I recall how sad I was when I heard the news. It was February 2012, and Mary Gay Shipley, the owner of That Bookstore in Blytheville, had decided to retire as she neared her 68th birthday. She announced in a Facebook post that she was looking for a buyer for the state's best-known bookstore.
In the early 1970s, Shipley, a teacher, viewed the lack of a bookstore as a huge void in her hometown. She opened a paperback book exchange in a former jewelry store at 316 W. Main St. that was affiliated with a Memphis business called The Book Rack. The store formally became known as That Bookstore in Blytheville in 1994. Through the years, Shipley became one of the nation's most respected independent bookstore owners. Her store was among a handful that invited John Grisham, an Arkansas native, for a book signing following the publication of his first novel. Grisham rewarded Shipley by returning time after time.
"We're still in business because of John Grisham," Shipley would say years later.
When the store was nominated by Publishers Weekly in 2009 for Bookseller of the Year, Shipley told the magazine: "I opened the bookstore because I saw a need. With only a tiny library and no place to buy books, a bookstore that would encourage reading and book conversations became my dream. ... For TBIB, customer service is about more than exchanging pleasantries and waiting on people immediately. It's about more than knowing our products. For us, service centers on knowing our customers. Books are very personal, and our business is to get to know our customers and embrace their reading choices and event interests. We serve with a positive mindset, and no matter who the bookseller might be, our customers know they're always speaking to another book lover."
In 2008, an Associated Press travel writer listed TBIB among nine destination bookstores in the country, putting it in the company of stores such as The Strand in New York City. That same year, Main Street Arkansas named the store as its Main Street Merchant of the Year. One magazine had Shipley on its list of the 12 most powerful women in the state.
At the time of Shipley's 2012 announcement, I doubted that a buyer would be found for such a business in a struggling Delta town. How could Shipley attract someone with her business savvy, determination and marketing ability? Shipley said she would part with the 2,400-square-foot building for just $35,000. In November 2012, she announced that the new owner was a 22-year-old nonfiction writer from Mountain Home named Grant Hill. He loved books, but the pressure of running a small business in an economically depressed community proved too much.
Hill told the Courier News at Blytheville in December 2013: "I had been talking to my folks and doing the math--and checking my blood pressure--and came to the conclusion that I needed to look for a way to, in a sense, minimize any damage to the bookstore and my own health."
Hill sold the store to Mississippi County native Chris Crawley, whose parents were sharecroppers. Crawley later moved to Milwaukee, where he did employment policy and staffing work. He then moved to Los Angeles to work as a talent manager. After three strokes due to toxic black mold infections, Crawley came home to Arkansas. He said owning the bookstore would be "a mechanism to uplift the town's spirit."
Additional health problems prevented Crawley from devoting the time that he had hoped to the store. An employee named Debra Caudle, who grew up in the nearby Missouri Bootheel before moving to the Dallas area for 35 years, did her best to keep the store open. Caudle, who moved back to her family farm a dozen years ago, had worked as a paralegal in Texas. She has had a lifelong love affair with books.
Unfortunately, the store closed in 2017. Enter Andrew and Erin Langston Carrington. Erin, 34, comes from an old Blytheville farm family. She went to Shipley's store on a regular basis as a child. She calls it "the beating heart of downtown Blytheville."
She and her husband met at the prep school they attended in Connecticut and then attended Rhodes College at Memphis together. They later moved to Blytheville, where Erin helps operate her family's farm and cotton gin (which has roots dating back more than a century) and Andrew operates a trucking company known as Delta Cartage. Last year, they decided that if the bookstore were to be saved, they would have to be the ones to do it.
"We hope to keep the traditions that Mary Gay started here," Erin says.
The name will change to Blytheville Book Company. Caudle will stay on as manager. A clearance sale was held in the weeks leading up to Christmas. The building will now undergo a complete renovation. The bookstore will reopen in March with not only books but also high-quality gifts and toys. Caudle says they'll be the type of products one might find in the gift shop of a large museum. Caudle and the Carringtons hope to attract customers from as far away as Memphis.
"People here are excited about what we have planned," Caudle says. "I would always stop here when I would come home to visit relatives. I would go back to Dallas and tell my friends that they wouldn't believe this great bookstore in northeast Arkansas. We're going to have all new floors, all new lights. We'll have coffee service and sell gifts such as glass and paper products that are unique to the area. Mary Gay was a legendary figure. The new store will have that same spirit."
Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.
Editorial on 01/06/2018
Print Headline: A bookstore reborn