A Proper Bookstore

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There’s nothing like the feel of a real book, the weight of it, the turn of a page, the mystery beneath it’s cover. I fancy it like a chest, once opened, reveals such treasures. A digital copy, nor book on cd can capture that feeling or recreate it. Comparatively, is the bookstore. I’ll indeed stop at the box chains with their stark sterile atmosphere but where has all the proper bookstores gone? I fear we’ve discarded the wonderful things in life for instant gratification and convenience!

When I think of a proper bookstore, I think of the movie “You’ve Got Mail”. I dream of heavy wood bookshelves, wood floors, maybe fat leather couches where you can curl up with a book but more than that, it should be filled with warmth, welcome and community. We don’t have a proper bookstore here, barely a bookstore at all.

Years ago, while following a job opportunity, I found myself in the tiny rural town of Blytheville Arkansas. Main street was just as you’d expect in a small town with it’s ancient buildings lining the mere 2 blocks but the town strove to preserve it’s historic nature. It was here that I found a proper bookstore.

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A hometown girl and former teacher, Mary Gay Shipley, opened That Bookstore In Blytheville, in 1976 although I wouldn’t discover it until 1992. It was during November’s chill that I dashed inside and was greeted with its warmth. It smelled of pumpkin, cinnamon and nutmeg and I was directed to the back where hot cocoa was offered.

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There, I found readers reading at tables, sitting in wooden chairs that were signed by countless authors and gentlemen quietly chatting by the wood burning stove. With cocoa in hand, I chose a book and settled in to this cozy nook. Over the next decade, I would frequent That Bookstore so often that my face and name became as common as the books on the shelves.

I was invited each year to read my writing at the Harvest for Hunger events alongside such poets as Maya Angelou. I’ve attended Book signings & readings done from an old rocking chair, poetry competitions, charitable, musical and holiday events there.

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Laura Bush signing the chair with Mary Gay Shipley

A tiny bookstore in a tiny town, That Bookstore in Blytheville is probably Arkansas’ best known. Surprising, the amount of Authors who’ve come to this out of the way, small town bookstore but Ms Shipley created something uniquely special. Among the hundreds of writers who have read or signed at That Bookstore are Laura Bush, Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham Clinton, along with John Grisham, Jack Butler, Lewis Nordan, and Jennifer Paddock, to name but a few.

Mary Gay wasn’t just a lover of books but a huge supporter Arkansas Writers. Take for example a young man born in nearby Jonesboro AR who’s family farm lies just down the road between Jonesboro and Blytheville, became a Memphis Attorney then author, John Grisham.

Via Daily Beast

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John Grisham’s Favorite Bookstore: That One in Blytheville, Ark.

When my first novel was published in 1989, I hit the road with a trunk full of books in a valiant but misguided effort to create some buzz and launch a new career. After a month or so of miserable sales, I had learned the painful lesson that selling books is far more difficult than writing them. While libraries, coffee shops, and grocery stores were generally more welcoming, most bookstores could not be bothered with an unknown author’s first novel published by a tiny company too poor to even produce a catalog. The first printing of 5,000 went unsold, for the most part, and there was no talk of a second printing, no dreams of paperbacks or foreign editions. The fledgling career was on the rocks. However, a handful of wise booksellers saw something the others did not, and enthusiastically pushed A Time to Kill. There were five of them; one was Mary Gay Shipley, of That Bookstore in Blytheville, Ark.. I’ve always suspected Mary Gay had a soft spot because I was born in Jonesboro, Ark., not too far away. When I was a kid I visited my grandfather’s music store on Main Street in Blytheville, so Mary Gay and I had some common ground, shaky as it was. I soon abandoned all dreams of seeing my first novel on the bestseller lists. I got tired of hawking copies of it from the trunk of my car. Instead, I concentrated on finishing my second novel, The Firm. Mary Gay read an advance copy of it and said things were about to change. I agreed to do a signing in her store and arrived there on Sunday, March 17, 1991, St. Patrick’s Day. Her husband, Paul, had found some green beer to go with the green popcorn and the like.
It was a raw, windy March day, not that pleasant, but Mary Gay had called in the chips and there was a nice crowd. I signed books, posed for photos, chatted with each customer, and, in general, had a grand time. The book was selling, and I was on top of the world. The day was significant for another reason: The Firm debuted that Sunday on the New York Times bestseller list at No. 12. I suspected life was about to change, though it was impossible to know how much. In the rear of her store there is an old potbellied stove surrounded by children’s books and rocking chairs. Late in the day, we gathered around the stove and I read from my novel. I talked about the writing of it. I answered questions with little regard for time, and the crowd showed little interest in leaving.
As soon as The Firm “hit the list,” I was inundated with requests from bookstores to do signings, but I declined, and not out of some sense of revenge. I’d rather spend my time writing, and besides, book tours are not that enjoyable. However, it’s always been easy to remain loyal to those first five stores, especially That Bookstore in Blytheville.
I returned the following year with The Pelican Brief, then The Client. By the time The Chamber was published in 1994, the signings were going on for 10 or more hours and everyone was working far too hard. We changed the rules and shrunk the crowds, but the signings still felt like marathons. Eventually, we stopped them altogether, and for the past several years I have sneaked into Mary Gay’s back door and signed 2,000 copies of each new book. This takes a few hours and we enjoy the quieter times. There’s a lot of local gossip, and I’ve picked up more than one idea for characters. Old friends stop by, and on several occasions, I’ve had lunch with my mother and her three sisters. Blytheville is an old, declining cotton town, and many of its Main Street stores are empty. Mary Gay has kept hers open through hard work and the sheer will of her personality. With independent bookstores vanishing at an alarming rate, I wonder how long she will hang on, or if someone will take her place. She and others like her had a huge role in the early success of my career and the careers of many rookie authors. Without their encouragement and support, it will be even more difficult for first novels to have a chance.
Over 20 years have passed since that cold Sunday in March when we sipped green beer by the stove, celebrated all things Irish, and toasted the country’s newest bestselling author, but it remains one of my fondest memories as a writer.
Excerpted and adapted from My Bookstore: Writers Celebrate Their Favorite Places to Browse, Read, and Shop edited by Ronald Rice. Copyright © 2012 by John Grisham. Used by permission of Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers. All rights reserved.
In 2012, Mary Gay retired and sold the bookstore to Grant Hill. Unable to keep it going , Blytheville native Chris Crawley bought the store in 2014 but was unable to keep it open, and the store closed in 2017. The life and light had left the building the day Mary Gay bid Adieu. Seems she was indeed the creator of a proper bookstore, it’s warmth and the soul of that community.

Always with love – Laura

26 comments

  1. Thank you for this wonderful post. What special place that was! I love small bookstores like that and there are so few of them left anymore. So sad to here that this one is not there anymore.

    This post also is meaningful to me in another way. In the early 60’s, when I was in 3rd – 6th grade my Dad was stationed at Blytheville Air Force Base. We lifted on base and walked to Gosnell School just outside the base. Sadly, the base is closed, too.

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    • Omgosh!!!!! What a small world!!! I moved to that area the year Eaker AFB (renamed from Blytheville to Eaker in ’88) closed in ’92 and lived in Gosnell for 15 yrs. My children went to school there, graduated there, played football there (even my daughter! She wanted to follow her older brother, tried out and after sending a boy home crying with a broken arm, made the team playing both sides of the ball and was the first female to go to Razorback camp) My son met his future wife there in Jr High, he playing football and she, a cheerleader. Years later, they were married at a church on Eaker AFB! The base closing nearly killed the town but rescue came with the steel mill, Nucor Yamato Steel, which is what brought us there. Extra note, it took several years to get the base open use after closing. First, they opened up buildings for businesses but the housing took more time and work as the housing had to be cleared of asbestos.

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      • Thank you so much! You are right, obscure small towns. I’m very proud of my daughter. She’s the one I write about who has always struggled with her weight but decided to put the same tenacity and force of will that she gives to everything else, into herself for a change and went from 386lbs to a 150lb body builder.

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  2. Love this story! Thanks so much for sharing. You are so right, nothing compares to the feel of a real book and to being in a bookstore. This one seems like it would have been a great one to visit! It is sad, how many bookstores are closing these days! But I am glad there are at least still libraries to browse at!

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    • Yes! But I wish they had the cozy warmth of a proper bookstore. Digital technology a the desire for instant, at your fingertips.. .everything, has ruined so much. Even actual magazines are barely holding on and with digital online versions and where you can simply google for yourself anything they might contain, for free….has virtually killed the industry and with failing sales, actual mags have become outrageously expensive that few will buy them! I saw a $17 magazine just yesterday!

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  3. I love places like that. Many of the independent bookstores were pushed out of our town by the big bookstore chains. They, in turn, are being pressured by the online stores. In fact, I think there is only one big bookstore chain still alive. We have several used bookstores, a couple of them quite large, that have a nice ambiance. But it’s still not really what you’re describing.
    Books themselves, however, in my opinion, will never go out of style.

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    • I hope not Herb! A digital version will never be able to compare to holding an actual book in your hand, the thrill of turning the page and the spot on the bookshelf where the most beloved tales fill like a doorway to other worlds.
      And, reading from a screen is destroying our eyesight. The cure…read a book. Lol

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  4. What a treasure!!! Living in Arkansas since 1993, I had no idea!! I still love reading REAL books too. And since I’m a huge John Grisham fan, it’s awesome factor is even better! I may have to make it a point to check it out even though it under different ownership. Thank you for sharing 😊

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    • Angela,
      It did completely close down but I believe that someone has bought it, changed the name and plans to open it sometime this year.
      If traveling from Blytheville to Jonesboro, you’ll see the Grisham family farm.

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  5. That is a lovely story. Rrminds me of a couple of fab second hand bookstores I found in Scotland. One in Inverness; an old church with a pot belly stove, tall shelves dripping with books and an upstairs coffee shop. The other behind a gift shop in the wee village of Cromarty. You could sit down with a cup of tea or coffee, browse through the well organised but still charming book shelves, then leave an autograph on the walls. Even that was worth a read as so many international visitors had sat and enjoyed the peace and calm and welcome of that wee shop.

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