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The Book Rack’s inventory, owner wins customers

Jackson — Though tucked away in a little shop in the Canton Square Mart, The Book Rack has built a large and loyal customer base over the years, particularly under the leadership of current owner Margaret McMullin. One has to wonder, are shoppers coming for the store’s inventory of approximately 25,000 used books or the warmth and wit of McMullin, a transplanted Englishwoman who has not lost her accent or her droll, dry humor? The answer is probably both.

“I have a lot of fun,” McMullin said. “I’ve met so many wonderful customers, and we get new ones all the time. I don’t even have enough lemons to make lemonade, but I have so much fun doing it.”

If McMullin seems carefree, she has earned it. She grew up in South London, and as a young girl experienced the horror of Germany’s blitz of the city during World War II. McMullin passed the time counting the number of bomb explosions and watching anti-aircraft gun crews work. While her family escaped injury, the roof of her home was completely blown off, and she lost pretty much everything.

“I don’t put much stock in possessions,” she said of that experience. “Material things just aren’t that important.” She quickly continued with a twinkle in her eye, “Of course, I don’t mean books.” Then after saying how books offer a permanent treasure, she added tongue-in-cheek, “However, in case of a fire, books are the first thing to burn, aren’t they?”

Though much of her early memories were destroyed, McMullin never lost her love for books and reading. Her father taught her how to read when she was four years old, and books and the radio were her main pleasurable pursuits. “We didn’t have the horror of TV,” she quipped.

A G.I. bride, McMullin followed her husband back to the U.S. and Mississippi in the 1950s. It was a big culture shock for her, and looking for something familiar, she became a habitual customer of local bookstores.

One of these bookstores was The Book Rack. The store traces its roots back approximately 40 years when it was begun as a franchise in Memphis. The Jackson-based shop was the first franchise to open, and was also one of the first shops in Canton Square Mart, which at that time was situated on the very edge of Jackson.

One day, the owner of The Book Rack mentioned to McMullin that she was looking to sell the store. Asked if she was interested, McMullin said no. But the owner was persistent, and McMullin started to warm to the idea. She discussed it with her husband, Joe, who was nearing retirement as an executive of a local company. She liked the shop, and, after finding the financials to his liking, Joe gave his blessings. That was 12 years ago.

Today, the McMullins and The Book Rack are still going strong. The store’s only advertising is through the phone book. Yet, The Book Rack pulls a surprisingly large amount of its customers from as far away as the Mississippi Delta and South Mississippi. A lot of these shoppers also visit the large, chain bookstores, but keep coming back to The Book Rack, a fact McMullin attributes to word of mouth from “spoiling the customer.”

McMullin enhanced The Book Rack’s offerings after acquiring it. She is very selective in choosing her inventory, and though the books are pre-owned, none are dirty or damaged. She has also earned a lot of her customers from her children’s books. The prior owner, according to McMullin, was not fond of children and offered no children’s books. McMullin quickly changed that, and The Book Rack is frequented by parents with kids in tow.

“I have children come in here all the time looking for a ‘classic’ for school reading,” McMullin said. “Some of these books are just terrible. I think children would enjoy reading much more if they weren’t forced to read some of this stuff by old fuddy-duddies like me.”

After reflection, she pointed to a romance novel and shook her head in mock disapproval. “Of course, these are my biggest sellers among adults. I call them ‘bodice-rippers.’”

She has also augmented her inventory with her hand-painted toll items. “Toll” is French for “tin painting,” and

McMullin’s creations are popular gifts. Both her toll items and her books are heavy sellers at Christmas time, and McMullin said she is expecting a good holiday shopping season this year.

As a former evacuee herself, McMullin identifies with the people who lost so much as a result of Hurricane Katrina. She said The Book Rack saw an appreciable up-tick in business following the hurricane, and the store made contributions of books to the Coast as a way to offer some solace to those affected.

With a stiff upper lip, McMullin is forging ahead. The Book Rack is still a family business, with her daughter-in-law Sarah McMullin, granddaughters Kathleen McMullin and Lauren Laird and other relatives lending a hand. And Joe still does the accounting. But there is no succession plan in place, which does not bother McMullin in the least.

“When I’m not having fun any more, I’ll close it,” she said with a smile.

Contact MBJ staff writer Wally Northway at northway@msbusiness.com.

About Wally Northway

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