By Jordan Roquemore | Photos by CJ White
The rolling shelves pull you in first. A small maze exists of tall aisles, comfy chairs, and bookslots of books. In the back stands a quaint fireplace with the picture of a smiling woman sitting on the mantle. Everything about the store seems to invite you to follow the simple advice of it’s owner: just browse.
“Fireside books is a general bookstore for people who still like to browse and touch real books,” James Leath, owner and manager of Fireside Books, says. “They can find something they weren’t expecting. Something new and interesting or maybe something out of their past.”
Leath became the owner of the bookstore last year when former owner, Trudy Richardson, passed away. A picture of Trudy is kept on the mantle in the store to remember her legacy.
“Trudy was one of a kind,” Leath says. “She had a real heart for helping people. She loved books, reading, playing games with friends and once you heard her laugh, you never forgot it.”
Trudy bought the store, formerly known as Lena Dean books, in 1976. She hired Leath in 1988 and he’s been there ever since.
“Trudy just grew up in a family that appreciated books and reading,” Leath says. “It was her dream to own a bookstore, and she made it a central part of the town’s literary interests. A lot of famous authors came and signed their books.”
Trudy was heavily involved in the Tyler-based organization, People Attempting To Help (PATH), a non-profit started by her grandmother Gertrude Windsor. PATH is a faith-based social services agency addressing poverty in Smith County.
“It all started with Gertrude feeding people from her kitchen door,” says Janet Hills, childhood friend of Trudy and the Windsor family. “The whole family had such giving hearts. You’d be hard-pressed to find any need that Trudy didn’t notice and take care of.”
Hills believes much of Trudy’s giving was a component of her faith in God.
“She [Trudy] would say ‘Yay, God!,’ whenever something good happened,” Hills says. “ She was a brilliant, young woman and had the most giving and generous heart. She saw a need and tended to it without question and without looking for recognition.”
Never marrying, Trudy kept a wide circle of friends varying from the elderly to children. Leath says she used the bookstore as an opportunity to meet and connect with people.
“She was able to make contact with any age or level of person, and you never felt like she was talking down to them,” Leath says. “Being in the book business was such a joy for her. She was probably more interested in buying and selling the books than actually making a profit.”
After Trudy passed away, Leath began to run the business entirely on his own.
“The buying and the selling are the most fun parts, but I do all the paperwork, and yes, I even vacuum,” Leath says. “The fun thing about used books is picking out what you think other people would like. You’re the connection in the book’s history of people enjoying it and that’s a neat feeling.”
In 1993, with the influx of chain bookstores into Tyler, Fireside books changed their business model and began selling used books.
“The chains certainly have their place,” Leath says. “They handle a lot of books, but you’ve got half a dozen people in New York buying the books for the country and setting the trends. Now Amazon has come and it’s starting to blow them out of the water.”
Leath explained that nearly half of his bookstore’s sales happen on the internet.
“The internet, on one hand, is a lot of competition, but on the other hand it’s an opportunity,” Leath says. “I sell books to people all over the world. That’s not something you would have expected 20 years ago—that a small bookstore in Tyler would be shipping books to Germany and Malaysia and India.”
Fireside Books currently carries genres ranging from cooking to sports and biographies to novels. Two-thirds of the books they sell are priced at eight dollars or less.
“Some people seem to have an idea that we’re just rare and expensive books,” Leath says. “We’ve always tried to have a whole range to meet lots of needs. Whatever your interest, we probably have something on it, but the best way to find it is to come in and browse.”
CORRECTION:Fireside Books currently carries genres ranging from cooking to sports and biographies to novels. Two-thirds of the books they sell are priced at eight dollars or less.