Book lovers know that entering a good second-hand bookshop is like setting off on an expedition, a literary treasure hunt. It’s the thrill of the pursuit. For them, the only thing better than finding exactly what they’re looking for is stumbling across a book they were not looking for at all but cannot, suddenly, live without. That is exactly the feeling one gets when crossing the threshold of Dogwood Books in downtown Rome, Georgia.
Often the reputation of a used bookshop is tied to the personality and character of their owner. That’s certainly true here. Kenneth Studdard, Dogwood’s owner, is who a bonified bookworm might hope to meet while trawling the stacks. Studdard is the definition of a book man, someone with a breadth of knowledge based on a lifetime of broad reading and lengthy conversations with other literary-minded people.
He is a far cry from the ill-informed “booksellers” one is likely to come across — if such people can be located — in the average big-box bookstore. For Studdard, this has been a lifelong educational process, from reading his first childhood novel, Mystery of the Haunted Mine by Gordon Shirreffs, to the modern mysteries by Martha Grimes. And he’s still learning.
To understand how Dogwood Books became a fixture among the stores on Rome’s Broad Street, one needs to take several steps back in time. Before Studdard plied his trade in the traditional brick-and-mortar fashion, he sold books online for ten years. He says, “That was my way of learning the business and trying to decide if I wanted to own a store.” After that exploratory decade, he rented space at the Roman Antique Mall on Broad Street (now the location of John Henry’s Grill). “The antique mall was like an apprenticeship where I was learning about what people buy,” Studdard says, “and I always questioned people who had bookstores, about pricing and where they got their stock.”
He stayed there from 2004 until the antique mall closed in 2007. That same year, Dogwood Books opened its own storefront on Broad Street. The business remained in that location until Studdard rented a space across the street and moved his inventory in February 2020. Like many buildings in downtown, this one had served as home to many different businesses over the years, most recently a clothing store. “Originally, this building was a machine shop,” Studdard says, “so the floors were heavily reinforced to hold the weight of heavy machinery. It’s perfect now for supporting so many shelves of books.”
Filling the shelves
One of the biggest differences between owning a used bookshop and owning a typical retail store can be summed up in one word: stock. When the proprietor of a retail store needs inventory, they can go online and order from a distributor, and soon UPS wheels the books through the door. That’s how it goes when selling brand new products. It’s not quite so simple at a second-hand bookshop. “The vast majority of our stock,” Studdard says, “is stuff that either people bring to me or things I go out and find, whether it’s estate sales or thrift stores.”
Studdard points out that estate sales are a hit-or-miss proposition. It all depends on whether or not the deceased person was a book lover. “More often than not, estate sales are not worth your time,” he says, “but enough of them are that I don’t mind going. All of this is part of why we do these things.” On a positive note, Studdard can sometimes get the same experience from these sales that his customers get when they come to Dogwood Books: “When you’re out looking — that’s the fun of doing this — it’s a treasure hunt,” he says. “You have things in your mind that you’re looking for, a certain area of your store where you need more books, so you’re always looking.” He says that there are many times he goes to estate sales and strikes out. “But,” he adds, “there are also times you find treasures. That makes it worth it.”
According to Studdard, the first thing a bookshop owner must learn in this business is what does not sell. Shelves packed with books that will never move is a recipe for financial disaster. So, encyclopedias and Reader’s Digest condensed books are to be avoided at all costs, as are self-help books and textbooks. “You don’t want anything that deals with a fad,” Studdard says, “because they become quickly dated.”
He also stays away from book club editions, which tend to be smaller, cheaper printings with smaller type. He’s picky about what he takes in. Even when people want to donate books, Studdard is very careful; books that are free to him do no good if they just sit on the shelf. Ever the pragmatist, he says, “Every bad book you take in is taking up shelf space where you could have a better book, so I’m always looking to improve my stock and increase the quality.”
What the reading public wants
There’s a reason why the children’s book section is the first thing shoppers encounter when they walk through the front door at Dogwood Books. “Children’s books are always popular,” Studdard says. Many customers want to share their own childhood reading experiences with their children and grandchildren, and Studdard is happy to oblige, keeping this section well stocked. He adds, “The Harry Potter books are still selling well. Usually, those kinds of series run their course, but Rowling’s work keeps selling and selling. It’s amazing. People just love it.”
Theology is a steady seller, which makes sense for a town with so many churches and a Christian University. Also, the literature section is particularly popular at Dogwood. “The classics are always big sellers,” Studdard says. “Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Austen, Dickens, the Bronte sisters — I can never have enough of them.”
What a book man reads
It seems counterintuitive, but a common complaint for many bookshop workers is finding time to read. This is a challenge for Studdard as well, but he makes the time. He says, “For pleasure, I read mysteries.” As mentioned earlier, he likes Martha Grimes, but he is also a huge fan of the late Erle Stanley Gardner, the prolific author of the Perry Mason novels. He has a private collection at home of all the Perry Mason books (yes, in their dust jackets). “I like Gardner’s books because he keeps the action moving along, he develops his characters well, and his mysteries are good,” he says. “And I just like that old style of writing.” Studdard is also a fan of the Belgian mystery writer Georges Simenon, author of nearly 500 novels and creator of the fictional French police detective Jules Maigret.
When asked why he likes mysteries, Studdard says, “I think it has something to do with the way my mind works. I like puzzles.” He goes on to explain that it all goes back to that first novel he read, Mystery of the Haunted Mine. As a boy, it captured his imagination. He was hooked. After that, he began reading mystery series like the Hardy Boys and The Three investigators, both young reader classics that Dogwood still sells.
Studdard is a fan of reading books more than once. “I’m a big re-reader,” he says. In adulthood he’s even re-read that childhood favorite about the haunted mine, of which he now owns an autographed copy and a first addition. Smiling, he says, “It’s still good. It holds up.” This proves right the words of C. S. Lewis on the subject: “No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally — and often far more — worth reading at the age of fifty and beyond.”
Mystery isn’t the only genre Studdard enjoys, however. His tastes are varied. He likes history, biography, and theology, all of which Dogwood carries. And he has a special interest in books about books.
In the company of books
Shaun Bythell, author of the charming, sarcastically hilarious book Confessions of a Bookseller and owner of the The Bookshop in Wigtown, Scotland, said, “The pleasure derived from handling books that have introduced something of cultural or scientific significance to the world is undeniably the greatest luxury that this business affords, and few other walks of life — if any — provide such a wealth of opportunity to indulge in this.” Bythell, who is arguably the world’s most famous bookshop owner, knows something that Studdard also knows: the books themselves make coming to work a privilege rather than a drudge.
President John Adams, a famous bibliophile, referred to the books in his personal library as “my friends.” Kenneth Studdard understands that. He says, “At home I have about 4,500 books, give or take. The rule is they have to stay in my office downstairs.” As Bythell noted, bookshop owners are surrounded each day by volume after volume that have quite literally changed the world. Books matter. That makes working and living in the company of books both a privilege and a joy. “I never dread coming to work,” Studdard says. “I always look forward to it. I like what I do.”