Main Street Books pulls in customers at downtown location

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Published: October 4,2004

Hattiesburg — Main Street Books at the corner of Main and Buschman streets in downtown Hattiesburg will celebrate its second anniversary in November and has already outgrown its 2,000 square feet of space. That’s a pleasant problem for an independent bookstore to have.

Diane Shepherd, who owns the store with her husband, Jerry, says she is most appreciative of the community support the business has had and hopes it will continue. She welcomes input from customers.

“A person has to make a conscious decision to come here and support us,” she said. “We have given customers a reason to come here by providing good service and a good atmosphere.”

Bernice Linton, director of the Hattiesburg Downtown Association, said the customer traffic going to Main Street Books is especially meaningful because the bookstore has no adjacent retail business. The closest retail space is a block and a half away.

“She has created a reason for people to go to her store,” she said of Shepherd. “I was so excited when she told me they were opening a bookstore, I had to restrain myself. A bookstore fits downtown, especially a mom-and-pop store. It was a great move for them and us.”

A feasibility study done by the association in 2000 indicated that a bookstore would be a good fit downtown, and Linton says Main Street Books has proven to be that fit. She said the strategic plan that came out of the study got the momentum going again for downtown and the area has had four years of upward movement.

“We are very supportive of each other. The business owners refer shoppers to other businesses and don’t take in the same products and services,” she added. “They really bend over backwards for each other.”

Shepherd says the business is committed to the present location for three years but after that will look for larger space that would make it easier for her to be more creative with display space. When that happens, she hopes to expand the coffee shop to full service and hire someone to run it.

“I’m prepared to do that. I want to stay on Main Street and will definitely stay downtown,” Shepherd said. “The Downtown Association is strong and works together. It’s like a family and everyone is very helpful. Things are coming together downtown.”

Meanwhile, Main Street Books is happily pulling in customers with its wide assortment of books and warm atmosphere. The old building has an interior of exposed brick and plaster walls painted in greens, blues and yellows. Artwork by local artists hangs on the walls and there are specialty gift items for sale in addition to books. There are bookshelves on two walls and books on six tables and in an old wardrobe. Shepherd uses wooden counters she found abandoned on the side of a road.

“The children’s section is on a raised, carpeted platform surrounded by books to create a nook and has real colorful animal artwork,” She said.

There is comfortable seating and a coffee area where she says browsers may hang out for a few minutes or hours.
A general interest bookstore, Main Street sells all kinds of new books, including the works of local and Mississippi writers. They also swap used books for used books, a service that a lot of people like, the owner said. Additionally, the shop is working to develop a website to serve its patrons.

Like other independent booksellers, Shepherd laments that she can not offer deep discounts like chain and Internet bookstores. She has one big sale a year and has year-round events to pull in customers. A book discussion group meets there once a month, and the store held more than 40 book signings last year. Signing authors included professors from the University of Southern Mississippi, former Congressman Sonny Montgomery and chef Robert St. John of the Purple Parrot restaurant. Local author Jim Robertson recently came to sign his latest Southern fiction, “Jimmy’s Hoax.” In November, the store will welcome former Iraqi hostage Thomas Hamil of Macon.

As a member of the 1,300-member American Booksellers Association, Main Street Books participates in Book Sense to recommend choices for adult and children’s books, audiobooks, mysteries and paperbacks. These pamphlets and nationwide gift certificates are available there. They are also members of the Midsouth Booksellers Association and the Southeastern Booksellers Association.

“I talk with other independent booksellers in South Mississippi, and we want to make the southern part of the state known for independent bookstores like other parts of the state are,” Shepherd said.

Diane, who’s lived in Hattiesburg all her life, and Jerry, who’s from Laurel, have been married three years and were looking for something to do after Jerry retired as a middle school principal. She left her job as director of student employment on the USM campus and now runs Main Street Books. Jerry works at the store part time. They also employ a Southern Miss student who works there part time.

“We were talking about something we could do after his retirement and felt a bookstore would be the right thing,” she said. “It has worked out well and we’ve learned by doing.”

Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at mbj@msbusiness.com.

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