Herrington: Local book, record shops ‘essential’ to the city we want to keep

By , Daily Memphian Updated: April 20, 2020 6:18 AM CT | Published: April 20, 2020 4:00 AM CT
Chris Herrington
Daily Memphian

Chris Herrington

Chris Herrington covers the Memphis Grizzlies and writes about Memphis culture, food, and civic life. He lives in the Vollintine-Evergreen neighborhood of Midtown with his wife, two kids, and two dogs.

A signed, used hardcover of mystery writer Ross Thomas’ 1989 novel “The Fourth Durango.” A good-as-new used vinyl copy of the Chuck Berry compilation “The Great 28.” A remastered, good-as-new, used CD of The Clash’s 1979 album “Give ’Em Enough Rope.” A new paperback of the Larry McMurtry novel “All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers.”

Select-O-Hits: In tune with Memphis music for 60 years

Respectively, those were my most recent purchases at Burke’s Book Store and Goner Records in Cooper-Young, at Shangri-La Records on Madison near Overton Square and at Novel book store in East Memphis, all in the weeks just before our world mostly shut down. 

There are things I’m missing over the past few weeks: Having my kids in school. Being able to escape to a coffee shop to write. FedExForum “Whoomping” through an unexpected Grizzlies playoff race. Enjoying a bacon-and-egg grilled cheese and hibiscus tea from the Fuel food truck on a bustling Memphis Farmers Market morning. The mere prospect of lying on the lawn for a Levitt Shell concert. Going to the movies. 

But high on the list is this: Glancing over the stacks or flipping through the racks at book and record stores. 

The community economic cost of the pandemic will be deep and diverse. We suspect we’ll lose some restaurants, sadly. But we won’t lose restaurants

In a society that was shifting toward online consumption and digitized media even before we were told to stay at home, record and book stores have been endangered. National record-store chains have all but disappeared and big-box bookstores are less prominent in the age of Amazon. But mom-and-pop shops have proven thankfully resilient. Most readers want a book in their hands. The resurgence of vinyl (aka “records”) alongside the rise of streaming has brought more people into indie record stores.

But in all but the biggest cities, you can count the number of meaningful book and record stores on your fingers. If you need both hands, consider yourself fortunate.

These are considered “non-essential” businesses in the context of a pandemic stay-at-home order, and that’s appropriate. But these labors of love are essential to any city’s soul, to its texture. They’re essential to any city I want to live in when we return to whatever our new normal will be. 

Old Stores, New Strategies

A recent note on the website at Burke’s says this:

Burke’s has been around since 1875, which means the store has survived the Memphis yellow fever epidemic of the late 19th century, the Great Depression of the 1930s, the Great Recession of the last decade, the internet and the Amazon-ing of the retail world. With your help, we can survive this crisis. We thank you and send our hope that you all stay safe.

Next month will mark 20 years for Burke’s under the ownership of Corey and Cheryl Mesler, who relocated the store from Poplar Avenue to Cooper-Young in 2007.

But if Burke’s is by far the oldest of this quartet, no one here is a newbie. 

With a couple of brief sabbaticals, there’s been a bookstore at East Memphis’ Laurelwood Shopping Center since the mid-'80s. For a quarter century, Novel was Davis-Kidd Booksellers, originally a Memphis location of a small Tennessee chain. After a period as Laurelwood Booksellers, a group of local investors made it Novel – and fully local and independent – in 2017. 

Shangri-La Records developed as a side hustle for original owner Sherman Willmott, whose short-lived Midtown relaxation-tank business in the late 1980s evolved quickly into a signature Memphis record shop, including a record-label offshoot that released early albums from the city’s biggest indie-rock export: the Grifters. It’s now co-owned by Jared McStay and John Miller.

Former Shangri-La clerk Eric Friedl partnered with Zac Ives to turn their pre-existing Goner Records label into a brick-and-mortar store in 2004, replacing Legba Records, which had been owned by Greg Cartwright, Friedl’s bandmate from the essential Memphis punk/garage band the Oblivians. 

How are these four stalwart Memphis hangouts functioning now that customers can’t come through the door? Like so many of the rest of us, they’re mostly living online.

“It’s been a real pivot to doing that instead of having people come in to browse, which we’re really missing,” said Cheryl Mesler at Burke’s. “We’re a browsing bookstore, so it’s been really different trying to adapt from that. It’s not the same. We really miss the people.”

All four stores, to varying degrees and varying degrees of success, are doing primarily online shopping delivered primarily in the mail. 

“We had already been working on getting a new web shop up, so we just launched it early and decided to work out the kinks on the fly,” said Goner’s Ives, who estimates that 20% of the Goner store’s business was online before our new coronavirus reality hit. 

“Trying to take 20% to 100% is tough. I think we’ve done as good of a job as we can. I just don’t know if it’s sustainable,” Ives said. 

While Goner has most of its inventory up on its own site, Shangri-La has been pushing more toward the independent marketplace Discogs (which Goner also uses). 

“We had focused on local artists and Memphis music on our own site,” said Shangri-La’s Miller. “Once this thing hit, we had to double our efforts in loading (stock) onto the site and Discogs as a wider marketplace for buyers. It’s definitely changed the day-to-day of how we try to get records to people.” 

The online arena sometimes puts both stores into competition with national outlets such as Amazon, which began offering records again this week after having previously set them aside as “non-essential.” 

“I think people are seeing, even in the online space, the value of having a store that’s really paying attention to the condition that records are in, are listing that and can tell people more about what they’re purchasing,” Miller said.

Burke’s and Novel both have fully searchable databases for online ordering on their websites.

“We immediately pushed the staff over to putting our inventory on the site,” Mesler said. “We’ve always had our used books on the site but not the new. That was going to be a project for this year, and we just bumped it up.”

Both book stores offer curbside pickup, but are also doing more local delivery than the record stores. Goner will do daily curbside pickup. Shangri-La has done some delivery and curbside pickup on specific requests. All encourage customers to call with any questions or requests. 

Mesler says she loads up orders at 3 p.m. most days for deliveries in the general Midtown area. 

“Usually I send (customers) a text ahead of time to ask for specific instructions,” she said. “Tuck it behind the chair on the porch or leave it in the mailbox. I try to take notes on each one.” 

Novel, for its part, has found a growth industry in the stay-at-home economy: Jigsaw puzzles. 

For some regular customers, she’ll sometimes leave books on her own Cooper-Young front porch to be picked up after store hours. She prefers mail or delivery to store pickups for safety reasons. 

Novel already offered delivery through local courier Blue Sky, but has started doing some deliveries, said marketing manager Nicole Yasinsky. Once a day, they deliver orders of $40 or more to East Memphis, Midtown and Downtown. 

At Goner, “We’ve been more successful with online sales than we thought we would be. But it’s just sort of a hustle,” Ives said. “You’re selling through a bunch of different outlets. We’re trying to move records on Discogs, direct sales on Facebook and then selling stuff through the website that we would be selling in the store.”

Burke’s sells used books outside of Memphis through a variety of used-book specialty sites. Novel has taken some customer-engagement practices – author events, a monthly book club – virtual. And all four stores are using Instagram to show off elements of their in-store stock. 

Novel, for its part, has found a growth industry in the stay-at-home economy: Jigsaw puzzles. 

“Everyone is turning into a puzzlebug these days,” Yasinsky said. “We have always had robust puzzle sales, but this is unlike anything I’ve seen in my 22 years here. We are posting pictures on social media as we get shipments, and sometimes within hours we will sell out of certain designs. It has been quite a challenge for booksellers to sell puzzles over the phone, but we are doing lots of chatting about piece counts and styles of puzzles, texting and emailing photos to customers.”

Stayin’ Alive

How are these new strategies working? Everyone, as you’d expect, reports a significant reduction in business.

“While our phones stay busy, the reality is that even with all of the orders we have, we still aren’t doing the same amount of business we would normally be doing,” Yasinsky said. “Spring is a huge time for big blockbuster book releases, so it has been a challenge to figure out ways to continue to promote and sell these books.”

“I just started yesterday entering March figures and got interrupted, so I’m not there yet to see literally what effect it’s had,” Mesler said. “Obviously, our sales are down. We went into a cash-flow triage, seeing what we can cut, what we can do without.”

Ives estimates Goner has been doing roughly half of its normal business. For Shangri-La, per Miller, it’s been more like a quarter. 

These reductions in sales have not been matched by a reduction in staffing. Across the stores, there’s been some hours cut, some part-timers who haven’t stayed on and, in one case, a voluntary unpaid absence to be with family out of state. But everyone is trying to keep as much of the staff as possible, while also keeping their now customer-free work environments as safe as possible. 

In Nashville, Taylor Swift stepped in to help pay staff and health care at indie record store Grimey’s. Memphis stores have received no such high-profile help (Timberlake, if you’re listening …) but are making the best of it. 

On Thursday, I talked to Mesler about an hour before news broke that the Small Business Association’s $349 billion Payroll Protection Program had run out of funds. I talked to Ives about an hour after. Both Burke’s and Goner had submitted applications to the program – which offers forgivable loans to small businesses who keep workers on payroll – but were still waiting for results. 

“That was not a fun news report,” Ives said. 

“The process is not great. It’s not been great on any level. The accountants that I’ve talked to, the bankers that I’ve talked to, everybody has been pulling their hair out,” said Ives, who described Goner in a holding pattern, hoping there’s still money set aside for applications in the pipeline or that Congress allocates more.

Mesler said Burke’s has applied for several relief programs, including with the SBA. 

“The (American) Booksellers Association has been really helpful in advising on all of these relief programs,” Mesler said. “They’ve got a big fund going that every bookstore can apply for.”

Yasinsky says Novel also applied to the SBA program and is “currently exploring assistance program to see if any of those will be helpful to us.” Miller says Shangri-La wasn’t able to submit an SBA application through its bank and has been looking into local options for assistance. 

If small-business assistance programs don’t come through, can these staples at the intersection of Memphis culture and commerce survive? 

All strike a similar tone: Hopeful but uncertain. 

“It’s hard to look at,” Mesler said. “It scares me thinking it’s going to go into June. But at the same time, we’ve got to be super careful. I don’t want things to open up before they need to. I certainly don’t want to see some kind of surge happen again.” 

“I think we’re in pretty good shape, comparatively,” Ives said. “I’ve had friends in the service industry who have had to lay off their whole staff or have been laid off themselves. There are tons of people around us who don’t have the ability to sell at all. We’ve already had a pretty conservative set-up. I think we have the ability to continue to do this for a while.

“If we’re able to get into this SBA program, I think we’ll definitely be able to weather the storm. Without that? I’m not sure. It’s more of a gray area. You just don’t know what anything is going to look like on the back end. It just means we’re all going to have to be creative and flexible and figure out new solutions to new problems.”

They Can Make it If We Try

These are not just places to go to find a thing you know you want. You can – and should – still do that remotely. They are also places to be. To share space with people who share your affinities. They are at their best when you go in just to browse and a book or record finds you. 

Someday they’ll be places to browse – to hang out – again. Let’s make sure of it. All sell gift certificates, if you want to support now and shop later. (And while it’s not quite my thing, this all applies to our comic-book shops, too. Or any less deep-rooted book or record/music store trying to hang on.)

A signed hardcover of Arthur Flowers’ Memphis-set “Another Good Loving Blues.” A reissued vinyl copy of the band X’s 1981 album “Wild Gift.” A CD of “Stone Crush,” the new compilation of Memphis R&B of the late ‘70s and ‘80s. For my wife, a paperback of Samantha Irby’s essay collection “Wow, No Thank You.” 

These are now my most recent purchases, respectively, from Burke’s, Goner, Shangri-La and Novel. All bought online while writing this column. Someday I’ll poke around in these stores again. I can’t imagine Memphis without them. 

“The thing about being stuck in the house is we have this extra time,” Ives said. “For me, I’m reading more books, I’m listening to more records. I feel like there are a lot of other people who are seeing the value of the experiences you get from that. And I think that’s part of why we’ve been able to sustain to this point. I think there’s a renewed understanding of the importance of arts. That it means something to us, especially when you take it away. Maybe that will help us as we go forward. Realizing how important it is to making life worthwhile. That’s why we do this.” 

Burke’s Book Store: 936 S. Cooper St. 901-278-7484. Web: burkesbooks.com. Instagram: burkesbookstore.

Goner Records: 2152 Young Ave. 901-722-0095. Web: goner-records.com. Instagram: instagram.com/gonerrecords.

Novel: 387 Perkins Ext. 901-922-5526. Web: novelmemphis.com. Instagram: instagram.com/novelmemphis.

Shangri-La Records: 1916 Madison Ave. 901-274-1916. Web: shangri.com. Instagram: instagram.com/shangrilarecords.

Editor’s Note: The Daily Memphian is making our coronavirus coverage accessible to all readers — no subscription needed. Our journalists continue to work around the clock to provide you with the extensive coverage you need; if you can subscribe, please do


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