Adele Mills Schweid's dining-room table is piled high with correspondence: Incoming, in a ragged stack; outgoing, in neatly arranged personalized notecards. The widow's life is, fittingly in this case, a life of letters.
"I've had over 600 letters since Bernie died," she says. "They come from customers I have known for years, and from some I don't know at all. In the book business, you see, you become friends with people in a way that doesn't happen when you sell them shoes or shirts."
The summer has dealt two blows to Mrs. Schweid – the death of her husband Bernie, who was one of the South's best-known booksellers, and the demise of Mills Bookstores. The institution that represented not only her life's work, but also that of her husband and her father, will close its doors on Sept. 30.
"I don't want the people who read about this to think that we didn't give it the best shot we had for a long, long time," says Ron Watson. His voice cracks with emotion. In the same breath, though, the one-time clerk, manager and finally owner of the landmark emporium downplays the sentimental aspect of its closing.
"I'm not interested in an obituary of the business, or anything that maudlin," he says. "I don't like those end-of-an-era nostalgia pieces."
Adele Schweid takes a similarly hardheaded view of the occasion. It's not that the days when a love of books was the main prerequisite for success as a bookseller are over, she says. Those days never existed.
"That's a lot of nonsense," she says. "It certainly wasn't easy in 1892, and it wasn't easy during the Depression."
She remembers Reuben M. Mills, who opened his first store in 1892 at the age of 18, as a resourceful businessman. In the 1920s, Mills Bookstore became one of the first Nashville outlets for photographic services and supplies, and during the Depression the store took to selling Mrs. Mills' cookies in an effort to stay afloat.
After World War II (during which Bernie worked for the Office of Strategic Services, a precursor to the Central Intelligence Agency) the Schweids returned to Nashville and gradually took over the business. By 1964, when Ron Watson came to town from Coffee County to attend Belmont College, Mills stores were open downtown, in the new Belle Meade Plaza and in Hillsboro Village.
Responding to a bulletin-board notice, Watson applied for a part-time position in the fall of 1965 and was soon ensconced in the only job he has ever known. After rising to manager of the stores in the mid-1970s, he began buying into the operation in increments. Watson purchased a majority interest from the Schweids in 1987.
"It was an ideal arrangement," comments Mrs. Schweid, "because we had absolute faith and trust in Ron to do a good job, and it did enable us to have a marvelous life together that very few people had."
After buying out the Schweids with a combination of his own funds and borrowed money, Watson faced a dilemma familiar to many operators of small retail businesses: His resources were depleted, but in order to compete with huge nationwide chains he would need to spend more money.
"I knew then that it was going to be difficult," he recalls, "but I thought if anybody in the city had a chance to make it as an independent bookseller, I did."
Mills, however, didn't fit either of the profiles that are typical of successful independent bookstores. The ones that make it these days tend either to mine a well-defined market niche (thus, for instance, the proliferation of "recovery" bookstores) or to open huge stores that can offer more variety than the national chain stores. Oxford Books in Atlanta exemplifies the latter route: In a good year, one large Oxford store can sell a million books. Locally, Davis-Kidd has tried to achieve the same economies of scale.
Without the capital to invest in a superstore, and with a tradition of serving a broad rather than a narrow market, Mills could follow neither of these strategies. Soon, Watson began seeing warning signs.
"Economically, it proved within the first year to be much more difficult than I thought it would be," he says. "Over the next three years it has gotten even harder, until we have reached the point where we can't go on any more."
Coinciding with these difficulties was the rise of the book megachain. Barnes & Noble, with affiliate B. Dalton, boasts annual sales of more than $1 billion. Waldenbooks, with over 1,200 outlets and predicted sales in excess of $1.5 billion yearly by 1992, has found success by tapping into the merchandising savvy of its parent: K-Mart.
Although the nationwide book conglomerates have opened stores in every shopping mall of any size in town, Watson downplays their direct impact.
"The average mall customer and our average customer are not really the same person," he says. But the fact that "there are more places to buy books in Nashville than in most cities of comparable size around the country" hasn't helped matters, he acknowledges.
Adele Schweid concurs: "It's very difficult to fight the tremendous competition in this community without large capitalization. It takes money to build sales. It takes money to advertise, to do the kinds of things that increase your sales. And when your money's tight, you're in trouble."
Turning to his longtime employer and business partner, Ron Watson reminisces: "Remember when I'll Quit Tomorrow was one of the few books that talked about alcoholism? Back before alcoholism was talked about publicly, people would come in and look for that book, and if they had to ask about it you could tell they were embarrassed." From behind the cash register, Watson has had a unique perspective on the changing manners and mores of Nashvillians.
"I've always heard that bartenders were the people everybody told their troubles to," Watson says. "Well, I think we're kinda like bartenders."
After this Sunday, that interaction won't happen at Mills anymore. For Watson, it's time for a new beginning.
"I'm going to have to look for a job," he says, "for the first time since I was 18 years old. I'm having to give up something that I really had expected and planned to continue until I was tottering around at age 94 and a bookshelf fell over on me.
"They would have said `Old Mister Watson died when a bookshelf collapsed on his head. He should have retired years ago.'"
(Adele Mills Schweid passed away on March 31, 2005. Photo courtesy of Ron Watson.)