It was in Oxford, Mississippi, that it came to me so clearly. I knew it, of course. I had known it since I was a child skirted in gingham innocence and trimmed with inexperience.
But in these shifting times with changes that have tiptoed toward us and smothered our good senses with a blanket knitted from yarns of convenience and low prices, I had mostly forgotten. For I, like many of you, love shopping that is easy and requires no effort or gas. It is because of us — yes, you and I — that bookstores, built from brick and mortar, are disappearing. Especially the small, independent ones.
We should be ashamed.
A recent sojourn to the Mississippi small towns of Greenwood and Oxford reminded me strongly and clearly of the joy of bookstores, for these two places have excellent independents. In Greenwood, you’ll find the amazing Turnrow, and in Oxford, you can shop all day at Square Books and its two offshoots, Off Square and Square Jr.
In Greenwood, I was distracted from a perusal of the books because of chatting with Jamie Kornegay, the owner, whom I have known for years. In Oxford, though, I wandered in on a Sunday afternoon, then spent a couple of hours browsing. There was a table of author-signed books and another with handwritten notes from the staff who recommended certain books with brief reviews.
Those hand-scrawled reviews gave me pause to think. Fifteen years ago, when my first book was published — and my author’s tour including a stop at Square in Oxford — those independent bookstores could make a first-time author a bestseller by “hand-selling” her book, which is recommending it to anyone looking for a good read. They did just that for me and sold so many copies that I quickly made the independents’ bestseller list, which then led to other bestseller lists.
In the years that have passed, though, online sellers with free shipping and low prices have dealt a deadly blow to the independents. Many small-bookstore owners have given up their leases, boarded up the doors and headed home to read the stacks of books they didn’t have time to read back when business was good.
We have all lost in the demise of these booksellers. After all, it is a pleasure to discover a book that you wouldn’t know about unless you ran across it in a store. One that unless you saw it or read a handwritten review, you wouldn’t even know it existed. If you don’t know it exists, you can’t order it online.
I walked across the street and decided to stop in at Square Jr., a store that specializes in books for children and young adults. A smile leapt to my face as I closed the door behind me. It was filled, almost to capacity, with kids and their parents shopping for books, picking them up, flipping through them and, most of all, savoring them.
There was a girl, about 11 or 12, who looked like me at that age except that she wore glasses. Intently, she studied the rows of books. When she pulled one down to look at it, she did it gingerly and with great respect.
“Do you like to read?” I asked.
“Ma’am, I love it with all my heart,” she replied. “I’m making a list of books I want for gifts and ones I plan to save my allowance and buy.”
Just like me.
Richard Howorth, the owner of Square as well as the former mayor of Oxford, is both good and blessed. He helped to lead the charge for independents to fight smartly for the survival of small stores. He is also blessed to be in a town that appreciates literature.
When it comes to brick-and-mortar bookstores, what’s gone is gone. But those that remain need our support and patronage.
For our sakes as well as theirs.
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