by Edward Nawotka -- Publishers Weekly, 8/11/2008
Mississippi is a foreign culture,” says Jamie Kornegay, owner of Turnrow Book Company, located deep in the Mississippi delta in Greenwood. He is, technically speaking, a foreigner himself, having been born in Memphis in 1975. He was then raised over the border in Batesville, Miss., a 30-minutes drive from Oxford, home to Faulkner and numerous other literary lights. It's no surprise, then, that Kornegay, 33, was a reader from a young age, his favorite book Crime and Punishment.
After graduating with a journalism degree from Ole Miss, where he says he fell under the thrall of Southern author Barry Hannah, Kornegay stayed on the periphery of the book world, editing Oxford Town, the weekly indie arts supplement to the Oxford Eagle. As part of his job, Kornegay was responsible for interviewing visiting authors, something that brought him into contact with Richard Howorth, owner of Square Books. Journalism was “making him antsy,” so he says, “I quit and begged Richard for a job.” Kornegay's stint at Square Books started in 1998 and lasted seven years, a period that saw him move from bookseller to booking author events to overseeing marketing and advertising. He also helped produce Thacker Mountain Radio, a weekly variety arts radio show broadcast from Howorth's Off Square Books store.
All the while, Kornegay was working on his fiction and published stories in a trio of anthologies, including They Write Among Us (Jefferson Square Press, 2003) and volume two of Stories from the Blue Moon Café (2004). In 2005, Kornegay reached the point where he was “fully prepared to move on from the bookstore to commit to a life of poverty” as an author—and then Fred Carl found him. The founder of Viking Range, the manufacturer of pricey kitchen ranges and other appliances, Carl built his company in Greenwood and was helping to seed the city's downtown with new and revitalized businesses—a hotel, restaurants—to develop a tourist trade.
A mutual friend, Martha Foos, author of Screen Door and Sweet Tea (Clarkson Potter, 2008) introduced Kornegay to Carl and the idea for a bookstore was born. “My wife, Kelly, and I discussed it and decided, if we don't do this, we're going to spend our whole life wondering what if,” says Kornegay. So in August 2006, with Carl as a silent partner, the Turnrow Book Company opened in a renovated department store. The resulting 4,000-sq.-ft. bookstore is beautiful: a single, soaring room, decorated with chandeliers and Persian rugs, lined with books, while a second-floor mezzanine wraps the space.
“My philosophy of bookselling is still forming,” acknowledges Kornegay. While Turnrow is fundamentally a general interest store with a heavy dose of Southern literature, Kornegay says the store's selection continues to evolve. “We have grand ideas each week, then abandon them the next, but what we're really trying to do is create an experience,” he says. Kelly, who's worked as a graphic designer, “is now learning the bookselling business,” says Kornegay, “but that is complicated by the fact of our two young children”—a four-year-old girl and a one-year-old boy.
Turnrow has benefited from its proximity to both Square Books and Lemuria Books in Jackson, and the three stores now make a minicircuit for touring authors. In addition, since many of Greenwood's visitors are chefs or foodies in town to visit Viking, Kornegay has started a first editions club for signed cookbooks.
It was, in fact, an encounter with chef Alice Waters that helped inspire Kornegay to take up yet another career: farming. “Alice came through and got me really fired up about growing your own food,” he says. “So we helped get a farmers market started up in Greenwood. And I started growing stuff: tomatoes, cantaloupe, strawberries, herbs... and sometimes I tease Kelly that I'm going to let her run the bookstore and I'll become a gentleman farmer.” Kornegay adds—and one gets the sense he's talking as much about writing and bookselling as farming—“I'm still at the journeyman stage, figuring out how to do it all. It's a tough thing, and you can see how hard it is. Success is determined by weather, and the elements and nature always seem to be against you.”