"This is not a grey area. For every book you buy at Costco you will endure untold tortures of the damned. Sorry. It was, as they will tell you in hell, your own decision."
"Michael Jackson... It was surreal, as if a hookah-smoking caterpillar had suddenly materialized in our bookstore. He bought a lot of books."
"I don’t read critically, except when doing book reviews, so a large question I ask myself at the end of a book is: did I enjoy it?"
Interview: Corey Mesler
Corey Mesler started working in a bookstore at 18. Thirty-two years later he’s still in the business and enthusiastic about literature. In 2000, he and his wife Cheryl bought the literary landmark Burke’s Book Store of Memphis, TN, where they had met and worked together for more than 10 years. Burke’s opened its doors in 1875, and has survived The Great Depression, two moves, and the advent of mega stores. It stocks new, used, and rare books, and has played host to a passel of literary heavy-hitters, among them Richard Ford, Ann Beattie, John Grisham, and Peter Carey. Corey calls the store, “one of the last, best places to browse in the known universe.”
As well as selling books, Corey writes them. He has four volumes of poetry available and his second novel, We are Billion Year Old Carbon, came out in February from Livingston Press. His short stories have been published in numerous journals and anthologies, and have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. The 2002 edition of New Stories from the South: The Year’s Best, edited by Shannon Ravenel, features his work.
Did we mention he's also a very funny guy?
VerbSap : Corey, you’ve published a ranked list of the 100 books you hold dearest. You have The Illustrated Woody Allen Reader ahead of George Orwell’s 1984, and John Lennon’s In His Own Write ahead of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. Not to mention that you say William Steig's Dominic is a better book than J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. Are you trying to pick a fight? What qualities do you think make a book great?
Mesler : Ha! No, I can’t pick fights. When I was young I was wispy and had girl arms so I cowered when things turned physical. My reading list, every reader’s reading list, is an idiosyncratic collection of things that moved me in some way, hit some personal resonant chord, as a reader, as a person. I don’t read critically, except when doing book reviews, so a large question I ask myself at the end of a book is: did I enjoy it? So, pure joy is high on my list of what’s good about a book. Read John Crowley’s Little, Big (the #2 book on my list, which you ferreted out). It is pure-dee, distilled joy. Do I think John Lennon’s book is better than The Sun Also Rises? I think it is more important to me, just minutely, than The Sun Also Rises. And, as a writer, it influenced me more. So, there’s that. Do I think Steig’s Dominic is a better book than Catcher in the Rye? Yes, I do, I really do.
VerbSap: In her memoir Leave Me Alone, I’m Reading, NPR Book Critic Maureen Corrigan concludes that we feel compelled to read because we’re on “a search for authenticity,” or writing that “will deepen our understanding of our own lives.” What draws you to books? Why do you think they remain important to people in spite of all the competing forms of entertainment? Have you sensed interest in books waning during your years in the industry?
Mesler : Making sense of the world, yes, of course. It is Art’s #1 job, I think. Let’s face it. Most of us are floundering around in a sea of over-stimulation and indecision and near paralysis. Art can, and does, clear the cobwebs a bit. When I read a book as smart, as funny, as wise about the world, yet with an eccentric vision unlike anyone else’s (and here I am thinking of something like David Markson’s remarkable novels, especially Wittgenstein’s Mistress) it helps to center me. It makes me glad to live in a world where a book like that exists, where men who create art like that exist. Wait, what was the question? Oh, yeah, interest in books waning? Yes, definitely. We are in the endtimes as evidenced by our lack of interest in reading. Start storing water. Teach your children how to duck and cover. It’s almost all over.
VerbSap : How do you feel about e-books? Will there ever be a Burke’s Podcast?
Mesler : Ebooks, no. Those are toys for people who aren’t serious about reading. I don’t know what a podcast is.
VerbSap: You’ve said that supporting independent bookstores keeps money in local communities rather than allowing it to “line the pockets of the wolves.” I’m all for supporting my community, but I’m also for lower-cost books. Is there a special circle of hell for people like me who buy their blockbusters at Costco but go to their local independent bookstore to find literary diversity?
Mesler : Yes. This is not a grey area. For every book you buy at Costco you will endure untold tortures of the damned. Sorry. It was, as they will tell you in hell, your own decision.
VerbSap: Starbucks is planning to sell books. As a bookseller, does the prospect worry you?
Mesler : Holy cats, everyone is selling books. And yet no one is reading. I’m mystified and annoyed and afraid. I do like their coffee though but, really, there is better coffee and better karma at my neighborhood independent coffeehouse, Otherlands.
VerbSap : You’ve played host to many great writers at Burke’s and you’ve held your own book signing. What do you think makes an author reading work? In her VerbSap essay Confessions of a Bookstore Publicist, Lisa K. Buchanan called her role, “part ceremonial tea hostess, part literary call girl.” Have you found authors a difficult bunch to handle?
Mesler : Authors are rarely difficult. They are gentle, harmless creatures not unlike the sloth or the capybara. I love having them in my store though they bring in next to no business. Book events—damned if I know what makes them work. We’ve had Pulitzer Prize winners at Burke’s and had 5 or 6 people come. This is Memphis, of course. Seriously, about writers: I can count on one hand the ones I haven’t warmed to. Out of the hundreds who have visited there were only a few too self-important to actually connect to us or their audience, and one of them was a Rolling Stone.
VerbSap : Many authors find promoting their books a challenge. What can a writer do to get a bookseller interested in helping market his or her book? What should an author avoid doing?
Mesler : As an author myself I am stymied about how to promote my book and get booksellers interested, perhaps because I have seen it from the other side. I get hundreds of authors, from self-published to small press to larger-house writers, monthly just looking for an in. That’s not to mention the publicists. I’d say the best way is to talk to the bookseller person to person. Be real. Don’t try to be a salesman or saleswoman. If you connect with the bookseller you’re home. If you don’t, move on, call somebody else.
VerbSap : You’ve had celebrities like Michael Jackson, Courtney Love, Gene Hackman, and Mary-Louise Parker visit your store. Can you tell us what books any of them purchased, or is there a bookseller/purchaser privilege equivalent to doctor/patient privilege? What have you read lately that you would recommend?
Mesler : Is there a code of silence? I don’t think so. Though when Home Security comes calling, let it be known that I burned all my records.
I will tell you that Gene Hackman is as nice, as genuine, as you would imagine he is. And I only mentioned one of his movies to him, The Conversation. Perhaps he was grateful for that. He was researching his novel about the Mississippi River, which, I believe is set to be released this fall. Michael Jackson—insert joke here. It was surreal, as if a hookah-smoking caterpillar had suddenly materialized in our bookstore. He bought a lot of books. Courtney Love—I can’t remember, good things, though. Real live literature. Mary-Louise Parker only stopped in to wash the blood from the skinned knee she got from a fall while jogging. But, here’s a funny scrap of conversation with her: I looked at her, eyes goggling, and said, “Hey, you’re a movie star!” She took the measure of me and said, coolly, “I am an actress.”
What have I read lately, apart from that supernal book by Mr. Markson? Of new books I loved John Banville’s The Sea, Paul Auster’s The Brooklyn Follies, Richard McCann’s Mother ofSorrows, Shirley Hazzard’s The Great Fire, Philip Roth’s forthcoming Everyman. Some wonderful older things I’ve read lately: John Cowper Powys’ Weymouth Sands, Anthony Burgess’ The Wanting Seed, Anthony Powell’s A Question of Upbringing, Charles McCarry’s delicious spy novels, Elizabeth Taylor’s (no not that ET) Sleeping Beauty, Ross McDonald’s TheZebra-Striped Hearse, Carlos Baker’s biography of Hemingway.
Corey Mesler's story The Only One-Armed Man I Ever Knew is available at VerbSap.
Photo of Corey Mesler courtesy of Tom Thompson.