The American Booksellers Association will honor longtime South Carolina independent booksellers and community leaders Betty and Rhett Jackson with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Celebration of Bookselling at this year's BookExpo America. The award will be presented to the Jacksons by fellow South Carolinian, and longtime friend, author Pat Conroy. The Jacksons opened their bookstore, The Happy Bookseller, in 1975 in Columbia, South Carolina.
This is only the second time in its history that the association's Board of Directors has bestowed a Lifetime Achievement Award. The first was presented in 2000 to Joyce Meskis, owner of Denver's Tattered Cover Book Store.
"Rhett and Betty have been an inspiration to literally generations of booksellers. Their work over the years has set a standard for what good booksellers should be," said ABA President Mitchell Kaplan of Florida's Books & Books. "They've taken an active role in their community, both in Columbia and in South Carolina. At the same time, they've been a strong voice in support of First Amendment rights and in promoting the importance of small business and the importance of book culture."
After serving in the Navy during World War II, Rhett married Betty and entered the furniture business. He also began working for various civil rights causes and spearheaded a successful campaign to end segregation in the Methodist Church. Rhett united his business and humanitarian interests when he founded The Happy Bookseller. He and Betty owned the store until 2003, when they sold it to Andy Graves, a longtime employee. Betty continues to work there, and Rhett visits frequently.
Betty began working at The Happy Bookseller when Rhett asked her to do the STOP orders. "We didn't have computers," Betty said. "Just a typewriter and a telephone and red pencil. We were the original members of the red pencil club. I thought the whole thing was a lot more fun than cleaning the house."
The Jacksons, who will celebrate their 60th wedding anniversary this year, continually developed the general bookstore. The Happy Bookseller moved five times during their almost 30-years of ownership and is now in a 6,000-square-foot location that houses approximately 60,000 titles. "We had the best inventory in the state," said Rhett. "I thought you ought to have the book that may not sell for a year, but when the person comes in for it, they'll be happy."
Rhett was also committed to helping customers find those books. "I didn't figure the owner of a bookstore should stay in the backroom," he said. "I met and chatted with customers. When a customer wanted a book, I didn't tell them which section it was in; I took them there. I really did stress customer service."
The Happy Bookseller brought many well-known authors to Columbia -- the first bookstore in the area to do so. "People in this community really appreciated that," Rhett said. "Many had never met an author. Pat Conroy, who was a friend, came. We had 3,000 people for his book The Prince of Tides (Bantam). We had big crowds ever since." Among the many others who came to The Happy Bookseller were Rosalynn Carter, Alan Shepard, and Bill Moyers.
In 1982, Rhett was elected to the Board of Directors of the American Booksellers Association and four years later became the association's president. During his tenure as president, the association strongly defended the First Amendment rights of booksellers and readers. In 1986, with Rhett as president, ABA, along with Playboy magazine and others, sued the Meese Commission, which had threatened to identify magazine retailers as distributors of pornography. The commission was forced to drop its case. The following year, Rhett also worked to oppose the nomination of Robert Bork to the U.S. Supreme Court because of Bork's statements supporting new restrictions on First Amendment rights.
At the conclusion of his term on the ABA Board, Rhett helped found the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression on whose Board he served for more than a decade.
Of their ABA Lifetime Achievement Award, Betty said, "It was a big surprise, but it's always nice to be recognized, and it's nice to be included with Rhett. It's just been a pleasure all of these years to deal with people who love books."
"I really appreciated the recognition," Rhett said. "I figured nobody would even remember an old man like me. Getting to know booksellers all over the country has been just wonderful. It's just amazing how many good people open bookstores. It's kind of a big fraternity."
Rhett took a moment to lament the closure of many independent bookstores over the years, but then he focused on a bright spot. "Oren [Teicher, ABA COO] recently told me that there are a number of prospective booksellers who want to go to [bookselling] school again. That's a good sign."
Pat Conroy is the bestselling author of The Water is Wide, The Great Santini, The Lords of Discipline, The Prince of Tides, Beach Music and My Losing Season. He lives in Fripp Island, South Carolina. --Karen Schechner