October 4, 2012

Talking shop with an indie bookseller


This is an occasional series that asks some of our favorite independent booksellers a handful of simple questions. The questions are the same, but the answers (predictably) vary. If you’re interested in the business of bookselling, read on for a quick shot of indie insight — this week, it comes compliments of Corey Mesler, from Burke’s Books in Memphis, TN.

1) Could you tell us something of the history of your bookstore? What’s your role there?

Our bookstore was begun by the Burke family in 1875. Three generations of Burkes owned it until the 70s. My wife and I bought the store in 2000 and are the third owners since the Burkes. My role, personally, has diminished a bit. I only work part time now. My wife, who is smarter (and younger and healthier) than me, pretty much runs things. But, perhaps, you meant how I see my role as a bookseller? I think a bookstore is more than a commercial enterprise. A good bookstore should be a vital part of a community, an engine of good will, social interaction, free thought, literacy and intellectual curiosity, if that’s not overstating things. And, of course, first and foremost, it should be a haven for writers and readers. We are proud of the long list of writers who have signed and read at our store. And, hey, our neighborhood, Cooper Young in Midtown Memphis, where I live and where the bookstore lives, was just voted by the American Planners Association one of the top ten neighborhoods in the whole country. So, we are also proud to be a part of this vibrant neighborhood.

2) What got you into selling books? What keeps you inspired, or I guess what keeps you dejected if that’s how you’re feeling lately?

I am not feeling dejected, even in these dire times when the printed book is (once again) threatened and the appetite for literature is diminishing somewhat. I am still energized almost daily by the handing on of the works of great writers, past and present. It still makes me happy to see someone bring a Virginia Woolf novel, or a Nabokov, or Graham Greene, to the counter. Our store is partly an antiquarian store so we have a slight hedge against the “death of the book” predictions, since we have a lot of inexpensive books that beat even downloading prices. I started my bookselling career when I was 19 at Waldenbooks. And here I am at 57 still loving it. Something must be right about that.

3) If your bookstore were to be granted one wish — by the ghost of Sylvia Beach, let’s say — what would it be?

Well, naturally, it would be to make enough money so that we can continue and so that we can hire more people and sell more books and even have a little extra treat for the family once in a while, like a dinner at a nice restaurant, or a new bicycle, or the expensive brand of potpies, or good health insurance. And, if you wanna talk magic, I’d like more people to leave their homes occasionally to visit the bookstore to hear a poet read.

4) Which books do you love to hand-sell to customers?

Literary novels. That’s my passion. Introducing someone to Walker Percy or Steve Stern or Alice Munro or Robertson Davies or Bruno Schulz or James Salter for the first time is a heady experience. And hearing back from people who were turned on by a novel is even better.

5) What’s one book, ours or otherwise, that you’re looking forward to?

Forthcoming? The new Leonard Cohen biography. The Library of America science fiction novels set, Vonnegut’s letters, Steven Barthelme’s short stories…and my own novel, Diddy-Wah-Diddy: A Beale Street Suite, which should put me on the literary map, or maybe only the map of imaginary places. Oh, sorry, you said one book. Can I still get this self-aggrandizing plug in?



Kevin Murphy is the digital media marketing manager of Melville House.