The Picayune Item
But as I learned while selling and signing my own book, those great stores don’t become great without the people who own and operate them — the bookmen. People like Richard Howorth, John Evans, the Reed clan, and many others. There are also some wonderful book women in the business as well.
Yet if a Mississippian has a love of old and rare books — and a particular affinity for Mississippi literature, history and culture — they have had no better friends than the Smith family at Jackson’s venerable Choctaw Books at 926 North Street in Jackson. The store specializes in the history of Mississippi, the South, and the Civil War, along with Mississippi literature.
Sadly, Choctaw Books will close its doors on Sept. 1, 2013. The owner said Web-based rare book sites, general sales sites like EBay and Craigslist, the entry of Amazon into the used book business, and technological changes like print-on-demand books caused foot traffic to steadily decrease over the last six years.
What began in Ridgeland’s Old Town Square on Feb. 1, 1982, as the private library of former Mississippi U.S. Rep. Frank Ellis Smith grew over three decades to a book store filled with over 110,000 mostly hardback volumes with an additional selection of maps, historical papers, documents and “ephemera” (everyday documents intended for one-time or short-term use).
The Smiths would relocate the store to Manship Street in Jackson in 1984 and finally to the present location at 926 North Street in Jackson
Frank Smith was a fascinating man — a World War II U.S. Army field artillery officer, former newspaper editor, former state legislator, former aide to U.S. Sen. John C. Stennis, and former five-term Mississippi congressman — whose moderate views on race eventually cost him his seat in Congress. He would later be appointed by President John F. Kennedy as a director of the Tennessee Valley Authority.
With his son and partner, Fred, the Smiths built a used and rare book store that attracted a staggeringly wide range of people interested in literature, government and politics. Prowling the crowded, dusty rows of books, one might encounter a current congressman, a Jackson television anchor, doctors, lawyers, professors, journalists, ministers, political operatives, and historians.
Choctaw Books helped build a lot of quality home libraries and was a refuge for writers and researchers who could not locate rare or out-of-print books in libraries. If you needed a book, Fred could usually get it. It never felt like shopping — it felt like visiting a friend.
Fred Smith became the “go-to” guy in the state for appraisals of rare books, maps, documents, and “ephemera” — program, matchbooks, menus, political signage, buttons, you name it. Fred’s work was and is the basis of insurance policy values and income tax returns. Along the way, Fred met a lot of Mississippi literary royalty in the persons of writers like Eudora Welty and Willie Morris.
“I’m closing the store, but I’ll still be around the book world,” said Fred. “I’m proud to be a bookman. I’ll sell books on the Internet. I just won’t enjoy it as much. I’ll still do appraisals and I’ll still find rare Mississippi materials for special collections.”
After 31 years of being open six days a week, Smith admits to looking forward to time with his family. But in many ways, Fred Smith cherishes these final weeks in the life of Choctaw Books.
“I’m looking forward to seeing folks who I think have a connection to the place make their last visits,” said Smith. “It will be a little like going to your own funeral, I suppose.”
For the eclectic mix of Choctaw Books customers and friends, most will be happy for Fred but sad about the closing of a Mississippi institution — and they will visit one more time to close their eyes and feel the Mississippi history and talent that surrounds them in the comfortable oasis that Frank and Fred Smith created.
(Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at 601-507-8004 or email@example.com)