The Alabama Booksmith opened October 21, 1999. The genesis can arguably go back somewhere between a decade and a century, depending on how technical the historian. Here’s the story. On September 22, 1990, Jake Reiss opened the Highland Booksmith, removing the stigma of being the only male member of his family for two generations not to serve some time as a bookseller.
Jake’s brother, Norman, began the family bookselling tradition by working at Malone’s Bookstore in Tuscaloosa, when he attended the University of Alabama in the sixties. Eldest son Jake IV, sold books for three summers as a student at the University of Georgia. He preceded the Internet by taking books to customers’ homes in Blytheville, Arkansas; El Centro, California and French Lick, Indiana while representing Southwestern Publishing Company of Nashville, Tennessee. Youngest son Frank actually should be credited as the Booksmith progenitor when he went to work for and eventually became manager of Acorn Books in San Francisco.
On the first of several visits, the father was intrigued with the son’s operation. In the late 1980’s, Frank moved back home to Atlanta and opened the very successful A Cappella Books. On many occasions, the son took the father along acquiring inventory and the book bug bit. Jake returned to Birmingham and started buying books. After his spare bedroom was completely overrun, the building in Birmingham’s bohemian district was leased and The Highland Booksmith was born.
This store opened with only used copies, and did not start carrying new books for a couple of years. With a great staff and manager in place at the Booksmith, Jake spent much of his time in the family tailoring business that has served Alabamians since the end of the nineteenth century. While he still works with a few clients in the tailoring business that his son now runs, Jake spends most of his time at the Booksmith.
If there is a defining moment in what was to become The Alabama Booksmith, it happened on August 21, 1995 at exactly six o’clock sharp, when the store hosted Don Keith, author of THE FOREVER SEASON for its first reading and signing. Since that evening, several hundred writers have signed and read in the store and at events around the state. The Booksmith brings books and authors to reading groups, libraries and schools as well as huge conferences like READ ALABAMA Jasper, THE OTHER COVERED BRIDGE in Oneonta and ON THE BRINK in Jacksonville.
With so much of the business depending on special events, it was obvious the Highland Avenue location had major problems: traffic congestion, lack of parking, no book storage and staging for large events, inadequate outdoor signage and not enough room for authors. We won’t even mention the general aging of the building.
Then, what to our wondrous eyes should appear, but the answer to every bookseller’s dream – the perfect store in the perfect location. At first sight, family, friends and customers saw a dilapidated, deserted office building hidden from sight by wild trees, vines and weeds. We saw a cozy bookstore with a fireplace, complimentary refreshment stand, custom made shelves and counters, immaculate rest rooms, office and storage space to squander, 125 parking spaces, and, facing Alabama’s busiest highway, a huge marquee sign on which we can put our authors’ names up in lights.
We bought that ugly duckling on July 19, 1999, and after bulldozing, replacing the floor and ceilings, hiring a master woodcraftsman, replacing the plumbing and doubling the existing square footage with a new building for office and storage, the beautiful swan was ready to spread its wings in ninety days. WELL, there was this minor problem of transporting 100,000 books. Forty customers volunteered and the all-new and improved Alabama Booksmith opened as our dream store.
So, whether The Alabama Booksmith began when it opened in 1999, or actually became a bookstore in 1990, or the decision was made at Acappella Books or Acorn Books in the 1980’s, or when bookselling first hit the family in the sixties or possibly evolved from the 1899 family business, that’s just history. We are more interested in the future, and sure hope The Alabama Booksmith is in yours.