McCormick Book Inn promotes Greenville and the Delta’s writers

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Published: November 15,2004

Greenville — McCormick Book Inn opened in 1965 on South Main Street. Its owner believes it’s the oldest independent bookstore in the state and says he has the gray hair to prove it. Hugh McCormick’s parents, Kathleen and Hugh, opened the store and it’s always been a family operation.

“When it first opened, we were in the center of things between the residential and commercial areas, but now we’re sort of on the outskirts,” McCormick said. “The commercial areas are all farther south now and we’re an island, sort of an oddity.”

The four-room cypress house was built before the big flood of 1927 and has large windows across the front. McCormick says he likes the sense of calmness he gets by looking through the windows at the green trees across the street. Some inside petitions were removed in the 2,000-square-foot house to make a large book selling space. There’s a separate room for children’s books with enough space to display the colorful book jackets rather than just the spines.

“The old house reflects character, and I attempt to be a character,” McCormick said. “Folks from the big city find us charming — yes, we’ve reached the stage of charming.”

He describes the back yard as quaint. As a disciple of Felder Rushing, McCormick has decorated the yard with bottle trees and rubber tire planters. That’s a favorite spot for book signings, talks and luncheons. Touring groups from all over often come by to shop and some use the back yard as a rest stop.

“We enjoy promoting Greenville as best we can. The literary history is positive and all the history of the area is rich,” he said. “Greenville has produced a lot of writers, and people want to buy something associated with them.”

Because the city of 40,000 has such an abundance of writers, McCormick Inn has a Greenville Room offering the works of outstanding authors including Shelby Foote, Walker Percy, Hodding Carter and Ellen Douglas.

Hugh McCormick started a personal Greenville collection 40 years ago that has grown to more than 100 not-for-sale volumes. But there are plenty that are for sale, along with a big collection of books by writers from all over the Delta. He calls it “Deltaology” and says a large part of his inventory is Delta books.

“Ethnicity is big right now. One of our biggest sellers is ‘The Delta Italian,’ and of course books about the blues are big too,” he said. “Our mix is different. We don’t deal in the best-sellers list.”

This long-time bookseller laments the rise of print-on-demand books. “That has opened up an unbelievable amount of garbage and we try not to deal in those things either,” he said.

The McCormick Inn’s owner credits his wife, Mary Dayle, with doing a wonderful job of writing book reviews and generating publicity for the shop. The bookstore has signings and readings, mostly with local and regional writers.

“We are out of the mainstream here. The Delta is isolated and economic development is weak,” McCormick said. “That’s a hard pull for national writers.”

With its history of personal service, the shop has built a clientele who continue to support it. Devoted customers come from a 30-mile radius. He has had some competition come and go since the 1970s, but business has remained steady. Mississippi, he feels, is unique with independent bookstores because the state doesn’t have a lot of large population areas that attract national chain stores.

“The American Booksellers Association said we did not have the demographics for a bookstore to survive here,” he said. “With family labor and no chains, we survived in a climate that really wasn’t conducive.”

McCormick said he is no longer a member of the association, and because he’s out of the mainstream doesn’t find any benefit in participating in its programs. He tries to remain optimistic about independent bookstores but thinks they may become dinosaurs as book selling is dominated more and more by chain stores and the Internet.

“Our concept and appreciation of retailing has changed,” he said. “There used to be pride in private ownership, and it was promoted.”

McCormick has an intense interest in history, especially local history and that’s what he likes to read. “It has truly become an obsession for me to learn what life was like at the turn of the 20th century,” he said. “My grandparents came here from Ireland during that time. My grandfather was a ‘saloonist’ and at that time the city had more saloons than any other business.”

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

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