In December, John Coleman announced on Facebook that his used/rare/antiquarian bookstore, Central Street Books, will close in March. For the first time in 22 years, Coleman will take a “sabbatical” from bricks-and-mortar retail.
Comments to this announcement followed a theme:
“My heart broke seeing this!”
“I am sad.”
“Knoxville won’t be the same.”
People like the presence of an offbeat used bookstore in their town, even if they don’t shop there often enough to keep it open.
For two more months, Central Street Books will be the last archetypal used bookstore in Knoxville where you can find the owner behind the counter and a carefully curated stock of used books reflecting one individual’s tastes and philosophy. A customer might buy a 50 cent paperback, a hand-written travel journal, a $6 hardback novel, and a rare Faulkner first edition in one small shop decorated with interesting ephemera.
“I like to read,” Coleman says. “I like the way it makes me feel after I read something.”
Coleman also loves books as physical objects. He says he likes to look through flea markets when he travels. His personal copy of Camus’ The Plague is a worn paperback he bought from a street vendor in Barbados.
“I like to line up that chronology on the shelf.”
Coleman opened his first store, Kingston Pike Bookshop, in 1991. In 1993 he moved to Jackson Avenue, changed the name to The Old City Bookshop, and teamed up with his long-time business partner, children’s book dealer Beci Bolding. Some called The Old City Bookshop “three floors of books,” but Coleman insists it was really, “two floors of books and a landing.”
In 1996 Coleman and Bolding opened the Book Eddy. It may surprise some to learn the first Book Eddy was located on the 100 Block of Gay Street. At the time, developer David Dewhirst lived above the shop. Dewhirst would become instrumental in transforming the block into the row of upscale businesses and art galleries it is today, but the Book Eddy predated all that.
In 1998 the Book Eddy settled into its best-known location, the long brick building at the foot of a kudzu-draped cliff on Chapman Highway.
You should know, I have a personal history with the Book Eddy. When I was a freshman at UT, I walked across the Henley Street Bridge to apply for my dream job—working at that impressive maze of corridors, alcoves, and balconies crammed with books that I had visited during orientation. They didn’t hire me then. But two years later I landed a job at the short-lived Book Eddy Too—a small shop near The Golden Roast Espresso House on Melrose Place that focused on remaindered books. I worked for Coleman off and on for 10 years at his various book-related ventures, including several years at the Book Eddy on Chapman.
Many customers assumed a person named Eddy ran the Book Eddy. But “Eddy” referred to an organic shape, like an eddy in water, where a counter-current runs against the main current. Hence the tag-line “Not your mainstream bookstore” printed on the awning. Coleman later came to regret the slightly negative connotations of “eddy”—a whirlpool in which books get sucked in, trapped in the vortex, and never leave.
At times, entering the doors of the Book Eddy was like tumbling down the rabbit hole. At least twice, customers lost in the stacks were locked inside after hours.
The Book Eddy contained multitudes. Whole shelves were devoted to such niche topics as Balkan History, Alternative Building, and Lesbian Fiction. Eclectic nonfiction writer John McPhee had his own section, as did Wendell Berry.
And there were uncategorizable items like the awesome “Experiences of an Iron Atom,” a 1918 pamphlet, bound with staples, lightly foxed, by Charles Sturdevant, but told from the perspective of the atom:
“I am one of the smallest things in the universe, and one of the very oldest. The earth itself is younger than I, for I was born and cradled in the seething billows of the sun.”
At the Book Eddy, the sublime and ridiculous got all tangled up.
“Excuse me,” a customer remarked one day, “There’s cat poop in the film section.”
Coleman rescued the original in-store cats, Dido and Penelope, when they were kittens. After Dido died, Penelope, a big black cat with a piercing yowl, held a fierce grudge against the new cat, a neurotic ingénue named Astrid. Years of feuding ensued before they finally made their peace.
Despite mishaps, the cats were popular with the customers, and Astrid often purred on my lap for hours while I cataloged books on the computer. The Book Eddy was strange, but it suited me.
The owners sometimes seemed rueful about the Book Eddy’s crumbling, rented building, its dust, and the general chaos.
In 2011, Coleman and Bolding closed the Book Eddy and went their separate ways. (Bolding still sells books at vintagechildrensbooks.com.)
The same year, Coleman opened CSB in the former Corner Lounge, a building he has long been attracted to, partly for its appearance in the Knoxville-based novel Suttree by Cormac McCarthy.
“McCarthy for President,” reads an old campaign sign above the check-out desk. Eugene McCarthy’s face has been replaced with a photo of Cormac.
In some ways, CSB is not ideal. The minimalist mint-green exterior of the building is cold and uninviting—unrepresentative of the warm, cluttered interior. There isn’t much foot traffic in this blighted neighborhood, just on the cusp of revitalization.
Coleman stresses CSB’s closure is not the end of his adventures in bricks and mortar retail.
“I just need some time to get back on my feet,” he says.
He will still maintain his book booth in Nostalgia on McCalla, he’ll keep the shelves stocked at The Golden Roast, and he’ll continue to scout and sell books online.
“I have always been a book scout who ended up with enough material to open a shop, so really I am going back to my roots, but with new technology,” writes Coleman, who has a Twitter feed and a tumblr blog, both under “bookscoutjohn.”
He currently rents a warehouse on Jennings Street across from Ironwood Studios, and may one day open it to the public, selling books and ephemera, much like his current shop.
After 22 years, Coleman says he looks forward to a temporary break from retail.
“This should be a net positive for the book community,” writes Coleman. “And I will be less grouchy.”