Wednesday, April 27, 2011

For Whom the Bell Tolls

They say that if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem. In that case, I hold myself personally responsible for the ever-dwindling number of Memphis bookstores.

It looks like we’ve narrowly avoided losing the bookstore formerly known as Davis Kidd, and I’m happy about that. I’ve spent a lot of time in Davis Kidd, watching my son lord over the train table or my daughter dismantle the puppet display. We’ve spent lots of Saturday mornings at story time. I’ve spent hours reading now-favorite magazines like Oxford American and Garden & Gun.

What I haven’t spent much of, however, is money. Davis Kidd is a beloved family hang-out, but it is not where I buy books. I’ve tried, on several occasions, to pick up my next book club selection or something on my mental to-read list there, but struck out in the stacks. So I tend toward Amazon, which has lower cover prices, free shipping, and a seemingly endless supply of titles.

As a recovering small business owner, I feel some guilt about that, but I also feel compelled by the system. Low prices and greater convenience win. It’s a Walmart mentality, but there’s a reason Walmart thrives. People appreciate charm and character and a big comfy easy chair, but they appreciate their time and money even more.

That doesn’t mean I think charming, cozy places should go away, but I think we need to be realistic about their place in the retail world. Sometime in the 1990s, Borders and Barnes & Noble convinced us that “bookstore” also meant cafĂ©/reading room/newsstand/record store/gift shop. And since we had so much room on our credit cards, we figured, hey, why not? I’ll get a CD and a $4 cup of coffee with my hardcover.

But in these difficult blah blah blah … people are thriftier. We’re not as easily grabbed by the new releases on the front table and we’re less likely to pick up that $40 recycled-plastic beach toy set. And as we’ve seen over the last year, mega-bookstores are dropping like lords of the flies. Yeah, online retailers and e-books are partly responsible for that, but I can’t help thinking that the concept itself was doomed. I’m no MBA, but if I learned anything running my own store it’s that giant square footage + hugely diverse products + low price points + customer anonymity = crappy profit.

I haven’t completely abandoned brick-and-mortar booksellers, mind you. But all of the non-Amazon book purchases I’ve made over the last year were at one place: the Goodwill bookstore. Charity-based or not, it’s a good business model. They’re in a small, out-of-the-way storefront next to a Chinese restaurant. I get in, browse my way through the three aisles, pick up two-to-five books, and get out, loaded up with reading material as I head for the buffet next door. I can rarely find any specific title that I hoped for ahead of time, but I almost never leave empty-handed.

Burke’s Books in Cooper-Young follows a similar model, which is to say, they sell books. That’s it. And there’s always someone nearby to help or make suggestions, which makes you feel welcome as well as a little more beholden (not a bad thing in a small business). Burke’s has had its own struggles for survival over the years, but they’ve hung on for over a century with nary a latte sold.

I love books. I truly do. My house is practically collapsing under the weight of them. And I deeply love a good bookstore, having been raised in the fertile crescent of independent booksellers. But I think it just might be time for Memphis to reconsider our needs in a bookstore. If we want a place to take our kids to play and hear stories while we browse through books and magazines we have no intention of buying, there’s a big fancy building on Poplar that offers all of those things. But if we actually want to purchase books in Memphis, a city with one of the ten worst literacy rates in the country, we should support the truly local retailers who are striving to improve the literary culture of our community, 800 square feet at a time.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

City Girl

My parents grew up in Olivia, Minnesota. It’s the seat of Renville County, but it is still, fundamentally, a small town. The 2,500 or so residents form the support system for those in the outlying agricultural areas; they run a grocery, hospital, golf course, canning factory, car dealership, library, one public school, one parochial school, two hotels, three gas stations, four sit-down restaurants, and five churches.

My sister was born in Olivia and I’ve been visiting the town since my infancy. Combined, my grandparents put in over a century there, and many of my father’s 64 first cousins still live in or around the area. I’m likely to stumble across relatives no matter where I go. Although I grew up in suburbs all over the Midwest, I consider myself an honorary Olivian.

That said, I figure I usually know what to expect when I’m in a small town. I’m familiar with the features and personalities that grow from and thrive in semi-isolation. I have a reasonable expectation of what will and won’t be accessible, and I can usually manage to, if not blend in entirely, at least not stick out like a citified thumb.

Or so I thought. Turns out, despite common sizes and mutual affection for lawn ornamentation, Southern small towns and Northern small towns are just as different as their respective big cities. I was reminded of this fact on a recent jaunt through five exurban counties in west Tennessee.

In the Midwest, a church:resident ratio of about 1:500 is considered typical. Along the south end of the Mississippi, however, the theory seems to be that everyone should have a church home. Literally. I passed twenty churches while driving through Halls, TN, a town roughly the same size as Olivia. And yet I couldn’t help feeling like these communities were off-limits. Not just to me, a Lutheran-raised ex-Mormon with Unitarian tendencies, but to anyone unknown. The abundance of houses (and storefronts and trailers) of worship gave each tiny congregation the feel of a small social club. Even on Sunday morning, it was hard to find a parking lot with more than ten cars in it. There’s no sliding into the back pew in a church like that. Which is incomprehensible to Minnesotans, who would prefer that all churches contain nothing but back pews.

Despite their congregational quirks, most small-towners are friendly folk, but the nature of “friendly” changes as you cross the Mason-Dixon. Up north, it means a smile and a wave. In a Southern town, it means actually making friends. Asking (or answering) one question of a store or restaurant proprietor can lead to half an hour of conversation, introductions to family members, and possibly an invitation home. I now know more about the owner of Alvino’s Pizza in Dyersburg, TN than I do about my colleagues in the next aisle over. It’s a social model that’s difficult for me to adapt to personally, but I appreciate it on its merits.

Perhaps the most distinctive element of Southern small towns is the fact that they are not homogenous. The history of Southern agriculture intertwines diverse races and classes, and the towns that supported agrarian lifestyles still reflect this diversity. The Midwest, simply put, does not. Not once you get outside of the city centers, at least. I can’t speak for how each community is affected by its cultural make-up, but I tend to assume that any forward-looking group benefits from multiple viewpoints.

Of course, believing that is why, despite all their ties to a tiny homeland, my parents raised their children in a metropolitan area of 1,000,000 people, and why I now do the same. I’m drawn to the history and tradition of small towns, but I can’t help feeling that it takes a whole lot of people to build a future.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Grits Ain't Groceries

Memphis is an infamously divided town. Geographically and philosophically distant from the other large cities of Tennessee and yet also distinct from our adjacent neighbors in Arkansas and Mississippi, Memphis is a study in separatism. Even within our own city borders, most of us live in our own little subcultural zones. Downtown, Uptown, Crosstown, Midtown, and “out east” doesn’t begin to cover all the neighborhoods and pockets of identity we’ve constructed.

One of the things I’ve always found notably odd is how closely Memphians restrict themselves to their own defined categories. Race is the most obvious identifier, but it’s far too broad to accurately describe how we cordon ourselves off. There are also elements of class, education, politics, theology, and income potential at play. And I’ll admit, I’m not immune to it. Does being a working mother in my mid-30s make me identify with other working mothers in their mid-30s? Depends on how they feel about Obama or breastfeeding.

I appreciate that I’m raising my children in a city where they are surrounded by diversity, but I lament the fact that it’s something they observe rather than participate in. I’ve often wished that our regular, everyday activities gave us a more accurate picture of our city. It’s not simply a matter of going new places and doing new things. Leaving one pocket to enter another wouldn’t solve the issue. What I always hoped to discover in Memphis is a place where all of our citizens feel welcome and comfortable, a place that isn’t claimed by or associated with any one group, a place where our city of outsiders can feel like insiders.

It took me over a decade, but I think I’ve finally found it, the true melting pot of Memphis. Ladies and gentlemen, if you want to know who we are, join us for lunch at a Chinese all-you-can-eat buffet.

It doesn’t matter which one. I’ve been to half a dozen around town and the scene is the same. Just take a seat and look around. Young mothers with babies taking their meals next to a table of retirees. Nurses and construction workers, IT geeks and realtors. Patrons in headwear required by distinct and often conflicting religions. Native Memphians who were born down the road, and Memphians native to at least three continents and a dozen countries. It may not be an exact representation of our demographics, but it at least touches every slice of the pie chart.

Mmmm, pie.

Wait, maybe that’s it. Food is the soul of the south. Regardless of other particularities, Southerners cook and Southerners eat. There may be distinctions in recipes, but everyone in Memphis was raised on some form of pork and greens and fried whathaveyou. And even if you’re not born to it, you take to it like … well, like a Yankee to barbecue.

What does this have to do with Chinese food? Frankly, I’m not sure, but I offer you exhibit A: the egg roll. Ingredients: pork, greens, and fried whathaveyou.

And also? Everyone likes Chinese food.

Because we live in a city with so many divisions, we unconsciously adjust our bearings to being Us or Them. But this self-awareness seems to melt away somewhere between the cashew chicken and the banana pudding. It’s strangely calming to be in a place where there is simply no Them, and only an All Of Us.

And man, are we all full.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011


About six years ago, as part of my Memphis hazing, the red Schwinn 10-speed road bike I received on my fourteenth Christmas was stolen out of my own backyard. I hope whoever pulled that stunt, somehow avoiding detection from both motion-sensor lights and a 200-lb. dog, ruptured a disk lugging that steel behemoth over the fence.

Thanks to that act of nefariousness, I spent the last half-decade or so bikeless, and unhappily so. Which is sort of ironic, considering that the stolen bike still had the little nubs on the tires.

My desire for a new bike began immediately after the theft, but my ability to attain one was not so quick. I put bikes on my wishlist around every major holiday, but no giant boxes ever showed up in the mail. I’d save up a little scratch and plan to put it toward new wheels, but some other higher priority would come up, like daycare registration or a 50%-off-sale-prices sale at Ann Taylor Loft. I eventually had the perfect jauntily casual wardrobe for cruising around town, but nothing to actually cruise on.

Part of the hold-up, of course, was my predilection toward exhaustively thorough pre-purchase research (read: obsessive dithering). I wasn’t going to buy anything without checking reviews, comparing features, and graphing price fluctuations. I also made a longer-than-necessary mental stop at the Electra website because, golly, those bikes are pretty. But once I realized that I was never going to avoid long enough to get my bike fund to that level, I moved on to more realistic goals.

As I prepared my taxes this year, bracing myself for the payment I hoped would be slightly less than the giant sum owed the year before, I was shocked and thrilled to discover I was actually getting a modest refund. The first thing that crossed my mind when I saw those happy green numbers on Turbo Tax was, “I can get a bike!”

Having the money, however, didn’t make it that much easier for me to spend it on something so frivolous. Half my refund went right to bills, and the rest slipped away toward new clothes for the family, field trips, school pictures, and other wants and needs that were higher priorities than becoming a little LeMond.

But then, the sun came out. March arrived. A few bursts of lovely weather highlighted the unrelenting proximity of the Greater Memphis Greenline. The new Woodland Discovery Playground beckoned from a few flat miles away. Not having a bike not only seemed inconvenient, but downright ridiculous. I narrowed my top two choices down to one, did a Target test-ride, and eagerly awaited a freelance payment. And then, just to confirm that I was making the right choice, something amazing happened.

The bike I wanted went on sale!

(Cue angels singing, clouds parting, and cute little handlebar bells ringing)

I’ll spare you the Homerian epic of acquiring the last semi-functioning model in town (other than to thank Kristy for helping out when I was on the verge of meltdown) and skip right to this past Saturday, when I took the first ride on my new green-and-white Schwinn hybrid. I was a little afraid that I’d built my enjoyment of bike-riding up over the years and would be disappointed once I actually got in the saddle, but just the opposite was true. The first time I got to a downhill stretch and felt the wind rush by, I was hooked.

That little inaugural test ride turned into nine miles of Greenline and park trails and eating RJA's dust. Not every bit was easy, but it sure was a lot of fun. I felt connected to the city in a whole new way. I felt greater freedom in my own little part of it.

I felt fourteen again.