Wintering in Memphis
I just got back from a fantastic visit to Memphis, and the American Booksellers Association Winter Institute, which is an annual gathering of independent booksellers. The people I met there were so warm and pleasant, and everyone was very enthusiastic about The Devil’s Half Mile, which was lovely. If you were there, thank you for making us authors feel so welcome!
I wasn’t sure what to expect from the conference. I half expected to hear tales of doom about the state of the industry. But people were very upbeat. It occurred to me that if booksellers have survived this long in this market, then they are probably pretty resilient and entrepreneurial. Certainly people in the filed (mostly women, it turns out) are doing some very clever things to stay in business: everything from acting as inventory managers for Universities to diversifying their product lines and configuring their retail spaces in interesting ways. There were even some stores that had just opened or were planning to open. It’s good to know that people are buying from their local stores. I’m not taking anything away from Amazon when I encourage people to shop local, by the way. Amazon is great for certain things, but buying books from at an independent bookstore helps everyone. Not least you, the buyer, because what you local store may lack in inventory, it makes up for in serendipity and variety offered. It also offers a sense of community – and maybe even a cafe. The more people that buy local, the more converts to books and bookstores there are, and that’s good for everyone, including Jeff Bezos.
Memphis was fascinating. The city is gearing up for the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination, on April 4, 1968. I visited the Civil Rights Museum, which is located in the motel where Dr King was shot. It’s one of the best museums I’ve ever been to (and I went to see the Mary Rose Museum last year, so that’s saying something). As I walked back to the hotel, I was struck by how empty the city is. It was the middle of a weekday, and the main street was almost deserted. The cafes and restaurants were open, but empty of everyone bar the staff. It felt like a Super Bowl Sunday. Or an episode of the Twilight Zone. I walked past an enormous building that I later learned has been empty since 1970. I also learned that after the King assassination, residents who had lived in the city’s downtown fled to the suburbs, and Memphis city centre has never really recovered. Entrepreneurial types are renovating buildings and opening new residences for young urban types, but it doesn’t look like they’re selling too well.
The restaurants that I did visit were excellent, and it’s clear Memphis has a lot of potential – which might be why those apartment are priced so high – but I overheard one person saying that the city is still struggling with racial issues, and it’s not clear what would bring people back in a way that would return Memphis to the thriving