Cleveland — Cotton Row Books is a key element in the variety of retail businesses in downtown Cleveland and serves a need there. As an independent bookstore, it has taken on the personality of its owner’s quiet Southern graciousness.
Virginia O’Neal has always been an avid reader but never intended to be a bookseller. For many years she taught high school math in Cleveland before she began selling computers locally through stores in Clarksdale and Greenville.
Someone else opened Cotton Row Books in 1982 in one of the Crosstie District’s many venerable buildings. This one had an earlier life housing cotton buyers on a street of many cotton buyers. The bookstore took its name from its location on Cotton Row, one of two streets paralleling the district’s scenic walking trail.
“I was doing computers and when the bookstore owner decided to close after one year, I took it over,” O’Neal said. “I have had no regrets about it. I am surrounded by books and get nice customers in here.”
The former teacher, who also has a degree in computer science, describes Cotton Row Books as a general bookstore carrying hardback best sellers, classics, children’s books, paperbacks, cookbooks and a small amount of Christian books.
“My only competition is a small Christian bookstore and the bookstore at Delta State University that mostly has textbooks,” she said. “A lot of Delta State students shop here and tell me they think the prices are better than the campus store.”
She says it helps business to be in a college town, not only for the student trade but also with parents coming to town for campus events.
The children’s section is a special interest for O’Neal. It’s divided into a section for infants to age five or six and another for second to sixth graders. “I bought shelving from a card store that was going out of business. They’re made for the books to face out but I have so many books they have to overlap,” she said. “I love children’s books.”
The shelves in this section, like those throughout the store, are painted cream and red colors that add to Cotton Row Books’ warm, inviting look where customers are encouraged to browse. O’Neal also provides a desk and chair for more in-depth browsing.
Two sections that do well are those for Mississippi authors and cookbooks. “I have a lot of local and Southern cookbooks. People coming through on the Blues Trail are from all over the country and world. They are interested in taking something Southern back with them,” she said. “The state authors do well too because people like to read about themselves.”
She says carloads of tourists, especially women, come from all around to spend a day shopping in Cleveland. “It’s such a nice town, a pretty town, and that’s a draw,” she said.
Anne Dilworth, manager of the city’s Mainstreet Program, said, “It’s great to have a bookstore in our town. It’s a nice addition to the mix of stores we have, and it fills a need.”
The bookstore carries recycled greeting cards and a big line of quality wooden puzzles for children and jigsaw puzzles for adults. “Puzzles are just something that I love and sort of fell into carrying in the store,” O’Neal said.
She is a member of the Southeast Booksellers Association rather than the national association because the shows are closer and she can attend them. Through that organization, she has complimentary Book Sense Picks available for customers. This publication recommends choices for adult and children’s books, audiobooks, mysteries and paperbacks. Gift certificates are also available and can be used at any participating store nationwide.
Customers’ query: What do you think?
O’Neal is happy to special order books for customers and does free gift wrapping as part of her personal service. She makes sure to stock all the titles on the local schools’ summer reading lists and supplies books for a local book club, too.
However, she feels the best service she provides are recommendations of which books to read, finding that her customers are more interested in her opinion than the New York Times Best Seller List. “I love to read and anybody I hire to work here does too,” she said. “We recommend books and customers like that. They want me to know about every book in here and I try to do that.”
Her favorite books are classics and best sellers or something with a message. Growing up in pre-television days, she visited the public library faithfully. Some of her all-time favorite titles are “Pride and Prejudice,” “Black Beauty” and “Little Women.” She is the mother of two children who also like to read and is currently doing her best to influence a grandchild to feel likewise.
Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at email@example.com.