In January, 2010, a book written and illustrated by a man who lived and worked in Mississippi sold for a record-setting $11.4 million in a Sotheby auction; another copy of the same work sold for $9.7 million this year. Fred Smith, owner of Choctaw Books in Jackson, says he wouldn’t be at all surprised if there weren’t still a folio of Birds of America in Natchez, where Audubon lived in 1832.
“He would have known people down there,” Fred says, “And Natchez had more millionaires per capita than anywhere in the country before the war, so they certainly could have afforded to subscribe to the book.” Smith knows, since he has spent over a quarter of a century dealing with collectors, estates and institutions as a buyer, seller and appraiser of books, manuscripts and documents of every description, but primarily works about or related to Mississippi, the South and the Civil War; in short, every aspect of our multi-faceted regional history. As a result, he has become a one-man institution in and of himself, the go-to man for anyone in (or out) of the state wanting a set, subset or full collection of volumes of pages you’re unlikely to find at Books-a-Million or Barnes & Noble.
John Evans, owner of Lemuria Books in Jackson, has known Smith for over thirty years; he calls Fred a compadre, and after reflecting back to the times when they’d alert one another to a shifty customer, says, “A great used book seller is there to provide information you can’t find anywhere else. Oh, you can google a book on some obscure moonshiner in the Delta, but Fred’s going to tell you if you really need that book at all, and if you’re lucky, he’ll know of a book you ought to have instead of that one. Fred’s father Frank knew the past seventy-five years of the culture of Mississippi, and he handed that down to his son Fred.”
Frank E. Smith was a managing editor of the Greenwood Morning Star, served as an aide to Senator John Stennis, as a member of the Mississippi state senate, in the U.S. Congress, and as a director of the Tennessee Valley Authority. He and Fred began thinking about opening a business in the 1970s. “We figured the state needed a used bookstore. Our literary culture was so important that someone needed to make them available for people here to own and to treasure,” Smith says. “The goal was that we’d pull together an inventory and open up a store in 1983. Then my aunt, who had an antique store in Vicksburg where we’d place books to see how they’d sell, had an accident and had to close her store. All of a sudden, we had a lot of nice furniture. When we opened up, we were half antiques and half books.”
“That first year, Eudora Welty bought a piece of furniture for $700,” Fred remembers. “Now, selling a few books here and there is one thing, but that was by far my biggest sale. I wanted to keep the check, but the furniture was not mine, so I had to go ahead and cash it. Years later, I did two appraisals for Miss Welty, one on the letter that Faulkner had written to her and another on some other correspondence. I called up her lawyer, Carl Black, and asked him if it would be alright to keep one of the checks (for $250) and he said that she’d never know. I kept the check.”
“I don’t always make people happy,” Fred says, though it’s hard to imagine, since Fred has a jovial, Dickensian presence, the proprietor of a modern-day curiosity shop, an unpretentious clapboard building at 926 North Street in Jackson’s Belhaven Heights neighborhood that’s chock-a-block with books, maps and manuscripts. But Fred, because of his unique knowledge and sincere appreciation of Mississippi’s history, literature and bibliographic legacy, is also the premier appraiser of the state’s books, manuscripts, maps and other assorted documents, making him a unique denizen of Mississippi’s bibliophilic Parnassus.
“My job as an independent appraiser is to put a value that I consider to be valid on materials I’m asked to consider. Most of what I do is for tax purposes because people are donating materials for tax breaks. But a lot of folks think their stuff is worth a lot of money just because it’s theirs, and that’s not necessarily the case. I have done many appraisals over the years, and have not been called into question on any of them; people know to call me.”
Hugh McCormick, who started McCormick’s Book Inn in Greenville in 1965 and closed the business last year, says, “I admire Fred a lot. As far as I know, he’s the only person who occupies the sort of role he does in the Tri-state area. People who come to Fred are looking for something very specific and generally very hard to find, and he knows what they’re talking about.”
Cham Trotter says that when he first began collecting Old Miss yearbooks, Fred was the first person he thought of going to for help. “I’m a Civil War buff, so I had been in Fred’s store before. Ole Miss started publishing yearbooks in 1897; what I had in mind to do was to have a yearbook from each decade. I had several yearbooks from when I was in school from the Sixties and Seventies, from my parents who went to school there in the Forties, from my grandfather, who was business manager at Ole Miss in the Thirties and a few from when he had been a student there around 1909.”
“But I walked in Choctaw Books one day and Fred had boxes and boxes of Ole Miss annuals from the Thirties, Forties, Fifties, even up into the Seventies and Eighties. The family of Dean Frank Moak had given these yearbooks to Fred on consignment. So I decided to try and get one from every year. I got even more from Fred over the years, and now I have a full set.”
John Evans, who has every reason to know, says that the preponderance of the internet spells the end of the used book business as we know it. “The used book seller could come back, but I think we’re going to go through a void before that happens. When Fred’s business goes away, you’re not going to have someone to rush in and start another store like Choctaw Books the next day.”