Peaceful Places in Memphis: Burke’s Book Store in the Midst of Winter at 2:13 p.m.

Posted on March 27, 2015


By Lily Kate Anthony

1425088945In a city of over 600,000, known for its sound and certainly not its silence, I often thought that I needed to escape to find peace. Only recently did I realize that I did not have to go so far after all.
Outside the midtown storefront of Burke’s Book Store, a building currently dressed in cordiform cutouts and red paper lanterns, displaying the earnest entreaty for Memphians to “Love Books,” my rain boots slip on the varnish of late-February ice. In a nightgown subtle enough to venture from the bedroom and a double-breasted trench coat, I am indubitably ill dressed for the winter storm warning in effect, a rarity for a city in which any potentiality of frozen precipitation is cause for the interruption of normal business hours. I lurch towards the door, and only inside the haven of Burke’s Books do my feet find solid ground.
I step to the side of a structure of paperbacks stacked waist-high ($1 each) and cross over an expanse of threadbare rugs. The store is awash with classical music, some nameless composition dripping with the heavy poignancy of violins, and the heated air that carries the inexplicably-recognizable scent of dry paper. Slightly sun-faded posters scaling the whitewashed walls advertise the vertebrae of high school literature courses (Kerouac, Kurt Vonnegut, Virginia Woolf, F. Scott Fitzgerald) while a banner dominated by the figure of one of René Magritte’s eerily faceless men commands bystanders to “Fill your mind with new ideas–Read a classic.”

As I wander through the store, the conversation spilled across the checkout counter recedes and the violins lilting overhead all but fade away. The skeletal blue shelves crowded with books leaning at odd angles harbor silence and a sense of serenity. I depart from my mother, who immediately commences the excavation of the labyrinth of fiction, and wander to the children’s section, still familiar from my childhood, and, interestingly, not far from an aisle labeled “Sexuality/Erotica.” There, at the back of the store, beneath a handmade mobile constructed of Tinker Toys, plastic amphibians, and the tail of a paper chain made from the repurposed pages of disemboweled books, I sink into a chair beside a row of Hardy Boys novels with disintegrating spines and gorge myself on the sheer literariness of it all.

The store itself is modest–small, cluttered, with an uneven concrete floor and industrial pipes clinging to an exposed ceiling. Its furnishings are eclectic with mismatched stools and armchairs, a spindly writing desk, a collection of sunken couches, a pair of stuffed crows in a corner designated “Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror.” And yet, somehow, Burke’s Books stands as an archive of humanity in exquisite ways. Just as books seek to encompass the human experience, this arguably unexceptional store, surpassed by Barnes & Nobles and Books-A-Millions that sell literature alongside micro-ground coffee, is marked by the figurative fingerprints of decades of patrons, each with his or her own story. In unexpected ways, one is reminded that she is not the first to peruse the store’s shelves, nor is she the first to be touched by the simplistic struggle of Hemingway’s “old man” fisherman with the disappointments offered by a dispassionate and persisting life or disturbed by Piggy’s death in Lord of the Flies, as “his head opened and stuff came out and turned red” before he was drawn into the sea. In a pile beside an antique typewriter (a Smith Corona, to be precise), are pages of sentences typed in neat letters by faceless persons. One line reads “Hello! My name is Sophia. I came here with my dad,” and another line, written by a thief of Shakespeare who labored over cream-colored keys, leaves the quote “Love looks not with the eyes but with the mind./And therefore is winged Cupid painted blind.” Other bibliophiles paused to bend over a single piece of paper printed with the question “What is your favorite movie?” atop a display table at the front of the store to add their preferred film to a list written in various hands. And the books themselves, many of which are used, often bear traces of previous owners in the form of underlined passages and dog-eared pages.

I take a final look around the store before leaving with my mother, a book of the selected poems and songs of Leonard Cohen and a stack of postcards (90 cents each) inscribed with the black-and-white faces of Albert Camus, Truman Capote, and Sylvia Plath tucked under my arm. It is a consoling place, a familiar place, where one is simultaneously alone and accompanied. It is a place of written words and soft-spoken passion, and it is, for me, a place of peace.

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