books, it's not hard to see in them traces of Prospero, the character in Shakespeare's play "The Tempest," who said, "My library was dukedom large enough."
To keep the doors open, the Meslers are asking for donations and for customers to keep shopping.
"Just come to the shop," Cheryl said. "That's the thing, getting people into the store."
And who knows, they wonder aloud. Perhaps the comparison to "It's a Wonderful Life" soon will ring truer than ever. In the film, the small community bank is saved from financial ruin when the townspeople rally around and keep it afloat with donations, loyalty and a healthy dose of love.