Booksellers optimistic, despite challenges

By Errol Castens

OXFORD – Four of Mississippi’s best-known independent booksellers say the fast-changing world presents new challenges, but they see their kind as a vital part of the reader-meets-book process.
Publishers “rely on the physical book and the appearance of the author and the activity that surrounds physical books,” said Richard Howorth, owner of the Square Books trio of stores in Oxford. “Publishers are very afraid that will become endangered and affect reading in total.”
Howorth, Jamie Kornegay of TurnRow Book Co. in Greenwood, Emily Gatlin of Reed’s Gum Tree Bookstore in Tupelo and John Evans of Lemuria in Jackson took the stage at the University of Mississippi’s Overby Center on Tuesday to discuss “holding on in the age of Kindle.”
Moderator Bill Rose asked the merchants how they compete against online and chain bookstores.
“Understanding our local culture and market,” Evans said. “We understand what we want our bookstores to be.”
That can mean everything from weekly storytimes at Square Books Jr. to a cafe at TurnRow to books for the masculine tastes of Gum Tree’s businessmen customers to sending Lemuria staff to visit schools and book clubs.
It also means acting as a bridge between readers and writers.
“One thing [we] have in common is this incredible strength of writers from Mississippi … and knowing them personally,” Howorth said.
While Square Books has become famous for drawing crowds with big-name signing events, Kornegay said his younger business has a whole different experience.
“Our events oftentimes are anywhere from two or three to a dozen, so we sit around in a circle in our cafe and tell stories,” he said.
Membership in the American Booksellers Association has increased in 2010 and 2011 after years of slow decline, but panelists said the business is a tough one.
“It always has been an extremely difficult … complicated business,” Howorth said.
“Not much profit margin,” Evans added.
Amazon is the elephant in the room, and not just for its book prices or even the e-books spawned by the Kindle. The online giant’s move into publishing could eliminate competition among publishers, the booksellers said, limiting what gets published.
“[Amazon doesn't] want just a piece of the pie or even a big piece of the pie,” Howorth said of Amazon. “They want the whole damn pie, and the cake to go with it.”
Still, all the merchants are convinced they’re not going away.
“Reading has become cool again, and more people are interested. The challenge is getting them into your store to buy an actual book,” Gatlin said.
errol.castens@journalinc.com