The BiblioFiles: Gordon Simmons, Former Bookseller
In this excerpted essay from Bookstore Explorer: West Virginia, former bookseller Gordon Simmons recounts his years in the indie book trade at such Charleston, West Virginia landmarks as the former Major’s Bookstore and Trans Allegheny Books.
Bookshop Memories, or Keeping the Aspidistra Flying
It was probably around 1979, while working split shifts as a directory assistant operator at the Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Company on Lee Street in Charleston, West Virginia, that I first became a nearly daily regular in the venerable century-old family business of Major’s Bookstore, then located on Hale Street. The prospect of whiling away my break between shifts at the bookstore, where I could order a book, unhurriedly browse the shelves, and even make the occasional chance purchase— usually just after payday—and still have time to go a few doors down the street to get lunch and a beer, became a pleasurable respite between the mind-numbing tours of duty at the local office of the corporate remnant of Ma Bell.
Major’s was, despite its firmly established place within the local community of West Virginia’s capital city, a hole-in-the-wall of a retail space. Although the bookstore was owned and operated by the affable Floyd Major, assisted by his wife and daughter, the frontline staff of Major’s principally consisted of a remarkable woman named Tillie Whiteman, who seemed to know everyone of any importance in Charleston. Once her confidence was gained, she proved to be the unending source of all intimate rumor, gossip, and knowledge of the old and respectable families of Charleston. A veritable social history of the town’s upper crust spanning the 20thcentury could be distilled from conversations with Tillie. One of her oft-repeated anecdotes concerned a prominent and elderly gentleman who remarked, as she recounted with evident pleasure and amusement, “I’ve seen a lot of progress in this town during my lifetime. And I’ve been against all of it.”
It was during one of those idyllic breaks, frequent visits at Major’s having by then made me something of a regular, and after a day of having had my fill of the mindless frustrations of working at the phone company, I casually asked if the store was ever looking for hired help. Tillie clapped her hands and immediately went to the back room and, within my hearing, cheerfully announced to Floyd Major that he had a prospective employee. I was hired on the spot.
Major’s source of books was principally directly from publishers, the prevailing custom in those days, some of whom regularly sent in sales representatives who would go through the new season’s catalog and proffer advance reading copies of presumed gems from the frontlist. The real skill in the sort of bookselling practiced for a couple of generations at a store like Major’s was to have a decent knowledge of what the customer would buy and enjoy. Knowing the reading tastes of the store’s regulars was essential in what new books were ordered. Recommending an author or title to a longtime customer and the subsequent appreciation earned, if one did it well, were key to that small independent store’s longevity.
Although books are mass produced like commodities such as automobiles and clothing, they are also items treasured by both booksellers and readers, and a sort of intimacy inevitably developed between the store’s staff and its patrons, and regular or even occasional customers could become friends over time. Newspaper writers, although the beneficiaries in those days of hundreds of free copies sent by publishers in hopes of a favorable review, were particularly frequent book buyers. Aspiring local book authors and area academics, along with those more well-to-do patrons who were also avid readers, became visitors with whom the staff could engage in extended conversation. Running charge accounts were routinely established for regulars. It was a thoroughly pleasant form of commerce in a time of what social critics justly deride as an era of commodity fetishism.
Tillie’s anecdote about “progress” was prophetic in an unfortunate way. Although it was not immediately apparent, I had landed in a career in independent bookselling precisely at the moment when a segment of the retail market that had long been a gentlemanly but modest endeavor was about to become significantly more precarious.
The Rise of Chain Stores
As shopping malls grew, commercial havoc ensued in the family-owned downtown businesses, and bookstores were not spared. Chain stores, such as the perversely named Waldenbooks, along with Barnes and Noble, opened in the city’s new shopping mall, and the independent, mom-and-pop bookstores saw the traffic of customers lured away. The demise of traditional independent bookselling in the Charleston area, although having persisted the better part of the 20th century, seemed an inevitable and irreversible example of that lamented “progress” by the middle of the 1980s.
Not willing to walk away from bookselling altogether, I found brief and unsatisfying stints of employment in the book chains that now dominated not just locally, but nationally as well. Working temporarily at the Waldenbooks in the Kanawha Mall and at the downtown branch of Cokesbury provided little solace or fulfillment after the collapse of Major’s. After a year of wandering in the wilderness, a vision of the promised land came in the form of a former customer of Major’s, keen on opening a used bookstore, who contacted me, proposing a trip to Parkersburg to visit the owner of Trans Allegheny Books.
The downtown used book emporium of that name was housed in a former Carnegie Library. On the initial trek to Parkersburg, the owner expressed his desire to expand his used book operation to Charleston, the old library building in Parkersburg now bulging with enough used books, some of them admittedly dreck, to fill a decent-sized warehouse. I was hired in early 1988 to begin the project of establishing a used bookstore in Charleston’s downtown business district.
After years at Major’s, having learned some of the basics of antiquarian bookselling as a result of the out-of-print book search procedure, this seemed the logical step to take to fight back against the takeover of the industry by the chains. As longtime practitioners of the trade will attest, the knowledge and effort needed to succeed in used books is not readily attainable in the corporate circles of chain bookselling. In the conventional corporate mindset, books are widgets, nothing more than units of commerce. The distinction between a book club edition of a bestselling romance novel and a mint copy of a first printing in unblemished dust jacket of a literary gem signed by the author does not register as it does for a book lover and collector of rare editions.
Trans Allegheny Books opened in Charleston that year, housed on the first floor of a furniture warehouse downtown, and before the year was over it had become evident that more space would be needed. Within months we acquired a four-story building a few doors down, where the store operated for years before eventually closing.
The Return of Independents
The chain bookstores eventually fell prey to the same market forces upon which they had built their destruction of the old-time independent bookstores. Chain mall-anchored stores fell in market share to the corporate superstores like Borders, which, in turn, were done in by online shopping at Amazon. Since then, fortunately, independents like Charleston’s Taylor Books have made a slow but steady comeback.
The recovery of independent bookselling in West Virginia, and nationally, has not been a straight, uninterrupted line. It may just be, however, that books are not the sort of objects permanently amenable to corporate forms of publishing, distribution, or retailing. Perhaps there may be something inherently subversive about their very existence. Although I still retain my personal obsession with the written word, not to mention enduring friendships with writers and those still engaged in bookselling and publishing that I have come to know, financial exigencies have pushed me into other lines of work. Still, I find myself sometimes looking at an empty building storefront and thinking, “Now that would be a great place for a bookstore.”
Hey, could I interest you in a rare copy of Ray Bradbury?
To read Gordon’s full essay, including the lengthy process of special ordering books before the internet age and the events that led to the closure of Trans Allegheny Books, get yourself a copy of Bookstore Explorer: West Virginia.