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VOL. 121 | NO. 178 | Monday, September 11, 2006

The Next Chapter Unfolds in Tale of Two Bookstores

By Andy Meek

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ALL THE PRETTY BOOKS: Hugh Hollowell, owner of newly opened Downtown Books, shelves his inventory in the hopes that it will attract underserved customers from the area's growing residential community. -- Photograph By Andy Meek

The numbers he was crunching seemed too good to ignore.

Hugh Hollowell - a former financial planner-turned-bookstore owner - wanted to expand Midtown Books, the small used book shop he once operated across the street from Blue Monkey on Madison Avenue.

It's no secret he and other small-bookstore owners desperately are trying to dodge the boulder that's rumbling across the book industry's landscape.

Still, Hollowell couldn't ignore Downtown Memphis' population boom. The Central Business Improvement District has more than 27,000 residents, according to the Center City Commission.

During the day, that number swells to about 80,000.

"And that's 80,000 people completely unserved by a bookstore," said Hollowell, who shifted his Midtown store a few weeks ago to the basement of Memphis Tobacco Bowl, a smoke shop with a coffee bar, a crowd of regulars who talk sports and politics, where jazz music always is drifting from the store's speakers.

Settling down(stairs)

The name of Hollowell's store is now Downtown Books.

He and the tobacco shop's proprietor, Richard Alley, were long-time friends, and the transition to Alley's business at 152 Madison Ave. appears to have been seamless. Patrons of the tobacco store over the years have included Memphis Mayor Henry Loeb, author William Faulkner, actor Joaquin Phoenix and historian Shelby Foote.

The last, by the way, also was a regular customer in Hollowell's store in its Midtown incarnation. Just an ordinary customer is how Hollowell remembers Foote, who hated his notoriety and wanted to be left alone.

So, in many respects, it was probably natural that Hollowell and Alley would combine their labors of love - books and the communal aspect of selling smokes - in the historic Marx & Bensdorf building at 152 Madison. Tobacco Bowl already was the place where customers could pull up a chair, light a smoke, and stay a while.

Now, in the still-evolving basement retail space, they can get lost in a page-turner. The shelves still are being stocked, and Hollowell has some 10,000 volumes still in storage.

"I looked at this real hard before coming down here, because I'm prone to make impulse decisions," he said. "I wanted to make sure this wasn't a romantic notion of mine and was sustainable.

"But to put that Downtown population number in perspective, it's roughly the population of Jackson, Tennessee - which has two (book) megastores. So I figured in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king."

Despite flat sales, competition from corporate giants like Barnes & Noble and rush-order, low-cost book buying options available on the Internet, Hollowell is one of a pair of Memphis booksellers who are attempting to swim upstream, as it were. They are - to borrow the famous last line from the "The Great Gatsby" - "boats against the current, born back ceaselessly into the past."

Turning the page

More than four months ago, Corey and Cheryl Mesler, who own 131-year-old Burke's Book Store, typed out a letter to their mailing list of 3,500 customers and friends. The couple's small book store at 1719 Poplar Ave. aggressively supports local writers and draws its share of celebrity customers, but it recently found itself in financial trouble, teetering on the edge of ruin.

"We're looking for a way to save our store," wrote the Meslers, who bought Burke's six years ago.

Since writing the letter, the store's plight has been the subject of newspaper articles, TV news segments and an outpouring of community support - and there's been a happy plot twist in Burke's story.

In the past few months, the couple has raised about $20,000 from customers and donors to pay the bills and keep Burke's afloat. Cheryl Mesler solicited some outside business advice from the Service Corps of Retired Executives (SCORE) and is optimistic about some new plans in store for Burke's.

Donations came in forms large and small. Two charity events have been held since the Meslers wrote their letter; for one, a group of 21 writers staged a reading of short literary pieces at Otherlands Coffee Bar, an event that raised more than $1,500 for the store.

First Congregational Church in Midtown later staged a film showing that netted almost $700.

"It shows that a lot of people care about an independent bookstore surviving," said Corey Mesler, who added some big changes are in the works for the store. "Put it this way - we're more hopeful now than we were then."

What's in store

October is shaping up to be a busy month for Burke's. Author Charles Frazier, who wrote "Cold Mountain," a novel later adapted into a successful Hollywood film, is scheduled to sign copies of "Thirteen Moons" at Burke's Oct. 19. The novel, Frazier's second, comes out Oct. 3.

Film director Craig Brewer, who shot some of his debut movie "The Poor and Hungry" at Burke's, spearheaded an event that will be held Oct. 6 at Burke's to support the Indie Memphis Film Festival. Trailers for films that will be part of the festival will be screened at Burke's that day, and Brewer will be signing movie posters for everyone who shows up and buys a book from the store.

And while it isn't yet official, the Meslers are assuming John Grisham will be making his regular book-signing appearance at the store in October, when his new novel "An Innocent Man" is released.

"Six months ago, we really feared we'd have to close the store," Corey said. "Now we're on the right track."

Back at Downtown Books, Hollowell is working on building an entrance to his store that's accessible from the street, down a flight of stairs.

He said since opening in the middle of August, business has been roughly equivalent to a slow week at his Midtown location - which, he points out, had four years under its belt.

"So I can't be upset at all," he said.

And with that, the story continues.

RECORD TOTALS DAY WEEK YEAR
PROPERTY SALES 0 133 1,342
MORTGAGES 0 131 1,047
FORECLOSURE NOTICES 20 39 190
BUILDING PERMITS 0 305 3,056
BANKRUPTCIES 17 135 753
BUSINESS LICENSES 0 53 329
UTILITY CONNECTIONS 0 0 0
MARRIAGE LICENSES 0 0 0