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Nashville Scene A Happy Marriage

The BookMan finally finds his BookWoman

By Michael Sims

AUGUST 16, 1999:  Early risers on Easter morning, 1998, witnessed a curious sight in Hillsboro Village. Snaking between traffic, going back and forth across the street, was a long line of college students, retirees, parents, and children--about 50 people altogether. Their arms were piled high with boxes or stacks of books. Along with Bari-Mor Gifts and other businesses in the same building, BookMan Used and Rare Books was being forced to relocate to make way for construction of a new building. The store was moving across the street, from the east side of 21st Avenue to the west side, to its current location opposite the Pancake Pantry. But because so many book lovers had shown up to help, what could have been drudgery became a festive occasion.

In its two-and-a-half years of existence, the BookMan had gathered a core of loyal patrons who'd been dying for a used bookstore in their neighborhood, and now customers were proving their loyalty. Owners Saralee and Larry Woods were surprised at how many people showed up to help. Soon, dozens of boxes of doughnuts were being passed around, and neighboring Davis Cookware provided free coffee. It was an old-fashioned community event, and everyone who helped received as payment the very thing that had drawn them to this little shop in the first place: books.

In the 16 months since that move, the BookMan's business has grown tremendously, both in sales and in floor space. This Saturday, the store will host an open house to celebrate its recent expansion. Gift certificates will be given out as door prizes, and everything in the store will be discounted. Refreshments will also be available; once again, Davis Cookware will provide the coffee.

The big change is the opening of BookWoman, an addition occupying the former site of Village Imports. BookMan's sister business will feature among its many topics women's history and feminist issues, along with all sorts of fiction and nonfiction by and about women. As Saralee Woods says, "Adam finally has his Eve."

"The space has doubled exactly," Larry points out. "And we've still got one more back room that we haven't opened up." Together, the two stores boast a total of 125,000 books, and the addition of the back room should raise the number to 150,000. Even though the Woodses still maintain one warehouse full of books, they have no plans to keep growing--not until they take over the whole Village. But they say they'd like expand upward and shelve books all the way to the ceiling. They might get to that "sometime in the next millennium," Saralee adds.

Sarabeth and Larry Woods, bookish couple

Saralee and Larry Woods were both well-known Nashvillians before they opened BookMan. Saralee's background is in the temporary employment business. She worked for 10 years with Jane Jones here in Nashville and is the author of Executive Temping: A Guide for Professionals (which, not surprisingly, is prominently displayed in the store). Larry is a well-known local attorney. He grew up in Nashville, graduated from Donelson High School, and got his law degree from Northwestern. He has practiced law since 1969, specializing in trial practice. But books are his true obsession. He reviews for BookPage, Library Booknotes, and Mystery Newsletter. You may run across either of them being interviewed on radio or TV--Larry regarding law and politics, Saralee regarding career advice and women's issues--but invariably the conversation will come around to how they started BookMan Used and Rare Books.

The genesis was simple, Saralee explains. "It started with our being addicted to reading, and Larry is addicted to collecting. Our book-filled house crisis goes back to the beginning of time." Or at least to 1991, when the couple married. "Larry has always collected books, but I didn't realize the volume until we set up house together, and I had to help him move hundreds of thousands of books."

"Saralee likes to say that the store is just an excuse for me to buy more books," Larry adds, "and she's right."

This is a common explanation among owners of used bookstores. A chain bookstore that features the latest bestsellers may be opened as a commercial venture, with the irresistible force of franchise marketing behind it. But a used bookstore is opened out of a love for (or, as Saralee would say, an addiction to) books. If bookstores are the marketplace of ideas, then used bookstores are the flea market of ideas. They're the literary shore on which everything eventually washes up. They're where you'll find an earnestly underlined Thomas Aquinas leaning against a shamelessly dog-eared Ana•s Nin, where you'll find a copy of the children's book you associate with your lost youth and next to it the biography you resisted two years ago.

In fact, BookMan's genesis can be traced to the local flea market. "Because Larry's book collection was outgrowing our home," Saralee explains, "I tried an experiment. I went to the flea market and put a few of his books out. And all these people started coming up, saying, 'I really wish you'd just open a store.' I just sort of jumped in and have learned as I've gone."

The BookMan opened in October of 1995, just after the Southern Festival of Books. "I really wanted to be in the Village," Saralee says, "in a Mayberry-type atmosphere, where a lot of people would drop in." Her choice was a shrewd one: People have been dropping in ever since, looking for an evening's entertainment, a perfect gift, or maybe even some pearls of wisdom that might change their lives. It's a used bookstore, after all. Anything can happen.

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