Cambridge University Press sales rep Robert Barnett admits that there are only a handful of bookstores he sells to in Tennessee. “I think of it as dominated by chains and Christian bookstores,” he said. According to the numbers, Barnett is correct: overall, Tennessee has 39 chain stores (including 10 Barnes & Nobles, 14 Books-A-Millions and 13 Borders) and 17 ABA stores.
There are also 49 CBA stores, and Nashville is home to the headquarters of the Cokesbury bookstore chain operated by the United Methodist Publishing House. Cokesbury has 71 locations across the U.S., of which four are in Tennessee.
Nashville may have a reputation based on its musical pedigree, but it also has a strong literary life and boasts the headquarters of numerous publishing companies (including Christian publishing juggernaut Thomas Nelson); the Southern Festival of Books (which switches between Nashville and Memphis annually); and BookPage, the book review newsletter produced in Nashville since 1984, cofounded by Roger Bishop—a now-retired former bookseller at both the University of Vanderbilt Bookstore and the Nashville location of Davis-Kidd Booksellers.
A part of the Cincinnati-based Joseph-Beth Group, the Nashville location is one of two Davis-Kidd stores remaining in the state; the other is in Memphis. Founded in 1980 by two social workers, Karen Davis and Thelma Kidd, the chain once had four stores in Tennessee. A Knoxville branch closed in 2000, while the other, in Jackson, closed in 2005. In 2005, a trio of former booksellers from the defunct Davis-Kidd Knoxville store regrouped and opened the highly regarded Carpe Librum book store.
Joel Tomlin opened Landmark Booksellers in 2004 in Franklin, a wealthy suburb of Nashville. Initially, Tomlin stocked his store with some 60,000 antiquarian and rare books purchased from Nashville's now-defunct Dad's Old Book Store. Lately, though, about 30% of his sales are new books, fueled in part by customers learning that he can get special orders to them faster than Amazon.com. “One distinct advantage of being in Nashville is being close to Ingram,” said Tomlin. Ingram Book Group, the largest book distributor in the country, is located in nearby LaVergne. “So,” said Tomlin, “if I place a book order before 11 a.m., it's delivered the next morning. Customers love that.”
“One of my favorite accounts in Tennessee is Burke's Books in Memphis,” said Rebecca Roberts, sales rep for Houghton Mifflin. Opened in 1875, Burke's is one of the oldest bookstores in the country. “But,” said owner Corey Mesler, “the Internet, the decline in reading, the economy all combined to nearly sink us.” Mesler, who bought the store in 2000, sent out a plea for help.
Mesler said that the local Memphis newspaper Commercial Appeal added to his troubles when it cut most of its book coverage. “I'd like to say we're big readers, but without any book coverage in the local paper, it makes it difficult for us to get any publicity for our events.” (Mesler has experienced the neglect firsthand: his own novel, We Are Billion Year Old Carbon, published last year by Livingston Press, was never reviewed.)
In the end, well-wishers (including many authors) donated $20,000 to keep the store open. Now, ensconced in a new storefront in a bohemian neighborhood rife with foot traffic, Mesler said he's “feeling reinvigorated and optimistic for the first time in a long while.”
Just two years ago, Michelle Burcky, a former B&N bookseller, opened Cover to Cover Bookstore in the burgeoning Memphis suburb of Arlington. She said her 1,400-sq.-ft. store is “just big enough” and has thrived by catering to schools and to families. “It's important to have a niche,” she said. “We have four B&Ns and a Borders nearby, so it's not as if people don't have another place to shop.”