Have some holiday shopping to do? For anyone? Of any age? In any price range? Head over to Reed Books and The Museum of Fond Memories! He’s got everything from that Peanuts lunchbox you’ve been looking for to ancient medical texts. Vintage Santas and comics and every book genre you can imagine! Jim Reed tells us about his treasures and why books are his friends in this week’s edition of Small Business Monday.
Books get lonely. You don’t read a book floating in a black hole with nothing around you. You have your favorite blankie, you have your pet, you have your trophy on the counter, you have your favorite snack. You have things around you that you love or care for or are in charge of. Books cannot be left alone. It would be like owning a dog and locking it in a bare house, alone, with no furniture. Wouldn’t that be sad? That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
I’ve been running Reed Books and The Museum of Fond Memories for thirty-seven, going on thirty-eight years. I’ve always been downtown because that’s where the center of the universe is. I’ve been in this particular building at 2021 3rd AVE N. for eleven years. Previous building for ten years and the previous building, subtract those years from thirty-seven.
I’ve performed in amateur productions; stage production, radio, television. I finally got paid for it for about ten years in Tuscaloosa. We started Channel 33. I was on the air for four years, doing a daily show, live. Before that, I had been a disc jockey and a radio announcer. I did everything. I wrote documentaries and editorials. That was the most fun. I would have done it for free if I could have afforded it, but I needed to bring home food.
I was so depressed and so beaten down by the corporate world, I didn’t know what I wanted to do, I thought about what I’d loved my whole life. I loved books and buying books. Everywhere I went I looked at books. Still to this day, everywhere I go, I look at books. If you invite me to dinner, within ten minutes, you’ll find me over looking at the books on the shelf while everyone else is socializing. They are my friends. Books don’t attack you. They’re your friends. You can go anywhere in the universe, past, present or future. You have total control. You can open the book, see a beautiful poisonous plant, but before it bites you, you can close the book. You can experience anything with wide imagination, but you can control the story at any time.
I discovered that if I ran the smallest, least expensive ad I could buy in the New York Times Book Review, people would respond to me. The ad said, “I can find any out of print book.” I had a network of book dealers that I mailed a newsletter to, snail mail, once a week, wrote a story and added a list of what tities my customers were looking for. There was no internet. So that was my escape. I didn’t have to have inventory. I sent out the list. One of the dealers would send back a card saying what they had, the condition, price, etc.. I’d send a note to the customer. Customer would send money to me and I would have the book dealer drop ship the book directly to the customer. It wasn’t really elaborate, just had a lot of little detail work. I had twenty or so shoe boxes full of 3×5 file cards, alphabetized to keep up with all of it. I was doing that as a hobby to give me something to do until I left the corporate world.
I’m obsessive about finding things for the store. I get them any way you can imagine, because my goal is not to have bosses. I’ve had the worst bosses I can imagine and I don’t want to have bosses again. On the way to work, I may stop by a thrift store on the way to work. Things will jump at me sometimes. Particularly when you’re not looking. People will walk in with a wheelbarrow or drive up with a pickup truck full of books because, “My momma died and left all this stuff and I don’t read books.” You hear all kinds of stories, wonderful stories. I pick exactly what’s right for the store from whatever they will let me buy from them. I make them an offer and if they don’t like it, they can drive away. I’ll be nice to them because I want them to say nice things about me to the next person. I depend on referrals, so I tell them the next place that might buy something from them or a place to donate them and get a tax write off. I want them to feel good, and I feel good when I can get the books I feel will sell in the store. And after thirty-something years, I pretty much know what that is.
I sell a lot of books on philosophy and thought because I don’t think stores carry much of that anymore. I also sell A LOT old, early science fiction, fantasy and horror. The people who are reading that don’t find the old things. They’ll only find the latest Stephen King, not the books we wrote thirty years ago under another name.
I also sell a general span of politics, theater, civil rights and black history. There’s an enormous Alabama section and a Birmingham section. Also a lot of mythology and early fairy tales. Some folks come in looking for occult stuff. They’ll say, “I heard about this book called the Devil’s Dictionary. I’ll bet you don’t have it.” And I’ll tell them, “Yes, I sell the Devil’s Dictionary, because a real bookstore should sell everything.” Each person has their particular thing they are looking for, well, those who are looking. Some just come in for the experience.
I grew up knowing that the writers I truly admired believed that a truly educated person should read everything. How are you going to know who your enemy is if you don’t know everything about them? Or how are you supposed to know about something that’s bad that you shouldn’t be involved with unless you have read about it and know what it is. Instead of dismissing something or downgrading it, learn a little. I try to carry that eclectic esthetic here, that’s why I’m not competitive with other stores.
The most unusual object that has come through the store was a Russian satellite. A couple had found a small Russian satellite, asbestos-covered and singed from the reentry, with a little porthole and Russian markings on it. They had found it in a munitions dump near NASA and didn’t know what to do with it. The Piggly Wiggly head in the window is from the 1950’s and goes to an entire mascot costume. We have the rest of it in storage. There might only be two or three in existence.
There are great books that come in here. Lewis and Clark’s first edition of their book after they came back from their expedition. Leather bound with folding maps and all the details. It was worth a lot for me, a little business, and paid the rent for a few months. It was a really special thing and I know I’ll never see another one.
What I find special are all of the things that no one else feels are important enough to keep. As a writer, I’m always looking in the cracks. There are things here that I find incredibly special and romantic that no one is ever going to buy because they don’t get it. They don’t understand why I find a hundred year old diary from someone who is long gone so fascinating. I’ve always been a romantic about stuff like that.
I love Downtown Birmingham. Wouldn’t want to be anywhere else, ever. I think we were the first ones to rent a loft downtown, just to start the store in the 80’s. I just wanted to be where nobody else would be, to be different, a contrarian. I’m the only used book store around. Alabama Booksmith only sells signed copies. Downtown survives on its own, without any help from the city. My hope for downtown Birmingham is that it doesn’t gentrify too fast, because that will kill off all the little businesses. Always does. There aren’t bookstores in New York anymore. They can’t afford the rent. I hope that doesn’t happen here until after I die.
For more info – https://www.facebook.com/jimreedbooks/
Check out this other article that features Reed Books and other downtown businesses – https://bhamnow.com/index.php/2017/07/24/downtown-retail-birmingham-shops/