Colleagues and Friends Remember Former ABA President Rhett Jackson

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Fellow booksellers and First Amendment and civil rights advocates paid tribute this week to J. Rhett Jackson, who died on Thursday, May 26, at the age of 91.

Jackson, who served as president of the American Booksellers Association from 1986 to 1988, was the founder and owner, with his wife, Betty, of The Happy Bookseller in Columbia, South Carolina. The couple were the proprietors of the now-closed store from 1975 to 2003, when they sold it to Andy and Carrie Graves.

Throughout his life, Jackson fought for the causes he believed in, including the desegregation of the South and First Amendment rights. At the conclusion of his term on the ABA Board, Jackson helped found the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression (now the American Booksellers for Free Expression), on whose Board he served for more than a decade. He was also instrumental in founding the Southeast Booksellers Association (now the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance).

Jackson was also involved in myriad local organizations. He served on the boards of South Carolina Parole and Community Corrections, the Alston Wilkes Society, Claflin College, and the Greater Columbia Community Relations Council, and was a member of United 2000, a group opposed to the display of the Confederate flag on public property.

In 2006, Rhett and Betty Jackson were awarded ABA’s Lifetime Achievement Award, only the second time the award was bestowed by the ABA Board. That same year, Rhett was also honored with a Playboy Foundation Hugh M. Hefner First Amendment Achievement Award.

Here, past ABA presidents and other industry leaders remember the extraordinary life of Rhett Jackson:

Oren Teicher, ABA CEO from 2009 to the present:

One of the first booksellers I met when I came to work for ABA more than 25 years ago was Rhett Jackson of The Happy Bookseller. Rhett was the epitome of a Southern gentleman. He was tall, spoke with a deep Southern accent, had a full head of flowing white hair, and his very name conjured up every stereotype of a Southerner. But his actions, over a lifetime of civic engagement, challenged everyone’s preconceived notion of who he was. Rhett Jackson made the world a better place, and all of us who had the honor to know him cherish his memory.

Rhett was just completing his term as immediate past president of ABA when I got to know him; but he was far from through serving the bookselling community. He joined the ABFFE Board and served for many years, never compromising on his support of the First Amendment.

I’ll always remember the story Rhett often told about how he became a bookseller. Rhett was the co-owner of a successful family-owned furniture store, and, as he’d tell it, a very good salesman. But he really loved books and reading and, if he could sell furniture, couldn’t he do even better if he were selling something he really loved? And, that’s how The Happy Bookseller was founded...

Rhett and his wonderful wife, Betty, were the happy booksellers: they brought the joy of reading to countless thousands of people in South Carolina and beyond. Rhett worked tirelessly on behalf of ABA and later on behalf of ABFFE. His contributions were legendary. His leadership was indispensable in paving the way for ABA as we now know it.

Gail See, former owner of The Bookcase in Wayzata, Minnesota, and ABA president from 1984 to 1986:

When I first met Rhett at an ABA Board meeting and heard his lovely, lyrical, Southern voice, I made a snap judgment about him — conservative, formal, etc., etc. How wrong I was about this very special gentleman. Rhett opened my eyes about the folly of making assumptions. The more time we spent on ABA business, and the more time we spent talking about politics and life, the more I respected, admired, and cared for Rhett and his wife and business partner, Betty.

Rhett was wise, smart, caring, thoughtful, and full of good humor, kindness, and grace. Not only did he contribute his energy to ABA, but at the same time he also continued his work with the Parole and Community Corrections Board. In this work, he advocated for parolees and gave many, many individuals a chance for life after incarceration. He told stories of those who had little chance in life and was committed to seeing that change. His commitment to justice was deep and abiding and his work to change race relations was unending.

During his time on the ABA Board, Rhett brought those of differing points of view together, always emphasizing the importance of our work and our common goals. There was unrest and uncertainty about the future of independent booksellers, and this was the time of the ABA/publisher litigation! Rhett testified with his usual intelligence, making the case for the importance of a “level playing field” for all booksellers of all sizes.

Rhett was also an articulate spokesperson for independent booksellers when the Publisher Planning Committee made visits to publishers to advocate, once again, for all booksellers to be treated fairly. His well-reasoned presentation and good humor gave these meetings an atmosphere of collaboration rather than confrontation. At the same time, Rhett was effective in making a cogent case for the importance of independent booksellers.

I was fortunate to have had the chance to work with Rhett and to count him as a friend.

Joyce Meskis, owner of Tattered Cover Book Store in Denver, Colorado, and ABA president from 1990 to 1992:

Working with Rhett as an ABA Board member was always a learning experience, certainly as we puzzled through vexing book industry issues, but also as I watched him deal with matters closer to home having to do with the desegregation of the local Methodist Church, placement of the Confederate flag, civil rights, and his service on the parole board. One experience especially stands out in my mind.

Many years ago, Rhett and I were called on, as representatives of ABA’s Publisher Planning Committee, to meet with the head of a New York publishing company. Being a little early, we were waiting patiently in the reception area to be received. A few minutes passed and through the outside door walked a rather well-known author. Much to my surprise, the author, upon being introduced to Rhett, hearing his soft Southern accent and that he was from South Carolina, jumped to some ill-founded and false conclusions about Rhett’s character and politics. He berated Rhett about a controversial matter much covered at the time in the national news as though Rhett alone was personally responsible for the unjust fate of a convicted criminal on death row. Rhett quietly, politely and with great self-restraint, listened to the diatribe. Then at a pause in the author’s bluster, Rhett, with simple disarming eloquence, directly responded that he and others had been responsible for the candlelight vigil in support of the prisoner who was hoping to obtain a stay of execution. You could have heard a pin drop in that office. The author, stunned, having realized the gross inappropriateness of his overzealous behavior, made a hasty, awkward exit from the room, likely to the safety of the meeting with his editor.

For Rhett, it was all in a day’s work, as we were then escorted into the office of the president of the company.

Chuck Robinson, co-owner of Village Books in Bellingham, Washington, and ABA president from 1992 to 1994:

I was very fortunate to serve with Rhett on both the ABA and ABFFE boards. It quickly became abidingly clear that one should not mistake his soft-spoken gentleness with any lack of conviction about matters of free expression, racial equality, or the importance of books in our culture. He was one of the kindest people I've ever known, and I know that he touched the lives of many people, not only in his home state of South Carolina, but from coast to coast.

Richard Howorth, owner of Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi, and ABA president from 1998 to 2000:

While Rhett contributed to the Methodist Church with his outspoken convictions and to both the state of South Carolina and the community of Columbia with his service leadership, chiefly in race relations, he also gave much to ABA and to all of us, his fellow booksellers. His love for books and bookselling and his commitment to free expression, combined with the wisdom of a life fully embraced, an openness to the views of others, and a quick sense of humor, all made him a marvelous, exemplary leader for ABA and a beloved friend to all of us who knew him.

Mitchell Kaplan, owner of Books & Books in Miami, Florida, and ABA president from 2004 to 2006:

As a young bookseller, I was in awe of Rhett and the work he did both as a bookseller and a community leader who made such a difference. His smile, his encouragement, his commitment to social justice and First Amendment rights made him, to me, the consummate independent bookseller, one I aspired to be. My thoughts are with Betty and his family.

Wanda Jewell, executive director of the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance:

The most surprising thing I ever learned about Rhett Jackson was that he had a twin brother. How in the world could there be two of them? He was always the consummate Southern gentlemen, to my mind, and without him, I certainly would not be where I am today. It was because he traveled down to Florida to suggest that the Florida-Georgia Booksellers Association expand into the larger South. It was his store manager, Lois Mendenhall, who hired me to work for the then-Southeast Booksellers Association, and Rhett is how I find myself here today, 26 years later, loving every day working with the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance. I was always proud of how Rhett represented “the Southerner” to the rest of the country, and have always hoped to do the same. The world is better because Rhett was here. I miss him.

Rhett Jackson is survived by his wife, Betty Culler Jackson, their two children, Jim Jackson (Karen) and Kay Lawrence (Jack), and his grandchildren and great grandchildren.

Services honoring his life will be held at 2:00 p.m. on Saturday, June 4, 2016, at Trenholm Road United Methodist Church, with a reception immediately following. Memorials are suggested to the Alston Wilkes Society, 3510 Medical Drive, Columbia, SC 29203 or to the Mission Program of Trenholm Road United Methodist Church, 3401 Trenholm Road, Columbia, SC 29204.

For more on Rhett Jackson and his commitment to social justice and the First Amendment, see this week’s column by ABFE Director Chris Finan.