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Danielle Hargis greets customers behind the counter at Books New and Used in Trenton, one of the last independent bookstores of its kind in the region.
 

By: Robin Ford Wallace, Reporter

 

When Danielle Hargis opened her Trenton bookstore, Books New and Used, in 2002, she chose as its location a former physical therapy office because on the inside, the space was surprisingly bigger than it looked on the outside.

And that, she reflects 11 years later, is not a bad metaphor for a book. A book is smallish and squareish and, if you buy it used, maybe even a little dog-eared and down at the mouth; but open it and go inside and who knows where you’ll end up?   

Ms. Hargis always refers to books that way, not as passive accoutrements to a sedentary pastime but as action items like trains or rocket ships that whisk readers away to exotic destinations. “Sometimes they just don’t discover where you can go with a book,” she said, discussing why people don’t read as much anymore. “Once you find a good book that really hooks into you that you can relate to and it just takes you away, you become a reader.”

Where books have whisked Ms. Hargis, a lifelong reader herself, is to this tome-packed 3000-square-foot storefront in the shopping center behind the Trenton CVS, on the corner of Highways 11 and 136 East, which she says has the dubious honor of being the only independent bookstore left in the region outside Chattanooga proper. 

“There used to be a dozen or more used bookstores,” said Ms. Hargis. “They’ve all closed.”

And Ms. Hargis makes no bones about the fact that she’s struggling herself. It’s not just that people read less, she says; it’s also the convenience of online merchandising and the growing prevalence of electronic reading devices. Times are hard for bookstores.

In fact, Ms. Hargis’s own day-to-day presence at the Trenton store began earlier this year when finances forced her to close her original store in Fort Oglethorpe, give walking papers to the loyal employee who had managed the Trenton store for seven years, and take his place behind the counter herself.

The Fort O bookstore, which she opened 18 years ago, was called Books Never-Ending. “I know,” said Ms. Hargis. “The irony of it all. It was a great name until I closed the store, and then it did seem ridiculous.”

But, she added, the name is still apt in a way. “The store is closed but the books are still with me, thousands upon thousands of them,” said Ms. Hargis.

How many books are we talking about here? A lot. Ms. Hargis quantifies them sometimes by mass instead of number: Boxfuls, roomfuls, truckloads. “We’ll take a book and see how many books are in a foot, then measure the shelf,” she said.

If it sounds out of control, Ms. Hargis explains, it is, but that’s the nature of the beast: If you run a two-for-one trade operation, as she does with used books, there’s no way to end up with fewer than you started out with. The Trenton store owes its existence to that fact; it started life as an overflow outlet for the mother store.

That was in 2002. By 2005, though, Ms. Hargis was ready to give it up as a bad idea. She lives in New Salem and had originally thought the Trenton branch would be convenient, but the Fort Oglethorpe store kept her busy and she couldn’t seem to find reliable help to run site B. “I had theft, I had slovenly, I had every kind of employee you don’t want to have, and the store was run down, looked awful, wasn’t well stocked, wasn’t clean,” she said. 

So she hung a Going Out of Business sign in the Trenton storefront and in January 2006 was packing books in boxes. Enter Joe Wollam. 

Wollam had long worked part-time at the main store, and at just that time he was laid off his full-time job. Needing extra hours, he came down to help clear the Trenton store out. “After a couple of days, we started talking about what if he tried to run it for a while,” said Ms. Hargis. “We both agreed to give it a go, and seven and a half years later he was still at it.”

Wollam was not just a reliable manager, he was a hit with the clientele, says Ms. Hargis. “I have people in here every day who say, ‘You’re doing great, but I sure miss Joe.’ ” she said. “He was excellent with taking care of customers and getting to know them and knowing what they liked and doing everything he could to find the books that they wanted – which is what we do. We do go out of our way to try to find the books that people are looking for.”

Now sadly Joe-less – it broke her heart to say good bye, said Ms. Hargis, but as business wound down at site A, she found herself paying his salary with her Social Security benefits – Ms. Hargis continues matching books with readers herself, and she says proudly about Books New and Used, “You won’t find this customer service in any other bookstore.”

In fact, the Sentinel’s chat with Ms. Hargis was punctuated with customer care as readers wandered through: “Have you tried our suspense section?” “This is the children’s section, and classics are right here.” 

Books New and Used does not specialize but has sections for science fiction; romance of every flavor including paranormal and historic; religion, medicine, mystery – “I always say we have books for everyone,” said Ms. Hargis.

Including children, and Ms. Hargis enjoys helping parents or grandchildren match kids with books. “My first question is always, what are his or her interests?” she said. “Do they like animals? And if so, what kind, horses or dogs or cats? If you can let them read something that they can relate to and they’re interested in and like, you can have a reader hooked right there, because they learn the value of where you can go with a book.” 

Just when it seems that kids aren’t reading anymore, says Ms. Hargis, a new series pops up that sucks them back in, Goosebumps or Harry Potter or Hunger Games. “And thank goodness for them,” she said. 

But Ms. Hargis says a bookstore is an important part of a town for adults, too. “People meet and make friends in the bookstore. They talk to each other and they suggest books to each other, and there’s a lot of a camaraderie there,” she said.

She gets readers roaming up from cabins and campsites at Cloudland Canyon or swooping down from the flight park as well as a loyal cadre of townies, says Ms. Hargis. “Book readers are a certain type of person, but you can’t pigeonhole them,” she said.

Except, she added, in general terms: “My book people are good people.”

Ms. Hargis has books for all of them, used ones for as little as 99 cents (or you can trade), as well as new ones ranging from $10-$30.  The store is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, and if you don’t see what you like, Ms. Hargis gets new books in twice a week and can have most titles available within three days of ordering. 

“Your book didn’t come today,” Ms. Hargis told a customer who arrived during the interview. “It’ll be here tomorrow.”

The customer replied she hadn’t expected it in yet. “But I needed something to read right now,” she said.

“And that,” concluded Ms. Hargis after the customer has wandered off to browse, “is the only reason we’re still open.” 

 


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