Small bookstores, library, non-traditional sellers try to connect readers, authors after big-box closings

Friday, April 15, 2011, Vol. 35, No. 15
By Joe Morris

Despite no small amount of wailing and moaning in the weeks following the closings of Borders and Davis-Kidd bookstores, Nashville’s bibliophiles haven’t been left in a total bind.

In fact, an unlikely confederation of book lovers, public institutions and smaller venues are rushing to fill the void where the larger bookstores have left off. So whether it’s finding a coffee-table book on home décor, picking up a gently used bestseller or meeting a local author at a signing, there are still plenty of ways to connect with the book-reading community here.

Not far from the Borders location on West End is BookMan/BookWoman in Hillsboro Village. Opened as a place to sell both new and used books, as well as collectible first editions, the store has branched out to carry specific titles for book clubs, host author signings and be a place for other community gatherings.

And by so doing, it fulfills the mission of what a bookstore is, said Saralee Woods, who along with husband Larry owns and operates the store.

“Nashville loves to read, and we have sort of developed a new model for a successful bookstore,” Woods says. “We’ve got about 80 percent used and 20 percent new books. We also have a lot of titles you can’t find on the Internet, so people come in.

“What we wanted to be was a store where you can walk around, and if you don’t know what you want to read you can stumble across some new writers. And we’ll help you do that.”

It’s also a model that allows for competition. When McKay Books opened on Charlotte Pike near White Bridge Road in 2007 – a new, larger location is planned for Charlotte at Old Hickory Boulevard -- Woods says she noticed the arrival and wasn’t alarmed.

“They’re a totally different model that we are because they carry music, movies and things like that,” she explains. “They have a great selection of those things and people love to go there, but we’ve kept our focus just on books and we really haven’t seen a loss in business to them.”

Books certainly weren’t a big venture at the Beveled Edge, a framing and gift store on White Bridge, but once a few titles were stocked, the possibilities started to emerge. Now various coffee-table and specialty volumes cover a significant portion of the store, and the first local-author book signing was held in early April.

“We began with a few gift books six or seven years ago, and it’s a category that continues to grow for us,” says co-owner William Smithson. “A few months ago we renovated this side of the store, and now are ramping up our inventory and carrying more titles. We always had gift books on home décor, but now we’ve expanded that into travel, entertaining, sports, fashion, cooking, gardening and fun things that people enjoy looking through.

“Some of our book growth did stem from the closing of the big-box stores, but the idea of local signings was ours,” Smithson adds. “We saw the avenues for local authors being able to promote their releases shrinking, and so we thought by expanding a bit we could help to grow our book section and be a nice addition to that scene.”

Local, regional and national authors are also getting a boost from Salon at 615, a consortium of the Nashville Public Library and its foundation, Humanities Tennessee and Barnes and Noble. Appearing, or scheduled to appear, at the library for readings and signings so far are such notables as Hampton Sides, Ann Patchett, Roy Blount, Jean Auel, Erik Larson, Meg Cabot and Andrea Wulf.

The goal is to highlight local writers and also keep Nashville as a prime destination for traveling scribes, says Pam Reese, web administrator for the library.

“We’re mourning the loss of these bookstores because the library and bookstores have always had an incredibly symbiotic relationship,” Reese says. “At first blush, one might think they would be competitive, but it’s really the inverse of that. If it’s not on the library shelves, an impatient reader like me goes to the bookstore. And if I see a title at the bookstore that I’m not sure I want to buy, I’ll see if the library has it.”

As for Salon at 615, Reese predicts success beyond the initial roster of well-known authors.

“We’re all using our contacts to step in and keep them coming to Nashville, and this initial lineup has made everyone happy,” she says. “People are hungry for human contact, and so when we create a place where likeminded individuals can gather, it’s going to work. We’re fond of calling the library the ‘civic living room,’ and I think bookstores of any kind also fulfill that function.”

“We began reporting to the New York Times a while back, and we’ve been appearing on television for a long time,” says BookMan/BookWoman’s Woods. “And we’ve got about 25 different events coming up here. People follow us on our website, on Facebook.

“We, as a bookstore, and smaller bookstores in general, have evolved. We’re fitting a new model to what we already do, which is to sell great books and also to be a community gathering place. It’s very important that we be a place for local authors, and book lovers, to come, and so that’s what we do.”