story & photos by Tricia Dewey
Burke’s Book Store, founded in 1875, has been nothing if not resilient over the course of its 145-year history. As one of the oldest small businesses in Memphis and one of the oldest used bookstores in the country it has endured good times and bad, surviving the end of Reconstruction, the Yellow Fever epidemic of 1878, the Great Depression, and two world wars. The COVID-19 pandemic is yet another chapter of adaptation in its long history.
From the beginning, Burke’s Bookstore was a family business. It began in a two- story brick building at 180 N. Main Street in downtown Memphis where the Burkes lived upstairs and sold books, newspapers, slates, and tin toys downstairs. Three generations of Burkes eventually owned the business, each adding an idea to the bookstore business. Walter Burke Jr. added textbook sales in 1946 and William Burke added used and antiquarian books in 1958. In the 1940s and ‘50s they sold textbooks for many of the parochial schools in Memphis out of their tiny store.
The store moved several times. In the 1960s the downtown location neighborhood was razed as part of Urban Renewal and the store moved east to 634 Poplar. Then in 1988 owner Harriette Beeson moved the store to 1719 Poplar, which many long-time Memphians remember fondly with books piled everywhere and lots of corners and nooks. At that time, Harriette Beeson grew the new book side of the business. Corey and Cheryl Mesler who met and married while employees bought the store from Harriette Beeson when she retired in 2000.
From 2000 to 2006 the survival of small independent bookstores experienced an existential threat from Amazon, on-line sales, and big box bookstores like Borders and Barnes & Noble. With the additional economic squeeze after 9/11, it seemed like an impossible time. Business was so bad that the Meslers tried the gofundme idea before it was a thing, putting out a plea to customers and benefactors and holding fundraisers. In addition, suddenly they realized that the location at 1719 Poplar was not good. Cheryl says it was like the store was on a hard-to-reach island.
Enter commercial real estate friends James Rasberry and Jimmy Lewis who encouraged the Meslers to look at a space in Cooper Young. At the time Cheryl Mesler thought moving the store sounded like a nightmare, but seeing the space and “both of us said, oh my god, this is it.” It was a perfect old and crumbly building that they pictured with a “center aisle down the middle, shelves off to the side, skylight, with kind of a great history. It was a Piggly Wiggly in the ‘20s.” The Meslers have lived in Cooper Young since 1993 and watched the neighborhood grow. “Everything came together, it was really energizing, and it totally saved us. I feel lucky every day to work in this neighborhood.”
The current store at 935 South Cooper in the middle of Cooper Young is a boon to the neighborhood. Cheryl says that at first in 2007 they were a little lonely. Cooper Young had not yet become the lively area it is now. But eventually more businesses and restaurants opened and Burke’s evolved into what the Meslers envisioned: a browsing bookstore, with walk-in traffic. Cheryl says, “I feel like all we have to do is open the doors and get the overflow from everybody and oh my gosh we miss it so much. It’s very, very strange to work without a customer in the store, really odd. We are looking forward to the day when that comes back. It will be like a mini Cooper Young Festival when things get reopened.”
After the initial turmoil of the first weeks after COVID-19 and the Safer-at-Home order issued in Memphis on March 24, Cheryl got to work figuring out how to adjust this well- loved Cooper Young small business. She applied for a Paycheck Protection Program loan and prioritized the cash flow so that Burke’s could continue to operate. So far they have been able to keep all of their employees and condense their hours to the needs of the store. They quickly shifted to on-line, email, Facebook and Instagram, messages, and old-fashioned phone orders for mail, pick-up, and delivery. Cheryl says even carrier pigeon would work. During the day they ready orders while social distancing and wearing masks and in the afternoon deliver packages. They stopped accepting used books over a month ago so that new books are the only items coming in.
The quality of Burke’s used book inventory makes it special. Cheryl Mesler says that “Since moving to this location we get such better books and I cannot explain it…. We never have to go scouting for used books.” Years ago they developed a database with Bibliopolis for their used book inventory, which is especially coming in handy now. The database is searchable and describes the quality of the used book. Cheryl says adding new books to the database was a project for this year so they jumped into it on the fly. “When all of this happened we were just thinking this is what we’re going to do to keep our employees busy and paid. We’ve just been doing a massive store inventory, going through all the sections. Listing all the new books, Corey’s uploading them. We’re adding stuff every day. Working on getting images too.” Browsing the list is a bit like browsing the store–the Burke’s Books personality comes through. Highlighted categories are literary fiction, Southern literature, southern history, African American literature, history, and philosophy.
A month or so into the coronavirus economy, Cheryl says she’s feeling better. “The first weeks were hideous. I was in a total state of anxiety, but people have been really great, people have been nice about ordering things. If they don’t have something they want right now they’ll get a gift certificate to use later. And that’s the kind of stuff that’s really helpful….You know, we’re ok for now.” She knows people are focused on helping out small businesses.”I think [people are] really trying to support the restaurants by doing takeout, support the small businesses where they can, you know the ones that are able to stay open and process orders….That has been kind of a silver lining. When we get to the other side of this I hope that we will have added some customers that we didn’t have before ….Everyone is learning new skills through all this. There are a lot of restaurants where it never occurred to them to do takeout. I think the ones who are succeeding are the ones who have been able to… sort of pivot and think of a new model.” Although the economic landscape has changed from the original Burke’s, adaptation has always been a part of the bookselling story. Like everyone else enduring in this new reality, Burke’s is taking it one day at a time.