Reflections on one year since the opening of Novel, Memphis’ largest independent bookstore

One of the funny tricks that time can play on you is how, if you’re not careful, whatever’s in front of you at any given moment can seem to exist in a present perfect state.

If you’re, for example, standing inside Novel — the East Memphis bookstore that opened this time last year after the closure of The Booksellers at Laurelwood — all seemed perfectly normal on a recent afternoon.

It might lead you to think the stacks of new hardcover fiction titles have owned this particular spot in front of the store for years. That the bustle in the cafe is an old, familiar rhythm. That the children stretched out on a window day, and everything else you see around you, has always been like this and will continue to be even after your purchase has been bagged and you carry it away.

The continued threat of Amazon, in other words, is not immediately apparent. Nor is the bookstore’s near-death experience last year, a result of its previous corporate ownership going bankrupt. The store closed as a result.

And then a community outcry spurred a group of investors re-launch the bookstore one year ago this month.

This time last year, Novel bucked one of the oldest retail trends — that of indie bookstores collapsing under the weight of a busted business model — and opened its doors again. August 15, 2017, was the first day of business for Novel, which opened in roughly the same spot as its previous iteration as Davis-Kidd Booksellers, though Novel now occupies about half that same space.

Leslie Sproles and her son Henry Sproles, 9, browse for a book for a school projcect at Novel bookstore in East Memphis. (Brandon Dill/High Ground News)

One year offers abundant time to reflect, and if the staff and ownership has learned anything in the 12 months since reopening the doors, it’s this:

When you’re part of a story that people care about, they will seriously do whatever it takes to see it through. That’s where things stand now with Memphis’ largest independent bookstore, which is back in business and going strong because too many people couldn’t stand the thought of seeing it disappear.

“The staff is a big part of it,” said Novel’s general manager, Eddie Burton, adding that Novel brought back 24 of Davis-Kidd’s 26 employees.

“So we have a lot of people who’ve been working in the book business for a long, long time and are very dedicated and very good booksellers. The location has also been really good. Our landlord has been great, but the key has been the community and our relationship to the community. Not just to individual customers who come in, but also businesses and schools.”

The old challenges, to be sure, haven’t gone away. Amazon is still the digital Goliath, looming in the distance. One reason the store is viable in its new format is that it pared the original 25,000 square feet space down by about 50 percent (“We put the wall,” Burton said, “almost exactly down the middle of the old space). That’s less revenue disappearing each month to go toward rent.

The store has also arranged things so that the layout is less cluttered, making the smaller space actually feel bigger, and there’s a room in the back for author events that can also be rented out for other uses. That room is something that didn’t exist before. Davis-Kidd tended to just make do and scoot things out of the way to accommodate visiting authors.

What’s more, big authors are starting to come back. In October, former Memphian and New York Times bestselling author Hampton Sides is returning to promote his forthcoming title “On Desperate Ground.” Hampton is one of the higher-profile authors the store will have hosted since reopening, and his new book chronicles the exploits of Marines at the Chosin Reservoir during the Korean War.

Joe Rucker reads a magazine at Novel bookstore in East Memphis. (Brandon Dill/High Ground News)

It’s still early days in the life of Novel, and neither the bookstore nor Laurelwood Shopping Center had foot traffic figures readily on hand. Revenue numbers are also kept close to the vest, but Burton did allow that business has been steady and “overwhelmingly positive” as we come to the end of year one.

Cory Prewitt, chief operating officer and marketing director for the surrounding Laurelwood Shopping Center, said he personally visits Novel at least once a week to buy books, to chat with employees and appreciate how Novel lead to “the proudest moment of my career, when it reopened.”

Emily Draffen, Novel’s PR and events coordinator, said she tries to make time as much as possible to not get so caught up in the grind of office tasks that she forgets to take a step back “and look around at what we've accomplished.

“Overhearing a boy going on to his dad about his favorite series in the kids' section, watching an audience in the presence of an author they adore — these were things I were dreaming of a year ago, unpacking boxes in an empty store, hoping things came together.”

That they did end up coming together is a reminder that books and bookstores don’t exist as ends to themselves. The inventory, of course, isn’t worth all that much if it sits there untouched in neat stacks and rows.

Really, the shelves throughout Novel and bookstores like it are only meant to be placeholders. Temporary waystations on the journey of a book from the author’s pen to a publisher’s sprawling warehouse and, finally, to the home of someone who makes the time, who puts down the smartphone, to learn something new about the world. Or even just to subject themselves to a printed and bound version of what humans have been engaged in for millenia - the telling and receiving of stories.

Maybe part of what feels good about Novel coming back, and still being here a year later, is that it feels good for the underdog to win for a change, in spite of the odds, in spite of everything. That’s probably it. The little bookshop off Perkins Road is a bright flashing indicator light reminding that things have a way of working out. While we’re on the topic of writing and writers, you could also look at Novel today as a bricks-and-mortar manifestation of what Robert Frost once said was the most profound lesson he’d learned about life. “It goes on.”

Read more articles by Andy Meek.

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