Two authors in the same city, each from a large family, each inspired by a grandfather, each passionate about the printed word. Instead of writing great American novels, though, each decides to sell them in a gallant—some might say foolhardy—attempt to keep the love of books alive.
If you put this setup in a novel, nobody would believe it.
The hero and heroine are Jim Reed and Charlotte Powell, operating out of the venerable firms of Reed Books downtown and Book Rack in Trussville, respectively. As purveyors of used books, they face daunting odds in a century hellbent on shifting the paradigm from paper and ink to pixels and screens.
The first salvo against books was fired by the ironically titled Project Gutenberg in 1971. A visionary named Michael Hart proposed to create an electronic library of 10,000 titles, though with only 23 hosts active on what was then called the ARPA.net, circulation would necessarily be limited.
The first e-book format was devised in 1990, but the first device for reading one wasn’t marketed until 1998. It took the sales power of Amazon.com getting behind the Kindle in 2007 to turn electronic books into a mass-appeal phenomenon. In fact, the internet sales machine claims that for every 100 hardcover books it sells, it sells 143 Kindle titles. Forrester Research claims that $996 million in e-books will be sold this year alone.
Cognizant of electronic encroachment on bibliophilia, Reed and Powell have devised clever stratagems to lure book lovers, but it’s their personalities that keep customers coming back.
Charlotte Powell modestly avers that the Book Rack’s generous trade policy is the draw, but her yarn-spinning style will keep any casual visitor enthralled. Raised over on Alabama Avenue in a house full of family, she credits her grandfather with getting her hooked on books. Or, at least, book: “My grandfather would read to me, but he’d get just one book and every day the story would be different. In the first grade I went up to the teacher one day and announced that my book was broken. She looks at it, the book’s fine, and she says, ‘How do you think your book’s broken?’ I said, ‘It’s the same story.’ “He would make up these stories as he went along, and he never had to buy me another book because the story was always different.”
Powell also credits her grandfather with expanding her worldview. “He was a reclusive man in a lot of ways, but he’d hang out with me,” she recalls . “He liked to drink, but my grandmother didn’t want him to. So he’d say, ‘We’re gonna walk up to Tuscaloosa Avenue and go to the drugstore and get a Coke.’ That was fine. But then we’d double back around the alley and go to the Red Top Saloon, and I’d get a Coca-Cola while he sat over there and had a few beers. It was a lot of fun. I could get a Coke and occasionally a pickled pig’s foot.
“And he knew I would never tell on him. Even up till the day he died. He said the one person he could tell anything to and know that it was safe was me.”
Powell’s impetus for merchandising came early: “I started my sales career on Alabama Avenue, selling imaginary butter dishes to real people. They came in three colors. I’d knock on the neighbors’ doors and do my presentation about the butter dishes, and I’d match them to their décor.” As an adult, she had more tangible success selling eyeglass frames for eleven years, but after she married local broadcast personality and voiceover artist Jim Powell, she chose to be a stay-at-home parent for their grandson, Blake. It was at that time she decided to start selling other figments of her imagination.
Powell always wanted to be a writer. “If you’re from the South, first of all, you’re going to have it in your DNA somewhere,” she says. “Nobody told me that it was hard to get published, but the more difficult it was, the more determined I became to do it. Those were the best days of my writing career, starting out, trying to get someone to notice and be interested in my work.”
The first book she published was Lipstick Traces, a mystery set in the Crescent City, followed in short order by a manuscript sale to Sterling McFadden’s True Romance group. “From there on, the minute I cashed a check, it wasn’t fun anymore,” Powell says. “It was a business.”
Bookselling turned out to be a better fit than book writing: “This is so much fun. Book lovers are a breed of people so unique and so wonderful and I didn’t realize how much until I got the store.”
The Book Rack had been in business in Roebuck for 34 years when Powell bought it in 2009. With considerable help from Jim and Blake, she spruced the place up and refreshed its inventory, but she was uncomfortable with the neighborhood. When a chance to relocate came around, she jumped at it, and three weeks ago the Book Rack opened in a storefront at the Trussville Crossings shopping center, near Kohl’s.
Jim’s still building bookcases for it, but the new store has attracted a steady stream of customers to browse its uncluttered display area. Stocking all manner of fiction, from Harlequin romances to mysteries to Westerns (Powell claims to sell at least one Louis L’Amour novel a day) plus nonfiction, Powell is not drawing a Kindle crowd. “They can barely program their TiVo if they have one, and if they’ve got one, it’s because their kids gave it to them,” Powell laughs.
“One lady told me that she was thinking about dropping her Kindle in the tub accidentally so she wouldn’t have to use it anymore. She didn’t like downloading books, the Kindle was awkward and she couldn’t slip it easily into her purse to go to the doctor’s office.”
In Trussville, Book Rack customers can bring in their old books to exchange for in-store credits on new purchases, and Powell meticulously records each transaction on index cards. It is not a protest against computers. “No,” she says, “it was just, at the old place, all we had were three electrical outlets.”
Down I-59, in the City Center, Jim Reed is totally comfortable with computers, but his bookstore’s ambiance suggests anything but. More than just volumes, Reed Books is “The Museum of Fond Memories”, cram-packed with more obscure cultural references than a Dennis Miller rant.
“That’s just me,” the proprietor explains. “I feel that nobody reads a book in a vacuum. When you read a book, you’re not in a black hole, floating around like The Dude. You’re in your easy chair, you’ve got your blanky, your favorite cat, the TV flickering in the background—you’ve got your stuff all around you. And I thought how boring it would be to have a bookstore that didn’t have stuff around. So when I went out buying old books, I kept seeing these interesting things that should be part of a bookstore…and that maybe I could sell on a good day. So it just happened.”
Or perhaps it’s a subconscious homage to his grandfather, R.L. McGee, who owned the only store in Peterson, Alabama and whose “General Merchandise” sign hangs in his grandson’s establishment: “It had everything in it—the movie theatre, the service station, the justice of the peace, they sold clothing, food. I knew nothing about retail until I left the corporate world, but I think I inherited some of his attitude.”
Reed entered the corporate world, if you can call Tuscaloosa broadcasting that, at the tender age of 17. He moved from radio announcing to TV work at the original Channel 33, then made the jump to Birmingham, where he worked for 16 years in public relations for UAB, Baptist Medical Center and Children’s Hospital. “I stayed in that corporate stuff so long that my soul burned up and spewed out of my ears,” he recalls. “I mean, I did a good job, but it was like Dilbert times ten. People doing horrible things to each other.”
For respite, Reed turned to his hobby of collecting and selling old books. Around 1980, he began running a one-line ad in The New York Times Book Review that brought him business from all over the country: “I had a couple of dozen shoeboxes filled with index cards, and I had to re-alphabetize them every week to send out a new list every week—it was that work-intensive.”
Reed decided he could make a living as a full-time book searcher—he was one of only seven in the country in the Eighties—and he kept overhead down working at home until his wife, Liz, asked to have her dining room back. He rented space upstairs at the Wooster Lofts, but realized he’d have to have an open shop to make ends meet with the mail-order, so he moved downstairs to establish the first Museum of Fond Memories.
One important retail lesson Reed learned was never to judge a prospect too quickly: “One of my earliest customers was a guy just straight out of Deliverance. His coveralls were ragged and scuzzy, and the garlic and onion on his breath—whoof! In my mind, I was, ‘I’ll be glad when this guy is gone.’ So he walks up with a stack of stuff, good stuff, and I think, ‘OK, here we go, he’s gonna think they’re all a dollar each.’ He puts them down, says, ‘Total them up.’ I total them up. He pulls out a roll of hundred-dollar bills. As he walks out, I’m thinking, ‘I hope that guy comes back. I love his smelliness.’ So you just don’t know.”
After thirty years of buying and selling, Reed has come to terms with the changing demographics of the book trade. “I’m obviously more and more selling books as artifacts than as things to read. Some people don’t read books anyway, they just collect them. Like comic book collectors that don’t ever touch the comic book because you can’t have a human hand on it,” he says. “Then there are people who just want nice books on their shelves. Then there are people who are buying old things because they resonate with them. They may never read them. They might buy Pilgrim’s Progress or something just because it’s 200 years old. Then there are readers. We have a little of all those.”
Despite maintaining perhaps the most engaging retail space in the downtown area, Reed is not feeling the love from the city fathers. “Why don’t they give credit to the little one man businesses that add spice and flavor but don’t necessarily add a lot of money? Nobody’s going to want to live downtown or work downtown— this is my philosophy—if there’s no place to shop. A little store, a little bar, a little restaurant, a little whatever.
“The city people are all good people, I don’t have anything against them, but they never see what happens down at my level. They don’t understand that when you get a little old lady coming in from the ‘burbs for the first time, who’s heard that we’ve got these old books, and she spends two hours shopping around for just the right book, and she buys a four-dollar book, then goes out and gets a $30 parking ticket because she stayed downtown too long shopping— that’s shopper’s punishment. Do you have that at the Galleria? Do you have that at The Summit? If they gave out parking tickets to people who shop too long at The Summit, how long would The Summit survive? Probably a month.”
“We’re told we need to be good little merchants and produce tax money. So what are you doing to help me? You’re punishing the people who come down here.”
Reed says that, despite invitations, his council representative has never even been inside the store, nor have any of the last four mayors. “I think it should be part of the job description for a mayor or a city council member,” he asserts. “Come in for five minutes a year. Or once every four years. Can you imagine what that would do? If the mayor would come in for just five minutes, look me in the eye—he’s got my vote!”
To take his mind off the travails, Reed writes. Author of a dozen books or so under his own byline, he is also the editor of the Birmingham Arts Journal, a quarterly publication, and a weekly online newsletter that features some of his astute observations, under the heading, “Red Clay Diary”, and also a fascinating inventory list of the thing he’s sold at Reed Books that week. He remarks, “One of the things that keeps me going as a writer, as just a kid who’s been writing since he was four, is that everybody comes in here bringing stories with them and they don’t even know it. They bring in this book and I like to turn their pages, or they’ll turn them for me, without knowing it.”
As writers and book sellers, Charlotte Powell and Jim Reed have experienced the hard bargain between creativity and commercialism from both sides. If it came down to choosing one or the other, what would they pick?
Powell is down for the store, no contest: “When you’re a writer, you live in your imagination. The cat didn’t care if I wore my pajamas all day. One day I went to a funeral. There were a lot of people there and I realized because I wrote full-time, I really didn’t know any people. All the people I knew were figments of my imagination. Now I’m back in the world, and I love the world. The fun of it now is seeing how a writer’s work can fill up another person’s life. It’s beautiful.”
Reed waxes philosophic: “Everything changes, and obviously I will be selling more books to people as artifacts rather than as things to read, because people will find other ways to read if they want to read. Other than that, I’m stuck in the past. I mean, how much longer can I live? It’s not like I should worry that things are going to change when I’m gone, because when I’m gone, I won’t give a damn.
“But I love writing. It’s kind of a weird addiction, isn’t it, that takes you over. It took me until middle age to learn how to write, so that I felt good about it. But the way that I write, I just want to write exactly what’s in there, get it out, have fun doing it.”
And there it is. Just as for readers, the common denominator for the writers of books and the sellers of books is fun.
Courtney Haden is a Birmingham Weekly columnist. Write to email@example.com.