When Grant Hill learned about That Bookstore in Blytheville being listed for sale in 2012, he thought it spelled the end of an institution he had always admired from afar. Little did he know that by early 2013 he would be the one deciding its future.
Former owner Mary Gay Shipley started the shop in 1976. She decided to sell it last year so she could spare time for her family. Even though the price — a nominal $35,000 — was less than some folks pay for a car, buyers were slow to appear. News of the sale even reached the ears of author John Grisham, who has had a long relationship with the shop (see more on Grisham here).
“I knew she was thinking of selling the store and was worried about its survival,” Grisham said in an email.
Hill, 22, grew up around his family’s jewelry store in Mountain Home. His early passion was for the publishing world.
“I thought my way into the book world was writing,” he said. “I wanted to do journalism for a while, maybe documentary work. My goal was always to write about music. It turns out it’s really hard, or maybe I just wasn’t good at it. I decided that there are a lot of writers out there doing good stuff, trying to distribute their art, their ideas, and maybe that’s where I fit into it, selling the books, publishing, something like that. The other side of the business.”
When college didn’t work out, Hill worked for Americorp for two years building houses.
“I felt like I was really being part of the solution for a couple of years,” he said. “But I didn’t think it was what was going to move me toward career goals.”
Hill moved back to Arkansas and started working for his father’s software company.
The job paid well, but there was a problem: He hated it.
“I started talking to friends and family about what I really wanted to do is work at a tiny bookstore, where my job responsibility is helping people find the stuff they like to read, as opposed to trying to convince people to give me money for software,” he said. “It’s easier to ask for money for something people enjoy.”
Then Hill found out That Bookstore was for sale. Out of curiosity, he sent Shipley an email. She, to his surprise, responded immediately.
“I came down that weekend,” Hill said. “Three days later, we sat down and had a conversation that quickly turned toward what it would actually take for us to keep this place open.”
Before he knew it, Hill was on his way to owning the store. Shipley would be on hand to coach him. There was still the issue of funds, though.
“Not only did I have no credit, but I didn’t really have any money, and I had no way of getting a lot of money,” he said.
But to his bafflement, nearly everyone he spoke to was ready to help him. The town, Hill said, simply did not want to lose the shop.
He quickly found loan programs. The Greater Blytheville Chamber of Commerce, for example, has a program called Money for Main, which lends 20 percent of the total cost of purchasing or renovating any building in downtown Blytheville. The loan has no interest and payments aren’t due for three years, said Liz Smith, executive director of the chamber.
Hill’s savings helped with administrative costs, he said, and the vast majority of his loans came from Southern Bancorp.
“Everything really fell into place,” Hill said. “It made me feel that it was doable. Everybody’s attitude made it feel like it was doable.”
Not that the process was easy, of course. “There’s a crazy amount of paperwork for every single thing you do,” Hill said. “The process of buying the property was actually the easiest thing. But dealing with all the vendors, and all that kind of stuff, is kind of a nightmare.”
From his apartment in the shop’s attic, Hill is now plotting the store’s future.
“The book industry is changing quickly,” he said “It didn’t change for like 100 years; now it changes every couple of months.”
Realistically, Hill said, he’s not sure how brick-and-mortar bookstores — large or small — are going to survive. But he’s hoping that his niche market will give him better chances.
“Mary Gay kept this store alive with customer service and the fact that she knows what people want to read, and the fact that there’s that connection you don’t get with Todd at Barnes & Noble, or whoever,” Hill said. “Really, maybe the small stores have a better chance in small towns of making it. That’s kind of what I’m banking on: that people will like me, and want me to survive.”
Grisham said That Bookstore has a chance. “Independent bookstores will always be with us because they are real places, staffed by real people who love books, frequented by real authors who have something to say and kept afloat by real customers who crave the touch, look, feel and smell of real books,” he said. “There are, and will be, fewer of them, but the good ones will survive and prosper.”