Choctaw Books closes doors after 3 decades of book business
by Stephen McDill
Published: August 23,2013
Choctaw Books owner Fred Smith is emphatic that customers understand why all of his books are marked down 30 percent.
“It’s a store closing sale. I’m not going out of business,” Smith says from behind a desk piled high with books and appraisal orders. “Its not like I’m dying.”
It’s been a busy month for the Jackson book dealer. His fourth grandchild was born last week and he’s in the middle of tracking down books for the Grant Presidential Library at Mississippi State University.
Smith is also counting down the days until Choctaw’s Sept. 30 closure when he will check the aisles, turn out the lights and lock the doors one last time at his little book shop on North Street.
It will be the end of the line for one of the Southeast’s oldest surviving used and rare book dealers.
“I’ve been open six days a week for 31 years,” Smith says. “I won’t know what to do with myself. It’s nice to have something to do everyday.”
Smith says he will keep his phone number listed and will keep appraising books for clients, a lost art that’s become extremely valuable for historical archives, libraries and universities.
“The used bookseller retirement program never existed,” Smith says.
Choctaw Books began as the personal library of Fred’s father, Frank Smith, a newspaper editor and Mississippi congressman that President Kennedy appointed to the governing board of the Tennessee Valley Authority.
Over the years the collection grew, with Fred Smith adding titles from used and rare book catalogs, estate sales and walk-ins. While authors don’t make any money off the sales, local writers Willie Morris and Eudora Welty would frequently stop by to chat with Smith and sign copies for his store.
Hardly anyone stops in anymore and Smith says that’s part of the problem.
“We’ve always had a double whammy of the lowest per capita spending on books in the country and the highest illiteracy rate,” Smith says. There’s barely any room to walk the Choctaw aisles with stacks of books towering to the second and third shelves.
“Over the years so many of my good customers have died,” Smith says. Others have moved away or stopped collecting. “The younger folks you either lose them when they get married or when they have children,” Smith says. “Baby needs shoes so we can’t buy any books.”
In the last decade, Amazon.com has grown into one of the country’s leading booksellers, even challenging national big box retailers like Barnes & Noble and Books-A-Million.
Richard Howorth with Square Books in Oxford would often recommend people to Choctaw Books but says its much easier to find used books today on the Internet.
“That’s the way most used booksellers are operating today,” Howorth says. While brick-and-mortar dealers like Smith continue to close their doors, younger dealers are logging onto Amazon and eBay and making a living there.
“I’m unintentionally a non-profit,” Smith says. “I’m not necessary and now I’m a dinosaur. Most of my friends that have stores in the Southeast gave up a long time ago. I was just a little too stubborn — kept thinking it’ll work; things will get better.”
Lemuria Books owner John Evans says Choctaw’s closure is “a great loss for our community.”
“I’m going to miss talking to Fred about books,” Evans says. “We had a very considerate, cohesive relationship even though we shared some customers.”
Evans says the greatest loss will be the mountains of background knowledge Smith has on literature, Mississippi history, politics and the millions of anecdotes that he throws in along the way.
Another issue is online book retailers that often price books based on scarcity rather than condition. Smith could shoot down those prices with one look.
“A lot of the children’s books — things that my kids read growing up — they were $300,” Smith says. “Richard Scarry and the Berenstain Bears don’t need to be that kind of price.”
Some dot com retailers are just downright dishonest or ignorant. “I wouldn’t buy a signed Faulkner off the Internet unless I knew exactly who the dealer was,” Smith says.
Evans blames the lack of tourist traffic and “serious book consumers” in Jackson for the business slowdown.
“I think its too hard to make a living — too hard to get the knowledge that you need,” Evans says.
The question that remains is where will all the old books go? If an estate sale or family member has a collection they want to sell there are only a few bookstores in the state to go to.
Smith says paperbacks can be traded in or sold at local shops and Evans says libraries accept rare books but often resell them for a dollar apiece with no condition or value appraisal. The Book Shelf in Ridgeland and Pentimento Books in Clinton deal in rare and used books.
Smith says he will miss the people the most. “Helping people build collections of Mississippi history and the Civil War. That was always the joy of having somebody come in and find something they’d looked for for years. They’re excited,” he says.
He is open to ideas on the future of his collection and will keep the building for storage.
“Depending on the quality of what’s left I could sell this stuff on the Internet for the rest of my life,” he says. “That’s never been bookselling to me.”
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