Special to the Eagle
There have already been two serious romances, one of them with a ghost. A revolution in a tiny foreign country is threatening the very stability of the U.S. government. A small-town attorney has just been sentenced to five years in federal prison after being railroaded by a ruthless prosecutor for an innocent bookkeeping mistake. Plus, a western mining town has a brand-new sheriff and rumor has it that he makes up the rules as he goes. All of these have passed across Carlotta Crawford’s desk, and it’s not even 10 a.m. yet.
With the advent of electronic books, the world’s publishing industry is in the throes of its biggest upheaval and re-invention since Gutenberg cobbled together his first printing press. But for the American institution known as the used book store — the ones still in business, that is — the pattern of a typical day’s buying and selling remains much the same as it has since Gerald Ford was president.
That was when Crawford’s shop — Kathy’s Book Store — first opened in downtown Jasper, on the block of East 19th Street where Danny’s Barbecue now stands. The owners were Ruby Crawford (who was shortly to become Carlotta’s mother-in-law) and Ruby’s daughter Kathleen (Kathy) Smith. (In the small-world department, their building’s landlords were the grandparents of George “Goober” Lindsey, who had already moved on from Jasper to stardom with “The Andy Griffith Show” and “Hee-Haw.”)
Ruby died in 1999, and Kathy Smith left to take a job at the hospital.
“It wouldn’t have felt right to change the name,” says Carlotta Crawford, who bought the shop’s inventory and moved to the store to its present location, alongside the city’s police department on Alabama Avenue. After 17 years there, she finds that she’s become synonymous with the business:
”I can be out in public and people will holler at me, ‘Hi, Kathy!’ But it’s no big deal. I just wave back. It’d be too much trouble to correct them all.”
Crawford’s earliest reading-related memory isn’t of a book, but a magazine. As a toddler, she recalls, “it seemed that the grownups were always reading magazines—usually ‘True Detective’ or ‘True Romance’ — and it made me jealous because I couldn’t read yet. I wondered what could possibly be in all those words, to hold somebody’s attention for so long.”
But she soon made up for lost time. In first grade, her teacher had a daily “reading hour,” when the students took turns reading stories to the class. The teacher was so impressed by Carlotta’s rendition of “Noah and the Ark” that she asked her to read it to the second grade, as well.
She was off and running as a serious reader, and hasn’t looked back.
Ironically, when she began spending time at her mother-in-law’s book store, the items in most avid demand by shoppers were...”True Detective” and “True Romance” magazines. “People would trade and re-read the used issues until they’d just be in tatters.” That remained the case until the mid 1990s when the genre magazines began losing popularity and were eventually finished off altogether by competition from the new trend of reality TV.
Traditionally, the subjects that sell most dependably in used book stores are romance, mystery, thriller, and Western, and the same is true for Kathy’s.
“I’ve got a room set aside for romances,” Crawford says. “I’d guess they’re 50 percent, maybe 60 percent, of my business. And I have a lot of older gentlemen who like the Westerns and the mysteries. Science-fiction sells pretty good.
“There’s a lot of demand for the newer thriller writers, like James Patterson, but it hard to get those in.”
At Kathy’s, to “get in” a book means that a customer brings it in as trade for a credit against other used books. Crawford saw a sudden decline in new books brought for trade when Waldenbooks at Jasper Mall closed in 2009. Customers who don’t have books to trade can buy from the inventory outright. Most hardcovers are $5, and most paperbacks sell for half of the cover price. Shopping for paperbacks at Kathy’s is like a combination of archive-diving and a history lesson. Fairly new paperbacks have a cover price that’s more than hardcovers sold for, a generation ago. But tenacious searchers can find paperbacks from the 1920s such as a novel by Tarzan creator Edgar Rice Burroughs, “The Chessmen of Mars.” A little faded, but otherwise in good condition, it has a cover price of $1.50. Which translates to 75 cents, at the register. Still too high-end for your budget? There’s a small corner room with a sunny window and bamboo shade, where the Bargain Bin resides: a handmade wooden rack of 300 or so books that sell for 25 cents each.
The marketing distinctions between authors that are “hot” and “not” are every bit as dog-eat-dog in used bookstores as in the New York publishing industry itself. At one time, used-book customers would vie over the newest batch of Danielle Steel romances. These days, Crawford says, competitor Nora Roberts and others are much more in demand. Courtroom/thriller writers John Grisham and Scott Turow have declined in popularity, as writers like James Patterson and Lee Child have risen. What’s more, a cross-genre phenomenon known as “paranormal romance” is very hot. (“Still popular, but I guess it’s already peaked,” Crawford says.) Wikipedia describes the paranormal romance field as involving “romantic relationships between humans and vampires, shapeshifters, ghosts, and other entities of a fantastic or otherworldly nature.” The hottest category of all? “Amish romance,” a sub-category of the popular Christian romance field. She keeps the Amish books on a display rack by the door, so regular customers can check on them in a flash and see what’s there. (Via Wiki: “Most works of Amish romance have protagonists with socially conservative values, especially chastity, who engage in romance in ways which are socially and religiously acceptable in their communities.”) For whatever reasons, according to Crawford, she found herself sitting on the sidelines of the two biggest publishing trends in recent years: the “Twilight” series and “Harry Potter.”
“Customers would ask for the books, but nobody would trade them in until after the series had run its course, and they’re no longer in demand. Then all of a sudden people are wanting to trade. All I can figure is, they were going to keep the books but they changed their mind.”
One side-effect of spending years in the book business, says Crawford, is that you develop an almost psychic sense of whether a book is ever going to resell or not. An example?
“I can take you, right this minute,” she says, “to a stack of Danielle Steels that are going to be in the same spot, after you and I are long dead and the cockroaches are running the place.”
Management by cockroach is not the only scenario in Crawford’s daydreams, as each publishing season brings her nearer to her retirement years. ”To put it in a nutshell, stores like this are a vanishing breed,” she says, with an incongruous smile.
“In just the past year, my sales are down by at least 30 percent. Maybe closer to 40. A lot of my steady customers have either quit coming in, or when they come in they spend less. Most of my customers are older folks. And even a lot of the older ones have told me it’s because they have a Kindle, or Nook, or some other type of e-reader, and they enjoy it. A few tell me they got one as a gift from their kids, and they don’t like it, but most of them do.”
She’s sampled the electronic-reading craze herself and was not impressed. “My husband’s got a mini-iPad, and I use it, but not for books. I enjoy my iPhone for the Web, and for reading news. But there’s just something about a book on it that doesn’t feel right. I guess I’m old-fashioned.”
For somebody who’s been excited about reading since before they could walk, a career spent largely in a book store might seem an example of the old saying, “Be careful what you wish for.” But Crawford says that, aggravations aside, she still enjoys spending time at the shop.
“I guess the best part is just getting to talk to good people,” she says. “This is a quiet place, and it encourages people to talk. And sometimes when they get started, it’s like their whole life rushes out, and I hear about their problems. So I’ll be their counselor, or lawyer, or confessor, or whatever. Sometimes it just helps them to hear, ‘Gosh, I’ve been through that, too.’
“The biggest satisfaction, over the years, has been getting to talk to people who are readers. Even if the books they read are very different than what I do. In general, readers are just great people to be around.”
Dale Short’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org