A Discussion with Bookseller, Book Reviewer, Novelist, and Poet Corey Mesler
"I wish there were more good childrens' books about Memphis and the South."
By RoseEtta Stone
Corey Mesler is the owner of Burke's Book Store. Located in Memphis, Tennessee, Burke's is reputed to be one of the oldest (126 years), and best independent book stores in our Nation. Mesler's poetry and fiction has been published in numerous journals, magazines, and anthologies. He has been a freelance book reviewer, for various newspapers, since 1988. Talk, his first novel, will be published in 2002.
RoseEtta Stone: How long have you been a bookseller?
Corey Mesler: For 26 years. Before becoming the owner of Burke's I manned a number of other bookstores in Memphis. RES: Are childrens' books today much different from those you sold when you first started out in the business?
MESLER: Yes, probably, though I don't pay too much attention to trends like that, preferring to sell only what I'm passionate about. If there's been a negative trend in childrens' books, it is the movement toward "message" books --- as if every childrens' story has to have a moral. Did the Brothers Grimm worry about teaching kids not to lie or steal? Did Dr. Seuss? Did Shel Silverstein? Does William Steig? Of course not! They just told wonderful stories. RES: Childrens' books written by celebrities are a relatively new phenomenon, aren't they?
MESLER: I don't think it's that new. There's a fallacy in our culture that if someone is good at one thing, they have an expertise which translates into other areas. Hence boxers selling cooking devices, etc. Books by celebrities, including childrens' books, have always been with us.
And don't even mention the name Kathie Lee Gifford in our store! RES: I'm not even going to ask why. Do childrens' books by celebrity authors sell better than other childrens' books?
MESLER: Absolutely not. Thank God! RES: How well did or do "Oprah books," like Bill Cosby's childrens' series, or the childrens' books Rosie recommended on her program sell?
MESLER: I don't really know which books Rosie recommends. But the books Oprah recommends sell well enough. Only because she promotes them.
Personally, I love Bill Cosby, but again, I do not like those books with messages and I do not buy them for my children. RES: Which, Corey, would you say is, or has been, Burke's most popular childrens' book?
MESLER: Clever books by clever writers. For instance, one of the better books of recent years was a picture book called, A Bad Case of Stripes [written by award-winning author/ illustrator, David Shannon]. We sold a ton of those. RES: You refer to it as "one of the better books of recent years," despite your feelings about message books. But according to reviews I've read, it's also a message book. Its message being: Conformity for popularity's sake is bad. Being yourself, even if it means being different, is good.
MESLER: Well, in the sense that every book is a message book, good stories have messages because the message is that story ---- (art) saves us. But "messages" being stated goals, like these from actual midrange childrens' publishers, about what they are looking for in their books is what I resent in publishing: "Special needs include books that teach children about tolerance and honoring diversity." Or, "We publish upbeat books with a Christian perspective." Or, "We are interested in books that help people feel good about themselves because they gain skills needed in dealing with others." These represent poor excuses for being in the publishing business, in my opinion. And kids, I'm betting, are more savvy than these publishers give them credit for, and would rather read something "inspiring" if it tells a unique story in unique words.
And to further clarify what you rightly pointed out, the message is there anyway. The same way it is in Catcher in the Rye or Harry Potter. The (good) message for everyone, adults and kids, in books like the Harry Potter ones is: Imagination is magic.
RES: Let me ask you something else. Since you're the owner of your own bookstore, I assume you select, or otherwise decide which books are to be sold there.
MESLER: Of course. I'm also the buyer. RES: On what criteria do you base your selections?
MESLER: Instinct. Pure instinct, honed from years of buying. But hey, I make mistakes sometimes too. RES: As both a father of young children and a bookseller, which role most impacts on or influences your decisions regarding buying and selling childrens' books? Does either role compliment or conflict with such decisions in significant ways?
MESLER: They complement each other in that both roles can't be separated. I buy and sell the same books for other peoples' kids that I'd read to my own kids. RES: Does your store sell or stay away from controversial, banned, or censored childrens' books?
MESLER: I don't recall the last controversial childrens' book, unless you mean the silly folderol about Harry Potter. My policy has always been that as soon as some yahoo somewhere tries to decide I shouldn't be able to sell a certain book, childrens' or "adults," I redouble my efforts on that book's behalf. That's my job. RES: Your job, then, is . . . .
MESLER: To put the right book in the right hands, and if someone wants to create interest and curiosity about a book by attempting to have it removed from a library or reading list, then my job is to see that the book is available so people can make up their own minds. RES: Do controversial, banned, or censored childrens' books actually sell better than other childrens' books?
MESLER: Yes. Better. Don't tell the "concerned citizen" groups, but as soon as you call attention to something, it creates publicity, and everyone knows there's no such thing as "bad" publicity. It goes without saying that The Satanic Verses would have been a middling seller had not the Ayatollah issued his fatwa. So go ahead, book banners everywhere, raise your ruckus.
It only helps us poor booksellers. RES: Do you have book signings by authors of controversial, banned, or censored books in your store?
MESLER: We have signings all the time. Whether the book is controversial or not would not factor into the equation one way or another. RES: By virtue of being a bookseller, do you think your customers consider you a sort of literary authority, or childrens' book "maven?"
MESLER: Sure. I am known as a "book recommender." At least I hope so. That's what independent bookselling is all about --- one-on-one colloquy about books. RES: Might they, therefore, buy books you recommend, despite their reservations?
MESLER: They often do. And generally I'll hear, "I like the book you recommended," afterward. RES: I don't want to forget, Corey, to congratulate you on having a publication date for your first novel. What, if anything, can you tell us about the book?
MESLER: It's a decidedly adult novel, told entirely in dialog. It's about friendship, marriage, adultery, sex, parenthood, and the best William Powell movie. RES: That really covers a lot of ground. And I love reading dialog. Now comes the question that you probably hoped I wouldn't ask --- as an about-to-be-published author and bookseller, do you have any advice to offer unpublished, neophyte childrens' book writers?
MESLER: My first instinct is to answer, "Heck No." And if I offered advice, I would hope writers wouldn't take it. Everyone has to follow their own course. Mine took over twenty years to get one book published --- not a very encouraging dollar per hour, I'm afraid. RES: Would it then be fair to say, using your own personal experience as an example, that writers should persevere and not give up?
MESLER: That's a very individualistic decision that each writer has to make for his or her self. I can't, in all good conscience, advise anyone to stick to it, or for how long. What may have worked for me may not work for anyone else. I'd like to believe that if you're good you'll eventually get published. I'm still optimistic enough, even in these superstore/super-publisher times, to believe that good writing gets published.
There's only one piece of self-evident advice I can give though. READ. You can't write in a vacuum.
RES: Your novel took twenty years to get published because . . . . Would you mind sharing that with us?
MESLER: It didn't take 20 years to get my novel published. All I was saying is that I've been writing and submitting things for publication for 20 years. My actual forthcoming novel took about a year to write and was accepted by the first house I sent it to. RES: Oh, I see. Another question, do childrens' book authors ever ask to have their book(s) sold in your store? Or do you only buy books through publishers, agents, or distributors?
MESLER: Local authors come to me, but I do all buying through publishers and distributors. We always buy local authors' books though, and push them hard because we consider that part of being a community bookstore. Self-published authors, God help them, come to me and occasionally I take their offerings on consignment --- meaning I only pay for what I sell. RES: Why do you say, "God help them," in relation to self-published authors?
MESLER: What I meant is that it's tough enough to get your work recognized even if you can get a publisher to publish it. But trying to do it ALL yourself is like Sisyphus and his rock. I imagine these sweet souls are standing out in the rain and no one's answering their knocks. RES: Your answer makes me wonder if you recommend self-published books to your customers, or promote them in any way, so they DO sell?
MESLER: Well, it depends on the book, of course. Where self-publishing and our promotion of it meet best, I'd say, is in the area of local interest.
Histories of anything Memphis is one of Burke's specialties. And because Memphis has no small press, authors of these important books have no recourse but to go the self-publishing route. In these cases we promote these histories hard and, by the by, sell a lot of them. Of course, it helps that Burke's is known as a place to go for local history.
I've had authors who have spent the dough to have their local history books published tell me that they had finally broken even on the book, in large part because of our store's efforts on the book's behalf. RES: Would I be right, then, in concluding that a childrens' historical book about Memphis would have it made in your store? That you'd recommend, push, and promote it as much as you do the adult ones?
MESLER: Of course, of course. I wish there were more good childrens' books about Memphis and the South. We sell 'em when they write 'em. RES: Two last questions, Corey, does the rising cost of books concern you?
MESLER: I have to think of myself as a consumer adviser, telling people whether or not to spend their money on this or that book. Sure, it's a lot of money and it's getting worse, but I sometimes tell my customers that that money may buy them a steak dinner. But once they eat it, it's gone. How many dinners do you remember? But the book will be theirs forever. RES: Very philosophical. Is there anything I haven't asked that you'd like to comment on?
MESLER: I don't think so, except, why isn't Hope Davis a better known actress? To which I would respond, "It's a mystery to me."
Postscript: Shortly after our interview, I received the following note from Mr. Mesler: "I have a documentary film crew from LA proposing a documentary about me as bookseller, novelist, agoraphobe, and in searching for things about me on the web came across our interview. They were mighty impressed with it and thought it was a nice reflection on me for which I thank you."
Copyright 2001 by RoseEtta Stone. All rights reserved.
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