B ack in 2006, the owners of Burke’s Book Store were afraid they’d have to close up shop. But a move from Poplar and Evergreen to their current space in Cooper-Young has brought home the old real estate saying: location, location, location. “Moving here has been fantastic,” says Cheryl Mesler, who owns Burke’s along with her husband, Corey. “Sometimes I think all we have to do is open the doors.”
Of course it takes more than that, she’s quick to add. “We’ve been lucky, but the real secret is digging in your nails and staying with it. We’re dinosaurs and slow to change. But we adapted. Our inventory today is very different from when I started here.”
Indeed Burke’s has a history of adapting. The bookstore — which celebrates its 140th anniversary this year and is now in its fourth location — was founded in 1875 on Main Street by Walter Burke Sr. and for decades sold books, newspapers, slates, and tin toys. In 1946 the store began supplying textbooks to public and parochial high school students, until a city sales tax covered that cost. In the 1950s, grandson Bill Burke shifted the focus to used and antique books. The owners who followed him — Diana Crump in the 1970s and Harriette Beeson in the mid-1980s — continued that focus, as did the Meslers when they bought Burke’s in 2000.
“The business of used and rare books, especially the modern first editions that were so big for us 20 years ago: the Internet killed that,” says Mesler. “Suddenly anyone with a computer could list and sell their books, which completely saturated the market and really drove down prices.”
In response to that saturation, Burke’s began selling what Mesler calls “esoteric books — photography volumes or unusual academic titles that are not as readily available online.” The store also has a wide selection of used books and hard-to-find collectibles, as well as paperback classics in fiction, mystery, horror, and sci-fi, she says. “We also sell some new books, including fiction, and our children’s books do very well.”
In addition to these options, the Meslers built their own website that lists titles they sell online. “We send out an average of 20 packages a day going all over the country, even internationally.” The store also still sells textbooks to two local Episcopal schools, Grace-St. Luke’s and St. Mary’s.
Though the Meslers are pleased with business — in fact they’ve extended store hours on weekends — they still face nagging challenges. “The biggest is trying to convince people to shop here before they go to Amazon,” says Mesler. “It’s a knee-jerk reaction; they think they can get it cheaper and faster.” Cheaper may be true: “We’ll never be able to compete with Amazon with new books because they sell them at cost and will till eternity.” But when it comes to quick delivery, “we can place an order on Monday, and the customer has it on Tuesday because our supplier is in Nashville.” Just as important: “We try to educate people that keeping the money here in Memphis makes a difference.”
As for e-readers, Mesler no longer sees them as tough competition. “I think they flatlined,” she says. “And my daughter’s generation, who do everything online, are not reading a Kindle or other device as much as you think they are.” Maybe the toughest threat, she says, is that people don’t read as much as they used to: “They’re all pulled in a thousand directions.”
As for adding nonbook items to the inventory, Burke’s owners believe in doing one thing well: “I don’t want the store bigger than this. We have a good staff — four part-time people besides us — and they know everything we sell.”
Burke’s intimate size and cozy nooks invite browsers, as do the dozen old typewriters that sit on tables throughout the store. “All the hipsters love the old stuff,” says Mesler. “Kids will come in who don’t have any idea what a typewriter is and they’re fascinated.” A possible future touch that will add to Burke’s appeal is a tricycle they hope to buy as part of their 140th anniversary. Says Mesler: “With all the bike lanes in Midtown we can run errands, and deliver books to people in the area.”
Mesler acknowledges that running a bookstore is hardly easy. “You know early on it’s hand-to-mouth, a labor of love, and you’ll never get rich. But I think we’ve turned a corner,” she says. “One reason is the trend back to small bookstores. When I came to Memphis in 1990, Burke’s and [then-]Davis-Kidd were it, then the chains started moving in. But no chains are left in the Memphis city limits. It’s just us and the Booksellers at Laurelwood. We’ve come full circle.”
photograph by karen pulfer focht