Cheryl and Thomas Upchurch: The MML Interview

By on 13 June, 2012 in Interviews, Kate and Stephen, Shopping with 2 Comments

Cheryl and Thomas Upchurch

Capitol Book and News is one of Midtown’s most notable and beloved fixtures. Tucked into a cottage at 1140 E. Fairview, it is one of the very best bookstores not just in Alabama, but in the South. You can always find what you want there, plus a few things you forgot you wanted, plus a few more things you didn’t know you wanted. We recently sat down with owners Cheryl and Thomas Upchurch for an interview to learn more about the store and the book business. Although Thomas joined us only at the end of the interview, he walked us through the store afterward to show us the famous sale porch and some of his favorite books.

MML: How did you get here?

Cheryl: Thomas grew up in Montgomery. We met at Vanderbilt (in the bookstore) and we moved here shortly after college. I started looking for a job and came to a classified ad to work in the bookstore, as it was then on Montgomery Street. I worked there for Victor Levine until he started to retire, just a few years later. We took the opportunity and bought the bookstore from him in 1978. It seemed like a good idea at the time, and it’s been great. But looking back, we were pretty young and naive about some things. There have been a huge number of technical changes, but as far a people reading books, it’s pretty much the same: You come in, you’re looking for something to read on the weekend, or a cookbook or a book for your child – that part’s still the same, and that part’s the most satisfying. We used to use a big book called Books in Print to look up a book, and you had to know the exact title and the author’s name and even so, sometimes we couldn’t find books for our customers. Computers and the Internet have made a big difference in tracking down stuff like that.

Downtown went from being very busy to slowing down in the 1970s and 1980s, and we decided we needed another outlet. We bought another bookstore that was here called Bogstead. In the late 1980s, it was in the building where 1048 is now. We ran both bookstores for a while, and it kind of worked, but it was more than what was easy for us to do as small business owners. Downtown was still very slow at that point, so we decided to close the downtown store and move up here. We moved into this current building in 1996. Previously, it was an office building where the Junior League of Montgomery was for a long time.

MML: What’s it like running an independent bookstore in the age of Amazon?

Cheryl: I hope we will have a place in this world for a long time. People in Montgomery and people in this neighborhood want a bookstore. That’s how we will stay in business. Over all the years we’ve been here, everything seems like it will be the next big thing, whether it’s the mall, or the superstore. Wal-Mart sells books, Office Depot sells books. We’re getting it from everywhere. But we know more about books than all those guys do. That’s worth something, and I hope it’s worth enough to keep us around here. We have a lot of really loyal customers, but we don’t have as many as we used to. Some of them may have gone to e-readers and some of them may have lost their eyesight. I just hope that enough people want to buy books this way for us to be able to stay here. The things Amazon does are great, but I worry that putting all of our eggs in one basket is dangerous for the world.

MML: What do you say to folks who think that paper books are old-fashioned?

Cheryl: There are a lot of people who are so into the next great technology that they feel they need to try and embrace everything that comes out. They tell me they like it, and I have to believe them. But here’s something I know: We sell books with pictures of bookshelves in them. People think they are beautiful. They make your house wonderful, and e-readers don’t do that. Paper books have a lot of usefulness and advantages – they always work, for example.

MML: Tell us what Montgomery likes to read. You, more than most, have a sense of what we like to read and how that’s changed over the years.

Cheryl: We sell a lot of Alabama history books. We sell the general bestsellers well, and we also tend to sell what we like well, which isn’t saying that’s what Montgomery likes to read. Our personal recommendations do a lot here. Overall, Montgomery’s little more on the non-fiction side. When we were downtown, we had a full line of magazines and sold greeting cards. We don’t do that any more. Also, 30 years ago we sold a lot of reference and travel books. Those don’t sell any more, and I think it’s because people are getting that information off of the Internet. They don’t necessarily buy the books there, but they get information there such as a map or a definition of a word.

MML: You have a wonderful children’s’ section. How do you decide how it is stocked and managed? We have found over the years that books are our go-to gifts for children, and I’d like to know how you choose the stock.

Cheryl: Most of the publishers send sales reps to call on us. With children’s books, you can get pretty good samples and read the books quickly, so it is a lot easier to make a decision than trying to read a new novel by someone nobody’s never heard of. Eleanor Lucas has been our expert children’s book buyer for over 20 years. We do not have “test children,” but Eleanor’s grandchild, Rosemary, who is three years old, is often a good selling point for us. If she likes it, it usually sells.

MML: You have had some amazing authors come to the store. How do you choose them and who are some of your favorites?

Cheryl: Actually customers can request any author, though there’s no guarantee they will come. The lesser authors beg us, and we beg the greater authors. It’s really nice when you can have a big author like Rick Bragg or Pat Conroy where you know people are going to come out. Also they are really good. They really care about their readers and take the time to talk to them. We’ve had hundreds of writers over the 35 years we’ve been here, with about 15-30 a year, depending. The last couple of years have been slow because publishers aren’t paying people to promote their books as much anymore. Southern authors also tend to be more likely to come through town, but we’ve had authors from Canada and England before. We’ve had Dennis Lehane, Michael Connelly (twice), Natasha Trathaway (our new poet laureate). The first time Michael Connelly was here, he promoted his first book and nobody came. He said he’d be back

Kate: What do you read?

Cheryl: The Fault in Our Stars by John Green, Beyond the Beautiful Forever by Catherine Boo. Beyond the Beautiful is a hard sell because it’s about life in a slum in Mumbai, but I tell people it’s not just about that, it’s more of a story like Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. That’s a nonfiction book, so it’s different than the kind of books I usually read. I read more contemporary fiction and contemporary mysteries. I read constantly all day, every day when I was young. I read mythology, The Borrowers, Pippi Longstocking and a whole series of books that had titles like “Mary Falls in Love.” I also read Hemingway, so I was pretty indiscriminate.

Thomas: The first book I read of any significance was Life on the Mississippi. I have preferred nonfiction ever since. I dip into a lot of nonfiction books without necessarily reading the whole book. My favorite book since we’ve had the bookstore is probably The World According to Garp, or maybe Lonesome Dove. I’m interested in books about war and history. Occasionally, I’ll read a mystery.

MML: What are you recommending for summer?

Cheryl: Our favorite mystery writer who doesn’t get enough attention is Susan Hill.

Thomas: I liked The Rise and Decline of the Redneck Riviera, The Billy Bob Tapes, and the Keith Richards autobiography. If you look around the sale porch, you will see lots of great books. Books come in here once they are remaindered by publishers. They pass through six hands to get here: First they go from the printer to the publisher, then to a bookstore like us, then back to the publisher when they don’t sell, then to a remainder dealer, then to us. The only people making money off this are FedEx. We are trying hard to make this business work. The end of history is against us.

Kate and Stephen are Midtown residents with a cat, a dog, a garden, an old house and a sense of adventure. They write about life in Midtown here and about life in Montgomery at their blog Lost in Montgomery.

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  1. Penny Weaver says:

    Thanks for featuring two of my favorite people, and my most favorite bookstore.

  2. Jay Croft says:

    I second the motion!

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