Blytheville Book Company looks to keep up bookstore tradition
Erin Langston Carrington loved to read when she was in her youth. She would often go to That Bookstore in Blytheville, perhaps the most well-known bookstore in Arkansas. It was there that John Grisham got his start with the novel “A Time to Kill.” Bill and Hillary Clinton, Condolezza Rice, Jack Butler and others held books signings at the store.
Carrington spent many hours in the bookstore, and she knew the owner Mary Gay Shipley. She would buy stacks of books, but her mother didn’t care.
Shipley sold the store in 2012, and it passed into the hands of another owner after that. The store had to close, and the name couldn’t be used because of debts owed. Carrington didn’t want her hometown to go without a store, and so with Shipley’s blessing, Carrington opened the Blytheville Book Company in November. She told Talk Business & Politics her plan is to continue the rich traditions established by Shipley, who is well-known in the publishing world.
“I’ve always loved reading, and I was saddened when it closed,” Carrington said. “We have kind of dreamed this up. We want this to be a reimagining of what Mary Gay started.”
Entering the bookstore retail sector could be a gamble for Carrington and her husband, Andrew. In 2017, sales in bookstores totaled $10.73 billion, a 3.6% drop from the previous year, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Before that, sales rose during 2015 and 2016, the first increases in eight years, according to Publisher’s Weekly. Bookstore sales might be on the decline, but the overall book publishing industry is projected to top $123 billion by 2020, up from the $113 billion it reported in sales in 2015.
Blytheville’s connection to a bookstore goes back decades. Shipley was a school teacher in the early 1970s when she decided to open a bookstore in downtown Blytheville, according to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. She partnered with a paperback exchange, The Book Rack. For many years, locals called the store “That Bookstore” and in 1994 Shipley, who earned a strong reputation in the publishing industry, changed the store’s name.
She was renowned for sponsoring and supporting Arkansas’ authors and books that focused on southern culture. Her biggest find may have been John Grisham. The future best-selling author was peddling his first book to bookstores throughout the mid-South when he met with Shipley. Born in Jonesboro, he spent many summers in Northeast Arkansas. Even as he was selling “A Time to Kill” he was already writing “The Firm.”
Shipley read an advanced copy of “The Firm” and she told him his fortunes would change. Her support of Grisham led him to name That Bookstore as his favorite bookstore.
The Carringtons have experience in business, but have no experience in retail, specifically. Erin Carrington operates the office for her family’s company, Langston Enterprises. That business involves her family’s farm and a cotton gin and has been in business for more than 100 years, she said.
When the iconic bookstore closed, the Carringtons decided to take a chance. They found a comparable retail space downtown and were able to acquire a number of items from That Bookstore, including its shelves. It took months of renovation to redo the 2,100-square-foot space, Andrew Carrington said. A cafe space to serve coffee and other drinks was created as was space for a vintage vinyl section. The couple decided on a name, but wanted to get approval from the person they respected the most in the bookstore industry: Shipley.
“We told her we wanted to call it the Blytheville Book Company,” Erin Carrington said. “Mary said, ‘Good. We’ve always needed a BBC.’”
The Carringtons have a plan to make their store profitable beyond the drinks, vinyls and the 3,500 or so titles that line the bookshelves. There are niche products that are connected to reading that they plan to offer at the store. One product already on the shelves is sunglasses, and others such as bubble bath and soaps will also be offered, Andrew said.
That Bookstore was known nationally as a must-stop destination for authors, and Carrington wants the BBC to garner a similar reputation. In addition to book signings, they want to have children’s reading events.
Carrington still has a close relationship with Shipley and said she “leans” on her to teach her about the industry. At one time, That Bookstore in Blytheville was the No. 1 tourist attraction in Mississippi County, and Carrington said she hopes the Blytheville Book Company will continue that rich tradition.
“We have good bones,” she said with a smile. “That Bookstore was the heartbeat of our downtown. We have kind of dreamed this up. We want the Blytheville Book Company to be the heartbeat.”