Around one in five adults in Mississippi will not be able to read this column. The poorest state in America, Mississippi also has the country’s lowest literacy rates, a historic problem within its educational system that contrasts starkly with the legacy of literature and story telling that local writers such as William Faulkner lent the southern state.
However, independent bookstores are thriving within Mississippi, a story not only surprising within the context of the state’s illiteracy rates, but also amid the difficulties faced by bricks and mortar booksellers around the country. Digital readers such as the Kindle, iPad or Barnes & Noble’s newly relaunched Nook may attract the headlines, but places including Turnrow Books on Howard Street in the small town of Greenwood tell a slightly different story.
The lofty space of Turnrow is a sanctuary for books in every shape and size. Housed in a renovated 1940s department sore, it is playing a crucial role in the rejuvenation of Greenwood’s downtown area. The walls of its two floors are lined with bookshelves stocked full of titles from national bestsellers to local cookbooks and volumes on Mississippi history. A popular café – featuring the town’s only espresso machine – serves lunch daily, and a thriving series of events, book readings and visits from authors including John Grisham and Sebastian Junger make Turnrow an important centre for a growing community.
“We wanted to offer a hub where people could come and swap stories and ideas,” says founder Jamie Kornegay, who opened Turnrow with his wife, Kelly, in 2006. “Mississippi has a very oral culture, so this kind of space is a great fit.”
Kornegay learned the book business while working at Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi. In business since 1979, successful booksellers like Square, as well as Lemuria in the state capital of Jackson, have crafted a reputation for Mississippi of distinguished independent bookshops that play important roles in getting people to read in challenged communities.
As a small store unable to carry every title a visitor might request, Turnrow focuses on customer service in ways that larger chain booksellers are unable to. “We’re not a warehouse where you can find the exact book you’ve been looking for,” says Kornegay. “We strive to make this a place where you can discover great books. If we don’t have the a book, we’ll make a solid recommendation.” It’s easy to spend hours in the space, talking to the informed and passionate booksellers, or reading on the porch. In a state facing huge literacy challenges, the local bookshop may hold the answer.
“Literacy rates in Mississippi are a shame,” says Kornegay. “But many authors have said to me that Mississippians are some of the most literate people they meet. Conversation has a complex dimension here, stories are lavishly recounted and whirl and bend and turn back on themselves like great literature. This is a place where the writer is still celebrated as a kind of divine tradesman. Sometimes there’s not much going on here, but there is a genuine interest in writers and good books.”