With a giant closing, Memphis weighs the future of independent book stores

As Memphis stirred from the close of the holiday season, the city's last large independent bookstore announced that it was closing its doors. 

Citing declining sales, the Booksellers at Laurelwood announced on Jan. 3 that it will be closing in February after 32 years.

Memphians flocked to the East Memphis store in a show of support and others took to social media to advocate for innovative solutions to allow Laurelwood to keep its doors open. 

The owners of Burke’s Books, a used bookstore in Midtown, appealed to investors on their Facebook page to save the bookstore as Memphians did for Burke’s ten years ago. Cheryl and Corey Mesler included with their post a petition started by White Station High School student Emmett Miskell that has so far garnered 1,750 signatures.
Although the possibility of saving The Booksellers at Laurelwood is unsure, other independent stores like Burke’s Books and 901 Comics remain.
Shannon Merritt, owner of 901 comics admits that the news worries him. “I hope it is not a trend. (The Booksellers at Laurelwood) have been a cornerstone of small business here. I don’t think you can say they were not a success. Thirty years is a good run, but I am sorry that people will lose their jobs.”
Burke’s co-owner Cheryl Mesler called the news “tragic”.

“It can work. Maybe not in that size or set up (at Booksellers) but Memphis has the capacity to support multiple bookstores," she said. In recent years, the 25,000-square-foot Booksellers at Laurelwood location has added more used books and media as well as gifts in an effort to draw in new customers.

Current owner Neil Van Uum purchased the store ten years ago when it was known as Davis-Kidd Booksellers. When the chain went bankrupt, Van Uum kept the store open under a new independently-owned identity. 
Both Merritt and Mesler pointed to the in-person experience of independent stores that you cannot get at a chain or by buying online.
“It's important to communities to have the experience of walking around a bookstore and talking to knowledgeable staff. The browsing experience is completely unique," said Mesler.
“People come together for causes. Independent bookstores do so much to support literacy, especially among children," she added. "They are a community spot where people can have face-to-face contact about books. Books are art that you can hold in your hand.”
Merritt also cited the expertise of staff as the heart of the independent store experience.
“I went into a Books-A-Million recently and saw a big section of comic books, and that bothered me,” Merritt said. “People there can’t talk to you about comics. We have expertise and better customer service. We run a subscription service. People come in every week and get comics that we selected for them. That’s not going to happen at a big store.”
He also said that he chose the Cooper-Young neighborhood for his store because he believes it is a neighborhood that supports local businesses. He hopes appealing to a niche market will be a successful strategy for keeping his small business' doors open.
Mesler is concerned about the “ripple effect” of independent stores closing. Indie bookstores who support and publicize lesser-known authors help to diversify publishing. If independent bookstores disappear, she says publishing will be in the hands of the very few.
“We can’t let that happen. We need a lot of voices out there.”

Read more articles by J. Dylan Sandifer.

J. Dylan Sandifer is a freelance writer living in Memphis since 2008. They have also contributed writing and research for MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, VICE News, and Choose901. 
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  • The Booksellers at Laurelwood
    387 Perkins Road Extended
    Memphis, TN 38117 Website
    Formerly known as Davis-Kidd Booksellers, The Booksellers at Laurelwood continues to serve as Memphis' premier independent bookstore.