A piece of plastic is all you got: Books still a revered treasure for Mary Judith Messer

A squat little cinder block shop tucked away in a quiet mountain cove on the outskirts of Waynesville caught fire 43 years ago, around suppertime one night.

“I set up on the little rock wall that my husband built up here, just watching it, the smoke billowing out both ends,” said Mary Judith Messer. “I thought, ‘OK Lord, if you’re going to put me out of business, then I’ll go out of business.’”

Messer’s retail operation was flush with factory seconds irregulars and overrun apparel she’d culled from the largesse of the region’s then-booming textile industry, as well as the standard milieu of 19th and 20th century cultural artifacts — books, tapes, toys, crystal bowls and the like. 

“I did not have one ounce of insurance on this place. Not one dime,” said Messer, who’d previously worked at the Wellco factory putting bottoms on shoes. “I thought, ‘I know for a fact that I won’t be back in business if that fire gets up in the ceiling.’”

It didn’t, and 42 years later beneath that same ceiling in the squat little cinder block shop at 1032 Mauney Cove Road sits Messer’s Bargain Book Shop. 

Inside it wall-to-wall floor-to-ceiling shelves that allow no more than 18 inches of clearance at any point between them are, strangely, not confining but rather comforting — like being forcedly face-to-face with a musty old comrade in some forgotten, fluorescent-hued henge. 

The Appalachia-born Messer, who grew up in a poor, abusive household in the 1940s, is possessed of an almost savant-like ability to name and locate any of the thousands of books that pack her establishment. Her personal odyssey helps explain her professional legacy, but like some sort of classical Greek oracle — a contemporary Tiresias, or one of the Graeae — this prophetess of print has an eye on the future of the industry that publishers and readers alike ignore at their own peril. 


Moonshiner’s Daughter

Messer’s fire burned about 300 boxes of puzzles. That’s it. 

“You never seen the like of that in your life,” she said. “The floor, carpeted in puzzles.”

It could have been much worse. Firefighters didn’t have to put a drop of water on the blaze, which burst light bulbs and smoked out every piece of clothing in the place, but miraculously spared vast swaths of merchandise. 

“The fire completely died down when it got to the religious selection,” she said. “Not one religion book did I get destroyed.” 

Her faith is apparent everywhere you look in her shop; she lives nearby and visitors are likely to find the place unattended, allowing for a few fleeting moments of solitude to glance at the security cameras and ponder her stern scrawlings and religious imagery — warning of both the temporal and eternal consequences of shoplifting — before she walks in the front door. 

Raised in Haywood County before the War on Poverty, after the Great Depression and during the postwar economic boom that left much of Southern Appalachia behind, Messer and her siblings experienced a litany of horrors not limited to poverty, alcoholism, violence and rape. 

Longtime Smoky Mountain News contributor Jeff Minick wrote that Messer’s memoir Moonshiner’s Daughter was “a slice of Appalachia from a time now vanished from these mountains,” upon its release in 2010. 

“Amazon has sold thousands of copies of that book, and Universal Studios has been up here six times,” Messer said. “I don’t know what they have their mind on, but they seem to be at every book signing I go to.”

Messer’s literary voice, Minick went on to say, is “direct, simple, conversational” and “lends a force to her writing that should attract many readers.”

Readers and collectors are also attracted to Messer’s obsessions — her possessions. 

“We still sell a few CDs here,” meaning a few thousand, laughed Messer, who pawed a Waylon Jennings tape hanging from an eye-level rack. “I still have a few cassettes too. I have about 3,000 I’d like to get rid of up at my house.”

But it’s the books that bring the bucks, mostly, and Messer has most everything for most anyone; she rattles off well-known authors like an auctioneer.

Her collection includes everything from science fiction to fantasy to hymnals, and history to westerns to romance, and she effortlessly spouts a dozen names or more per genre in a single breath encompassing subjects as diverse as the poetry of Federico García Lorca to the tawdry, titillating tales of Nora Roberts’ 215 titles. 

“And we do have paranormal romance, because who wouldn’t want that,” she laughed. 

Inspirational literature owns a special place in Messer’s heart — and not just because of its popularity with her customers. 

“Everything is so down anymore, like that shooting yesterday,” she said, referring to the attempted political assassination of Congressman Steve Scalise and other members of the House GOP baseball team. “Something all the time is going on like that. I think America is coming down to the very end, I really do.” 

Pulp fiction best sellers generally cost half of their original cover price, and other collectibles are priced per their value.

It’s not clear if the stacks of old magazines are included in Messer’s estimates of the size of her book collection, which she matter-of-factly pins at 276,000 as she produces a February 1977 issue of National Lampoon magazine — “JFK’s Fifth Term Inaugural Issue” — celebrating the president’s first 6,000 days in office. 

“You do a lot of in-and-outs here, so it could be more and it could be less,” she said. She’d like a building “three times” the size of her current one, so she could better organize her scattered collections. 

Doing so would make it easier for her customers to find what they’re seeking when they finally find her shop.  

“They see the big yellow sign down there [off Russ Avenue] and they throw on the brake and say, ‘My God, there’s a bookstore down there!’ and here they come.” 

She said she has a dedicated customer base that has for years regularly traveled from South Carolina and Florida to peruse her wares. 

“I’ve been here 42 years — 20 years before another bookstore even came. I was the first bookstore in Haywood County.”

In that time, the internet has lain waste to many a cultural tradition, proving both a blessing and a curse to readers. While more information is more readily accessible, the glowing rectangles upon which it is now displayed have decimated a once-robust print industry, from news to novels and everything in between. 

Messer, with her own book, has embraced the digital age that seems so far removed from the squat little cinder block shop in the quiet mountain cove. 

“Oh Lord — all the customers that come in here, they want the real book. My book is on Kindle. That one there,” she said, lifting a finger in its direction, “but they say they only would read a Kindle or a Nook if they are flying and don’t have much space, or they’re in a Laundromat.”

Fleeting bytes and bits can never replace the stacks of curling, yellowed pages she trades in, Messer said.  

“You ain’t got a thing to put on your bookshelf — something to line up across, and look good at. People that would have something like this,” she said, pulling out a set of medical books from the 1800s, “they would be missing out on something like that. Look at that. That is precious.”

Digging through a stack of Heavy Metal magazines from the late 1970s and pausing to admire one adorned with the cover art of H.R. Giger, Messer stopped briefly, looked down thoughtfully, and finally gathered enough gravity to issue her prophecy. 

“You don’t have nothing when you have words on a piece of plastic,” she said. “A piece of plastic is all you got.”

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