Southern & Jewish
Southern & Jewish celebrates the stories, people, and experiences – past and present – of Jewish life in the American South. Hosted by the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life, posts come from educators, students, rabbis, parents, artists, and many other “visitors-to and daily-livers-of” the Southern Jewish experience. From road trips to recipes to reflections, we’ll explore a little bit of everything – well, at least all things Southern and/or Jewish. Shalom, y’all!
My favorite store in Jackson, Mississippi, is in an almost completely abandoned mall that looks like it came straight out of a zombie apocalypse movie. It’s huddled alongside some city offices, near the no-longer-operational escalators, steps away from a huge, open courtyard with palm trees extending thirty feet in the air. There are no lights on in the public spaces of the mall, just in the few stores that are still open. It is very creepy.
It’s a relatively large store, with shelves overflowing with merchandise and only one employee. I’m often the only customer, so I spend time chatting with the kind man behind the desk. His name is Andy.
The store is open from 10am to 6pm Monday to Saturday, and Andy has only left early once, about a week after the store opened four years ago. (A tornado hit the town where he lives and he had to go check on his mother.) Other than that one natural disaster, the store remains unchanging, day after day.
Jews are the “people of the book,” and I’m a public historian, so it should come as a surprise to no one that this store I love so much is the Jackson Hinds Library System Book Sale shop.
It’s a magical place.
I’m sure there’s merchandise on those dusty shelves that’s been there since the store opened. But every time I visit, I find something new.
Thousands of books line shelves marked with handwritten paper signs – children’s books, trade paperbacks, humor books, classics, VHS tapes, bins of loose records, self-help books, travel guides, bibles, romance novels, National Geographic magazines… it’s an endless treasure trove of books waiting to be explored.
I begin my journey in the children’s section, though its popularity means that the pickings are slim. I walk around the steel shelving units to the paperbacks and historical fiction, perusing the almost-alphabetized offerings. I look at the six remaining VHS tapes, one of which is a workout video that I’m sure we had in my house when I was growing up, and one of which contains a season of a television show I’ve never seen. I move on.
Past the rows (and rows and rows) of romance novels are a few picture frames, and then the free books section. I don’t completely understand how a book receives this dubious designation, but I believe that the criteria are (1) an antique-looking cloth binding and (2) a topic so obscure and uninteresting that reading it would take years off your life. I grab a few books based on their aesthetic value for use as props for a play I’m directing. I’m literally judging books by their covers.
Around another corner is the “classics / school reading” section, which is always a high-yield section for me. On this particular visit, I flip through several copies of Waiting for Godot and grab John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany and Wally Lamb’s I Know This Much is True. On a lower shelf are two books on furniture from the Cooper Hewitt Museum and a book on American architectural styles from the colonial period to the present. I add them to my stack.
Dinner on the Grounds: A Primitive Baptist Cookbook (featuring must-try recipes like “Congealed Salad” and “Sock-It-To-Me Cake”) rounds out my selection so far. I walk behind the classics and past the seemingly endless section of religious self-help books and pause by the travel section. Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods, a book I’ve been meaning to read, catches my eye.
The reference section yields similarly exciting results. The annals of the Metropolitan Opera go into my pile, which is now precariously balanced in the crook of my arm. I walk to the desk and set down my discoveries so far. Andy always stays behind the desk, so I let him know I’m just setting the books down for now, and he nods between bites from his box of KFC.
I go to the far corner of the shelves to see what’s available in the humor section. Wanting this outing to pass the Bechdel test, I pick up Amy Poehler’s Yes Please and I Feel Bad about My Neck by Nora Ephron. The entertainment section tempts me with Who’s Who in American Theatre 1926-1927, but I settle on the scores of H.M.S. Pinafore by Gilbert & Sullivan and Handel’s Messiah. I also pick up a how-to book about mime.
Education and appreciation of knowledge are key tenets of Judaism. I like to think that spending afternoons at the Jackson Hinds Library System Book Sale is a way for me to stretch my brain a bit, to find books I wouldn’t normally read, and to add to my personal book collection. It’s also a way to make a small donation to the library, an institution that encourages literacy and learning and, by extension, strengthens our democracy. I like to round out the day by making calls to my legislators about federal funding for libraries. Join me, won’t you?
I’ve been in the store for over an hour now, and the pile of books on the counter is growing steadily. I stop myself. Andy needs to go home soon.
The mall is being demolished at the end of the month, and though the library is looking for a new location for the store, they are having a sale to get rid of as many books as possible. For a store where the most expensive item is $1, a sale is serious business. Hardcover books are now ten for $1. I buy 25 books and spend $5.85. I pile my winnings (that’s really how I think of them) in the reusable bags I’ve brought for the occasion and walk out to my car across a parking lot that’s seen better days.
If this is what the zombie apocalypse looks like, this person of the book is prepared for it.