I paid a trip to Davis-Kidd Booksellers this past Saturday afternoon, in a state of mind best described as funereal. Two days earlier, I'd been stunned by the news that the Nashville bookstore, which has been serving the city's reading and literary community for almost exactly 30 years, would be closing its doors this coming December. I felt compelled to stop by — not only out of preemptive mourning, but also because I'd ordered David Mitchell's novel Black Swan Green (they didn't have it in stock) and knew this could well be my last chance to pick it up.
Trying to park in Green Hills Mall can either be a form of bloodsport or a local pastime. We all have loyalties to certain zones: the crescent by Carrabba's, say, or the oft-neglected compact-car lot next to the Junior League's gated-off area. You can learn a great deal about Nashvillians' tolerance for stress, their belief in efficiency, or their propensity for magical thinking simply based on the choices they make when confronted by the challenge of having to walk the least distance possible between their car and ultimate destination. I usually go for the closest space myself, but this Saturday was like an argument for population control. So I parked in the movie theater's garage — a 25-minute trip door to door.
There was no sign of the Great Recession when I got to Davis-Kidd. The store was bustling and, truth be told, it didn't feel like a bookstore at all. It rarely does on weekends. The monastic quiet and calm one traditionally expects don't descend upon you. Like Restoration Hardware or Brooks Brothers, Davis-Kidd's entrance is just another shortcut into the mall. The first floor's L-shaped room feels more like a thruway; the foot traffic through it is tidal.
So why is Davis-Kidd closing? It depends on whom you ask. According to Neil Van Uum, president of the Joseph-Beth company that purchased Davis-Kidd in 1997, it's due to the seismic shifts in the book industry, online merchandising and the nascent e-book revolution, and a historic recession that's led him to predict as many as 50 percent of all bookstores in the country will shut their doors within the next five to 10 years.
But Davis-Kidd was making a profit, Van Uum says — just not enough.
"The Nashville store was profitable," he says, "but it had a million six in inventory plus a huge rent number, and when you put it all together you didn't have the level of profitability you needed to fund it. Closing the store can't be attributed to any one thing. The fact is that you're in a marketplace where the reader is opting into a lot of different ways to buy books, coupled with the fact that we're surrounded by three chain bookstores within a five-mile radius. Markets shift, and keeping the Nashville store open became unsustainable."
If you ask many Nashvillians, though, they'll say that the seeds of Davis-Kidd's demise were planted long ago. They point to four distinct factors: location, location, location, and a distant corporate parent that stopped listening to the store's customer base. In an attempt to increase its margins and grow far too fast, they say, the store drifted from the very thing it did best — sell books in a wonderful space to peruse them.
"The best booksellers I've known aren't that concerned with profitability, but more with the value of intangible things to the community that goes beyond the bottom line," says Roger Bishop, a legendary figure in Nashville bookselling who's regarded by authors and readers alike with a deference befitting a Zen master. "They're stakeholders, not shareholders."
Whereas the optimist might argue the move back to Green Hills was made to bring new customers into the store, a cynic might call the current iteration of Davis-Kidd a shareholder's idea of a bookstore. Upon entering, I was immediately greeted by a display table prominently featuring John Grisham's new novel. The events poster announced Alice Medrich's appearance for her new cookbook, Chewy Gooey Crispy Crunchy Melt-In-Your-Mouth Cookies. To my immediate right were the Staff Picks: one novel with a pixilated skull caught my eye. Behind that was the modest science-fiction section.
I strolled past the Fiction Essentials table (A Death in the Family, check; The Corrections, check; but I still hadn't read Didion's Play It As It Lays or Adiga's The White Tiger) followed by the Non-Fiction Essentials, the Book Club Recommendations table. Beyond that, though, my passage was blocked by a tower stocked with ... biscuit mix? Preserves? Sorghum from the Loveless Café? Why is it that something I could buy in Kroger is taking the place of a book?
Answer: Because the rent is too damn high.
"We sold those sidelines," says former general manager Tony Mize, "because those margins were great and Neil Van Uum's plan was that we'd use it for inventory, but that never happened. Neil saw Davis-Kidd as a gift center. The community didn't want that, and he persisted. So it's not the failure of the consumers that's led to the store's closing, but rather the failure to listen to them."
True, the current Davis-Kidd may not be the same place that long-time Nashvillians tend to rhapsodize, in the hush of nostalgia reserved for seeing movies at the Belle Meade Theater or shopping downtown at the Church Street Castner-Knott. "I have a deep love for Davis-Kidd," says novelist Ann Patchett, who immediately amends her answer: "the store that was Karen and Thelma's at Grace's Plaza." The independent book haven founded in October 1980 by Nashvillians Karen Davis and Thelma Kidd — first at the lower end of a much smaller Green Hills Mall, then relocated to an airy space in Grace's Plaza — embodied a time before Amazon, let alone Kindles. Its massive central staircase was wide and grand, and as you ascended you rose into the natural light filling it.
"The physical space," recalls Thelma Kidd, "was wonderful, those two floors above ground. True, it wasn't as easy to merchandise. We paid for all that air and light, but it was worth it, because we created an environment where people wanted to spend time." The stairs at Davis-Kidd today lead to the basement floor.
And yet my mind returns to the current store's science-fiction section. As a boy, I had my imagination fired first by sci-fi. Now here before me, even in limited quantities, were Frank Herbert's Dune series and Piers Anthony's Xanth volumes — and now I did feel like I was in a bookstore, because that odd anxiety mixed with anticipation overwhelmed me, the sheer delight mixed with the creeping sense of dread that there wouldn't be enough time before I died to read all the books that might rewire my mind.
That dazzle of possibilities is perhaps what we stand to lose most when one more bookstore closes. It's a step closer to the end of serendipity. How many of us discovered one of our favorite books entirely through some quirk of timing, some trick of the moment — the wink of a jacket; the come-on of a font or blurb? Sure, computer programs can offer suggestions based on your recent purchases, but the effect is typically more creepy than helpful, like the concern of a neighbor who's been reading your mail. What's missing is the chance of chance itself.
At Davis-Kidd, those chances weren't just literary but social. As chance would have it last Saturday, I bumped into Roger Bishop, a man who deserves a raft of medals for making Nashville a literary destination spot. In person Bishop's slight, boyish looking and commanding all at once. There's a touch of Bilbo Baggins to him. He has a luxuriant, leonine head of silver hair and his reading glasses sit precipitously on the end of his nose. According to former co-workers, his command of ISBN numbers approaches the rabbinical, and he's the kind of book lover who will, upon the mention of, say, Bowling Alone, gently add, "Robert Putnam," as if it were indecorous to utter a title without its author.
Bishop was Davis-Kidd's employee-named Master Bookseller from 1993 to 2007. He started his career at Vanderbilt University and, according to Publishers Weekly, transformed its bookstore into one of the top trade bookstores in the country. In the 1980s, while managing Bookworld, one of the city's independents along with Zibart's and Mills, he launched a small publication, Booktalk, a rag replete with reviews and interviews featuring the likes of Richard Ford and Josephine Humphries. With the help of Ingram executive Michael Zibart, it evolved into none other than Bookpage, distributed from Nashville to some 450,000 readers nationwide. He was also co-host of the Bookworld Hour, broadcast on WLAC 1510 every Saturday, and he helped grow the Tennessee Literature Festival into what is today the Southern Festival of Books.
All of these things, however — all positive developments for Nashville — were interconnected, dependent on a retail base of strong booksellers. And those booksellers were dependent on someone like Roger Bishop, a person who not only lived and breathed books but lived to share them.
"When I say Mr. Bishop was the primum mobile of Davis-Kidd at its best," poet Diann Blakely says, "I mean this: the store became a salon without a salonista. He was always happy to share news about forthcoming books — indeed, I cherish the memories of his hurriedly moving from behind the large information desk to do so — but never bothered anyone."
"I miss Roger," says novelist Tony Earley, "because that's a true book guy who, as far as I could tell, had no contemporary counterpart in the current store."
Over the summer, though, I got to see first-hand how much the passionate book lovers on Davis-Kidd's staff mean to the local literary community, and how much impact their enthusiasm carries. When I launched my first novel Mr. Peanut in Nashville this past summer, the stores here and in Memphis got behind it completely, making it a bestseller for weeks. I owe the book's local success to employees such as Brent Humphries and Catherine Robinson — and indirectly, though no less crucially, to long-timers like Alysia Maxwell, the merchandising team leader and an employee since 1999, who's remained a constant since the store's days at Grace's Plaza.
In this way, Davis-Kidd was (and I hate to use the past tense) a vital link in the chain of the nation's literary community. It may not have been a quote-unquote independent, but it fulfilled that role as no other local bookstore did, and its customers loved it as if it were. The next time a local author publishes a book, wonders Margaret Renkl of the Humanities Tennessee website Chapter16.org, who will help it find its way into a reader's hands?
"Local writers invariably launched their books there," Renkl says, "and blockbuster authors came from all over the country to meet their readers in Middle Tennessee. In the last year alone, the store has hosted bestselling authors as disparate as Jeff Kinney, Jeannette Walls, Rick Springfield, Eric Jerome Dickey, Abraham Verghese, Hugh Ambrose, Amy Greene, and Madison Smartt Bell. And the value of a reading series like Davis-Kidd's extends far beyond the reach of the store's microphone. An author event is also an invitation for the local media to write about a book that people around here may never have heard of before."
In other words, Renkl suggests, we may not even know what the real impact of Davis-Kidd's loss will be until it's gone and the ripples reverberate throughout the community. That concern is echoed by John Seigenthaler, one of the city's literary lions, whose long-running televised authors' forum A Word on Words continues to defy the incessant hand-wringing over the future of the written word.
"As one who has done A Word on Words for 35 years, I feel a sense of personal loss, because many of the writers who came to town to sign books at Davis-Kidd were available to come on my program, and thereby reach other readers," Seigenthaler says. "So I'm going to feel it as a book buyer and customer, but beyond that as a host of a book-review program. We've lost a treasure."
If you would expect anyone to enjoy a bit of schadenfraude at Joseph-Beth's misfortune, or at least an "I told you so," it might be Bishop, who all but personifies the vanishing tradition of the independent bookseller. But when the question is put to him — does he blame Van Uum and Joseph-Beth for the imminent closing? — he shrugs. He's not a person to lay blame on a single factor, and in spite of his soft demeanor, he is a hardened veteran of the retail wars.
"The former Davis-Kidd was a destination place, but it's a little different now," Bishop says. "Book people aren't mall people, and when we moved, there were customers you just didn't see anymore."
To be sure, some customers just grew sick of the crisis-level traffic snarl that now engulfs Green Hills. On Saturday, I allowed myself the "shortcut" to the Mall I take on weekends, a route from my home in Belmont-Hillsboro that adds an extra two miles to the roundtrip, unconscionably enlarging my carbon footprint but getting me there a hell of a lot faster than if I'd made the beeline on 21st Avenue. Taking Belmont Boulevard, I hung a right on Glen Echo Road and, confronting a 20-car line waiting to make that grid-locking left onto Hillsboro, I indulged in my weekly traffic violation: I cut right into the unobstructed turning lane, flooring it toward the intersection as if headed for the CVS parking lot; and then, waving and apologizing to the white-knuckled shoppers blocking the box on my left, cut into the mall entrance by Ruby Tuesday's. As Kill Bill's Bride would say, it's mercy, compassion and forgiveness I lack, not rationality.
Others, just as surely, succumbed to the siren song of e-commerce — the ease of that one-touch order, the zipless wonder of the button pushed and the tidy little cardboard box arriving 48 hours later. With that ease, however, comes a trade whose cost isn't immediately apparent, says Jonathan Galassi, president of literary giant Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.
"We're paying for the efficiency, convenience and lower cost of instant ordering and online delivery with a dehumanized and commoditized bookselling environment," Galassi says. "It started with the chains and then the price clubs; now they in turn are threatened by something far more efficient and monolithic. But the new system doesn't serve all aspects of book culture equally well."
Literary editor and Knopf vice president Gary Fisketjon, a part-time Nashvillian, puts that loss in terms that are even more stark.
"The best independents provide, first of all, a sense of community that virtually no other retailers can offer," Fisketjon says. "A shop selling T-shirts can't possibly inspire a conversation, whereas a store that offers a variety of opinions and caters to a wide range of tastes does this as a matter of course. My business is to find the best and brightest writers of my time and bring them to the broadest possible readership. In this, independent booksellers are truly my partners, and a genuine love of books, it bears saying, is something beyond monetary value.
"Think about this when you buy a discounted book at something other than a bookstore, or download one for a phenomenally low (and money-losing) price, because if that's where you cast your lot, you help close the doors on these stores, and they by and large stay closed for good, and you're the loser."
You won't hear me criticize the children's section at the current store. I've got a 4- and a 3-year-old, and it's been a regular destination spot on winter afternoons when it's too cold to play outside — not to mention morning story hour. Today it's as busy as the rest of the place. A boy's reading Kristen Landon's The Limit. "It's about these kids who are being forced into workhouses if their families go into debt," he says. Parents ring the play area while kids liberally spread their germs at the train set, the only immediate threat to their safety.
My wife and I will regularly meet up here in the evenings, eating at Bronte's, whose food I've always found average at best and whose ambiance I regularly describe as airport-restaurant-missing-lightbulb. Now, however, I regard it with a pang of imminent loss. The kids dig the children's-book menus, the prices aren't insulting, and its convenience is impossible to beat. Best of all, everywhere one looks in the surrounding store, there are people drawn by the common love of stories, ideas, words, the hidden sinew that binds a city's intellectual life.
Think about that, Nashville. Because come December, we're a major city incapable of supporting even a chain bookstore with a 30-year place in our cultural fabric. And if we don't demand the bookstore we deserve, we're no more the Athens of the South, really, than our Parthenon is — well, the Parthenon.
"It's a self-inflicted wound," John Seigenthaler says, "and when you lose the linkage that Davis-Kidd had with the customer, there's a disconnect that follows. The less a community reads, the poorer it is. It's amazing how books can be a magnet bringing people together, but without it, we fly apart."
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Thanks for those comments, former mayor Boner. ;)