The people in charge of Reed’s GumTree Bookstore in downtown Tupelo know its place, which is between Jackson and Oxford on the authors’ map.
When writers schedule book tours through Mississippi, Lemuria Books in Jackson and Square Books in Oxford are natural stops.
“We get them to stop here on their way between the two. That’s why a lot of our signings are at noon,” said Camille Sloan, manager of Reed’s gift shop and bookstore. “When they come through Mississippi, they come to us as well.”
The bookstore has carved out its own niche since 1984, when Jack Reed Sr. and his brothers paid $50,000 to buy the stock from a paperback store.
“I thought that was a lot of money at the time,” said Reed, chairman of the board. “We were going to give it a chance and see how it went. We wanted to make us a destination store.”
Charlie McGill’s bookstore was located at GumTree’s current site. Reed’s took over the lease and later bought the building.
The idea from the start was to get away from the paperback business and focus mostly on hardbacks.
“It fit the image of the store,” Reed said.
The profits weren’t rolling in at first, though Reed was quick to add that the store wasn’t bleeding money, either.
No one knew at the time, but the store’s fortunes were about to change when a newly published author spoke at the Lee County Library. GumTree took a chance and added his book to its inventory.
“A Time to Kill” didn’t exactly jump off the shelves, but John Grisham’s next book, “The Firm,” became an international best-seller, and the author hasn’t forgotten that early support.
During a 2009 interview with the Daily Journal, Grisham said the reason is simple.
“I was turned away from a lot of stores which is not unusual,” he said. “There were a handful of stores in this area that not only said yes, but enthusiastically had book parties, and GumTree was one of them. So it’s always been easy to come back to Tupelo.”
Fans once lined up around the block for a chance to meet Grisham and get their books signed. Some of them camped out overnight.
He no longer does public signings, but he signs about 2,000 copies of each new book for the store.
“John Grisham made it profitable,” Reed said. “Seriously, if you can count on selling 2,000 to 2,500 books in a season, you’re doing well.”
Grisham’s ongoing support helps the bookstore in other ways.
“When you tell someone John Grisham has been here, it gets their attention,” Sloan said.
The GumTree primarily focuses on Southern writers, though others are welcome. Willie Morris drew big crowds in his day, and Natchez-based writer Greg Iles has been the second-best seller behind Grisham.
Jack Cristil’s self-titled autobiography has flown off the shelves lately, as has “Tupelo Man,” a book about George McLean written by his son-in-law, Robert Blade.
“A lot of times, someone will have a connection with an author they love and want to bring them here,” Sloan said.
People who’ve written books about Elvis Presley schedule their signings at the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll’s hometown during the Elvis Presley Festival.
The GumTree keeps a black and white cut-out of Elvis near the front window of the store, where visiting authors sit and sign their books.
“All the authors want to have their pictures made with Elvis,” said Catherine Mize, assistant manager.
“Karl Rove was the cutest one,” Sloan added. “He had his lip curled and everything.”
Some authors draw big crowds, and others don’t. That’s not necessarily a reflection on the quality of a particular author’s work.
“The best authors nationwide can have the worst signings because they don’t have friends here,” Sloan said. “You just hate it, but it’s about relationships.”
Mize said that even without crowds at the store, a signing still makes sense for authors and the store.
“A lot of times they will sign copies they bring and we always end up selling them,” she said. “It may not be at the book signing, but the book signing is a catalyst for sales.”
“Even if they can’t attend the signing, people call ahead and we’ll have 10 books sold before the author gets here,” said Susan May, bookstore manager.
Neil White, author of “Sanctuary of Outcasts” and publisher of “Mississippians” and other books, said he appreciates the hospitality at GumTree during signings.
“They just come to visit. They talk to you. They’re happy to come over and sit down and chat with you,” he said. “They’re just nice people and make you feel at home.”
It’s common for Reed, an avid reader, to visit with the authors.
“When the owner comes down and sits with you to talk, that’s special,” White said.
The book business is going through serious changes, and the future is fuzzy. As Reed said, “We don’t make any money off Kindles.”
Children’s books and coffee table books are consistent sellers at GumTree, and they’re the type of reading material people like to get their hands on. It’s hard to see how they’d make the jump to Kindles and other eReaders.
But the digital revolution is here to stay. Reed and the rest are hopeful their bookstore is positioned well.
After all, Grisham can’t sign a digital screen, and it’s relatively easy for authors to swing by Tupelo between stops at Lemuria Books and Square Books.
“When a customer leaves here,” Reed said, “they have a keepsake. It’s not just a book.”
REED’S GUMTREE BOOKSTORE is located at 111 Spring St. in downtown Tupelo. Call (662) 842-6453 or visit www.reedsms.com/books.asp for more information.
HERE’S A LOOK AT UPCOMING BOOK SIGNINGS:
• Noon to 1:30 p.m. April 12, Glen Allison, “Snafu.”
• Noon to 1:30 p.m. April 24, Ashton Lee, “The Cherry Cola Book Club.”
• 7 p.m. April 30, (assisting the Lee County Library with Helen Foster Lecture) Mark Shriver, “A Good Man.”
• Noon to 1:30 p.m. May 10, Wil Tuftin, “Ambushed.”
• Noon to 1:30 p.m. May 14, John Hailman, “From Midnight to Guntown: True Crime Stories from a Federal Prosecutor in Mississippi.”
• Noon to 1:30 p.m. May 16, Bobby Cole, “Moon Underfoot.”
• Summer 2013, Beth McAuley, “Scout the Pony.”
• June 2013, Stephanie McAfee, “Down and Out in Bugtussle!”
• September 2013, Robert Khayat.
M. Scott Morris/NEMS Daily Journal