When I first walked into the Book Rack in midtown Hattiesburg yesterday, the smell of 44-years worth of used books, thousands of them, hooked my nose and dragged me back to when my mom would take me along with her to trade-in a giant stack of romance novels for a slightly smaller stack of unread ones.
Cathy Cook was there when I was a boy, offering small talk to my mom and tallying up the exchange rate. She was there on Monday too, sitting in her chair above the rust-colored carpets, telling me about a lifetime of buying and selling used books surrounded by the light salmon wooden shelves her father built and painted when she was 19-years-old.
When Cook graduated high school, she decided she would follow in her father’s footsteps and open a Book Rack like he had done in Memphis when she was a little girl. She trained at the corporate headquarters, and then in 1971 staked a claim in Hattiesburg next door to the Hobby Center, the city’s only comic-book, plastic model, D&D, and general geekery shop for decades.
“This used to be the happening part of town,” she told me from her nest of books and paperwork at the front of the store, seemingly unchanged except for the order and publishing dates since I last visited a few years back, and a few years before that, and the 20 before those.
After a few successful years she bought a small house a street-and-a-half away, filled it with book shelves and books, and has been keeping regular hours there ever since.
Today, that part of town is a mix of new businesses and old situated between the hipster rebirth of downtown to the east and franchise-stuffed cookie-cutter west. The Hobby Shop closed down a few years ago. The old movie theater is now a Lazer Mania. The Book Rack sits behind a bank, near an auto repair shop and an electrical supply warehouse, indistinguishable from the other houses in the neighborhood except for the giant black on white wooden sign fastened to the roof with BOOK RACK rising above a tree that threatens to obscure the OOs.
Two potted plants live near a yellow rocking chair on the tiny front porch sitting on some weathered green astroturf. A bell clangs when you pull open the single front door, and then that wonderful backdraft of a million inked letters on thousands of aging paper pages rushes past you.
When I was a boy, I would dart straight to the back to dig through the science fiction novels. I loved the 1970s artwork, the promise of a space age in the wake of actually landing real spaceships on the moon. I remember marveling at the farms floating above planets, teams of explorers walking down planks to press human bootprints on distant sands. My mom would wander the romance novel wing, a section of the store that still takes up a quarter of the old house.
“Do you have a card?” I asked. Cook fumbled around her book cocoon until she fished out a home-printed blue bookmark stamped with the address and phone number. With some surprise she told me, “This is all we have. We’re so cheap. Sorry. Money is tight. You know, when I first got into this business they all said it was depression-proof.”
Cook explained that the promise had proved correct. She could see retirement on the horizon as she neared 50 years in Hattiesburg peddling mysteries and Westerns, thrillers and several generations of diet fad instruction manuals. “Then about four or five years ago the Kindle came out, and the iPad,” she said, explaining that E-books had always seemed like a niche novelty until then. “Some of my best customers stopped coming in.”
There’s enough business to stay afloat for a while, said Cook, maybe, but not enough to keep two locations open, which she attempted for a few years until a few of those old sci-fi predictions finally came true and made paper books, the kind that produced the beautiful clutter of her life’s work, a newly discovered nuisance.
At its peak, the Book Rack boasted 200 locations across the country, mostly in the middle. Today there are fewer than 50, said Cook. Of the original 12, the Hattiesburg location is one of three still in business.
“People come in all the time and tell me they remember coming here as kids,” she said, adding that they often mention they came curious to see if she and the books and the shelves and the carpet and all the rest was still there. I didn’t admit that had been my curiosity as well.
I handed over a political science book, maybe two years old, a book on nature vs. nurture from the 1990s, and one 1970s science fiction novel. Eight dollars.
“You know, I think I’ll come by next week and drop off some books,” I told her as she bagged up my haul.
“I’ll be here.”