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This article appeared in The Commercial Appeal, Memphis, TN, April 11, 1996, and has been edited for submission on this website.

Commercial Appeal, The (Memphis, TN)


Date: April 11, 1996
Section: Neighbors
Page: CE1
Illustration: photo
Source:    Wayne Risher The Commercial Appeal
Edition: Final

Hanging around hotel lobbies asking Atlanta Brave David Justice or St. Louis Cardinal Ron Gant to sign baseballs.

Standing in lines at bookstores for autographed copies of books by Norman Schwarzkopf, Kirk Douglas or Anne Rice.

Rising early to scour yard sales and estate sales for rare treasures such as a 75-year-old Confederate reunion flag or a mint-condition Bobbsey Twins book.

 Sounds like a day's work for John Stephens, a 48-year-old Memphis native who translated an obsession with the Civil War into a full-time occupation buying and selling rare books and other memorabilia. He recently opened Madison Avenue Books at 1863 Madison in the Gilmore Apartments building at McLean and Madison. He chose the Gilmore because it reminded him of neighborhoods in which he had found rare bookstores in other cities. The store opened Feb. 17.

 Visitors to nearby Fino's Italian grocery and deli drift into Stephens's shop two doors east. On warm days Stephens props the door open with a small bookshelf. A coffee table and comfortable-looking sofa beckon just inside the door.

 Beyond are several rows of books destined for collectors' bookshelves, plus an assortment of rarities ranging from Flintstones trading cards (50 cents) to a copy of A Brief Narrative of the Fourth Tennessee Cavalry Regiment by George B. Guild ($600). The Civil War history is one of only two known to exist in its original dust jacket.

 A graying, bespectacled man casually attired in plaid short sleeve shirt and slacks, Stephens said his hope for the business, besides making money, is to introduce more Memphians to the joys of collecting rare books and other items. He said he's looking forward to the city's first major book collector's show scheduled in June at the Memphis Cook Convention Center. ''I'm hoping this will open Memphis up to what we're doing.''

 Stephens grew up in Memphis, graduated from Trezevant High in 1965, graduated from Memphis State University in 1969 with a BBA and a degree in real estate. After graduation, he served three years active duty in the United States Navy--two years in Vietnam and one year at Lake Hearst, New Jersey Naval Base. Then, he served three years inactive service in the Naval Reserve.  While in New Jersey, he earned a MA in History at Rutgers University.  After six years service, he left the Navy as a Lieutenant. Stephens taught History at Bridgewater Community College in Virginia before returning to Memphis. Before starting his bookstore, he worked for title companies tracing histories of real estate parcels.

 His interest in the Civil War was kindled when he was in his early 20s and learned about a great-great-grandfather who served with the 32nd Mississippi Infantry in the Confederate Army. He retraced his ancestor's footsteps on such battlefields as Chickamauga and had the privilege of talking with the Civil War veteran's last wife, who married him at age 16 and died in the mid-1970s.

 ''I was a collector of Civil War (books) for many years,'' said Stephens. ''I can't get it out of my blood. I've been obsessed with the subject. I always found it amazing: four years of fighting among Americans, all that fighting and death. It just really caught my interest.''

That explains the display case and bookshelves containing 250 to 300 books on the Civil War, many of them first editions and some of them signed by the authors. They range from MacKinlay Kantor's Andersonville (a 1955 edition for $12.50) to a 1958 copy of I Rode with Jeb Stuart by H. B. McClellan ($40).

About three years ago, Stephens left his job at the title company and went full time into the business of books and collectibles. He attended collectors' shows around the country and circulated a catalog of his collection, which has ranged as high as 750 Civil War books at one time.

 In addition to the Civil War inventory, Stephens boasts sizable collections of first editions, sports and children's books. He has a section on regional topics and authors.

His collection of 300-400 books signed by their authors includes autobiographies of Dolly Parton, Barry Goldwater, Dan Quayle, actress Ruth Gordon and Henry Kissinger. Stephens pointed to a row of books propped up by Abe Lincoln bookends and said, ''These are all signed, presidential books. A lot of them I got signed myself.'' They include books by Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and George Bush.

Among his children's books were The Bobbsey Twins at Lighthouse Point, a 1939 Paper Doll edition ($25) with a dust jacket bearing paper doll cutouts of twins Flossie and Freddie; various Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew mysteries; and books from the Chip Hilton Sports Series by Clair Bee.  ''These just have so much appeal to the collectors, for the nostalgia,'' Stephens said.

 Stephens said he leaves his East Memphis home at 7:45 each morning in search of yard sales and estate sales that might yield rare books or collectible items. The store doesn't open until late morning or early afternoon, to allow time for Stephens's ramblings. Store hours are 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Wednesday, 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Thursday and Friday, noon-5:30 p.m. Saturday, and 1-5 p.m. Sunday.

 Stephens said he gets many of the autographs himself, traveling to see authors who come to town or attending book signings out of town. He described himself as a huge sports fan, particularly of the St. Louis Cardinals, and said he has been known to hang out in hotel lobbies waiting for baseball stars to sign baseballs. He's come to know a little about athletes, writers and other celebrities through the autograph-seeking efforts. Memphis author Shelby Foote, author of The Civil War: A Narrative eschews autograph seekers, Stephens said, but vampire author Anne Rice embraces them. Dave Justice is good for an autograph if there aren't too many baseball fans crowded around.

 Stephens said because of the nature of the collecting business, the store's inventory changes rapidly. He said he plans to add more bookshelves this spring to accommodate more reader-oriented books.

After all, not everyone wants to settle down with a copy of Book of the Dead: Celebrating 25 Years with the Grateful Dead ($125); a 1955 second edition of the Alcoholics Anonymous Big Book ($32.50); or A True Champion: An Adventure with Hulk Hogan, ($5) an illustrated storybook about the flamboyant TV wrestler.

Caption: By Mike Maple
(Color) John Stephens, 48, owner of Madison Avenue Books, looks at a copy of J. P. Austin's the Blue and the Gray, published in 1899. Austin was a Confederate soldier who served with the 9th Kentucky Cavalry for the entire four years of the Civil War.
Document Number: 9604120098

Article has been edited for submission on this website.

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