Proud to be a Bookman
Choctaw Books offers rare, used titles
Before Amazon.com there was Choctaw Books.
Bookworms in the Jackson metropolitan area looking for rare books prior to the advent of the Internet and online retail could drive over to a little wood frame house on North Street. The small driveway still only has room for a couple of cars at a time.
Managing partner Fred Smith has packed more than 100,000 hardback volumes into the 2,000-square-foot building and after more than a quarter-century in business, he is completely out of room. Smith keeps good track of where everything is whether it’s vintage Civil War-era literature, an out-of-print dime novel or a biography of Diana Ross. One of his greatest finds for someone was a first edition William Faulkner novel that was autographed and signed to a family member of that customer.
Smith sits behind a small wooden desk piled high with magazines, maps, a Sharp adding machine and a stack of Pelican Shakespeare editions. Long rows of price index manuals are perched behind him on a shelf. As skilled at storytelling as he is at finding books, Smith’s conversations are colored with verbal footnotes, sidebars and plenty of conjunctions stringing each memory or comment together.
Originally located in the Old Town Square in Ridgeland, Smith moved his shop to Jackson with help from his father, Frank Smith, a former U.S. congressman and retired special assistant to Gov. William Winter. The elder Smith brought his rocking chair with him to the store and never missed a day of work until his death in 1997.
“My dad had originally wanted to be a newspaperman and a writer and he had a huge library,” Smith said. “I grew up with a house full of books. Every time we would go somewhere, we would buy a book.” Starting out with books from independent dealers and estate sales, Smith was able to grow his collection consistently as more and more people heard about his store.
Foot traffic is not what it used to be in used and rare bookstores thanks to the World Wide Web, and Choctaw Books is no exception. “It’s completely changed everything,” Smith said. “The used, rare and out-of-print book business was very low-tech and hadn’t changed in a hundred years.” Smith said that back then, book dealers all subscribed to A.B. Bookman’s Weekly. “You advertised what you wanted and people would send you a postcard if they had something or the dealers would mail out catalogs and lists,” Smith said.
The Internet is not the only thing putting a dent into the rare book business. Google Books and other print-on-demand websites and companies have millions of titles scanned into their databases that people can order or read online, eliminating the need for scavenger hunts with local dealers.
The latest passel of e-readers sold by Barnes & Noble, Amazon.com, Sony, and most recently Apple Inc. can store hundreds of titles on one device. “I don’t enjoy that part of the business nearly as much as people coming in and you help them and you try to find something that they’ve been looking for for the past 30 years,” Smith said.
While the future of his profession appears dreary, Smith is still hanging on while other dealers continue to give up. His reputation has brought him in touch with many from Mississippi’s pantheon of literary giants including Eudora Welty and Willie Morris. Smith said both writers were always happy to come into his shop and sign copies for his customers.
Smith is not afraid to admit to a few missed calls as a book dealer. When a young state legislator named John Grisham came by to see if Choctaw had enough copies of his first legal thriller, “A Time to Kill,” Smith said he turned him down.
“He didn’t put enough of a sales pitch on it, plus we didn’t deal in new books,” he said. “He was selling cases of them out of the back of his car, and I didn’t think at the time that it was going to turn out to be a $3,000 or $4,000 book. It’s one that got away. You just never know what’s going to take off and be collectable.”