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ANDY OFFUTT IRWIN: The Bookstore of My Childhood
Andy Irwin
Andy Irwin

Earlier this year, the memory of my childhood bookstore hit my heart, my head, and my mind’s eye when I learned that Al Jaffee had died at 102 years old. When I was a kid, Mr. Jaffee brought me laughter every month as a cartoonist for MAD Magazine. With a career running from 1942 until 2020, he never outgrew his impish youthful humor. In 2010 he was noted as saying, “Serious people my age are dead.”

Al Jaffee contributed a lot of material throughout MAD, but he was most famous for a feature on the back page called the “Fold-In” — a cheeky title playing on the term “fold-out,” something found in the center of magazines of a different genre. The Fold-In was a hidden picture trick: unfolded you read the illustrated set-up, then you had to fold the page at the marks to get the visual and verbal punchline. It was as clever as all get-out.

Some would find the location of our bookstore in an unlikely spot, and indeed, even the local citizens of that time did not generally think of that business in literary terms. If you currently live in Covington and you occasionally drive to the Post Office, the one-way traffic pattern gives you no choice but to pass the building where it was, there on your left at the corner of Usher and Brown Streets.  That building was renovated not so long ago; the lettering painted on the wall above the corner door read, “Tri-City Building” and a smaller circle to the right proudly declared, “circa 1948.”

Now, all of that short-lived signage has been painted over in slate blue. The building has gone through yet another repurposing.

But,  hmm… 1948. Okay, so old enough to be …kind of old-ish, (if you’re kind of youngish). Architecturally, the lines of the nondescript building are pure function. (By the way, the word, “nondescript” was coined by a lazy writer who didn’t want to go to the trouble of describing something.) The building is at parallel angles with the streets, with the “front” of the building sliced off at the corner. One can easily see that the building is of a middle-twentieth-century design, but you’d be pushing it to declare it “midcentury-modern.” It was once home to “Tri-City Dry Cleaners,” an operation owned by Buck Callaway and his uncle who was just five years older, Claude Jordan. That latter gentleman was my godfather and his surname was pronounced, JERdon as were most Jordans in the South, back in the day.

I heard a remarkable interview on public radio with the great singer, composer, and conductor Bobby McFerrin.  At one point Mr. McFerrin was talking about hearing an early recording of his father, the renowned operatic baritone Robert McFerrin, Sr who was born in Arkansas. The elder Mr. McFerrin was singing an old Negro Spiritual about crossing the River Jordan. The younger, Bobby, who was born in New York and schooled in California exclaimed, “JERdon! My dad was pronouncing it JERdon!”  Bobby was astonished at his father’s pronunciation.

But I wasn’t.

I am of the perfect age to have witnessed this particular vernacular change in the South. Nowadays, of course, Jordan is pronounced just plain Jordan. This illustrates once again, to the chagrin of some nostalgics, that language and dialects are always evolving — otherwise, we would all talk like Shakespeare, and Shakespeare would’ve talked, like Chaucer. 

But that’s not what I came here to talk about.

•  •  •

The dry cleaning business was on the eastern end of the building, but the western end was home to the Southeastern Stages bus station.

Upon entering the station, the people counting out their dollars and coins to pay their fares to be transported from this town to another were greeted by the station manager, Miss Helen, who also sold cigarettes, Cokes, snacks, magazines (ahem, some behind the counter with fold-OUTs), and paperback books. There were always a couple of old men sitting in ladder-back chairs smoking, chatting, and gossiping across from the counter. These fellows were of a different socioeconomic stratum from the old men who sat in ladder-back chairs on the courthouse porch, who were, again, of a different socioeconomic stratum from the old men who sat on the ancient wooden bench around the corner from The Townhouse Cafe on the corner of Washington and Hendricks Streets.

At the bus station, I would accompany my mom as she bought her literature, usually specific titles she had asked Miss Helen to order. These books were of the cheap newsprint quality, of course. Trashy novel, or Charles Dickens, it was all the same. (This was before the days of “trade paperbacks” with high-quality paper.)  After my mother completed her purchase and turned to exchange persiflage with the old men, I would spend my meager allowance so that I could further develop my satirical mind in the pages of MAD.

I can still recall those moments when we exited the station and got in the car, giddy with our purchases, me with my MAD – diving right into Al Jaffie’s Fold-In – and Toots with her book. There was never a time when Toots didn’t have a novel going, everything from James Michener to Eudora Welty to J.D. Salinger. 

And yes, the question might be begged, why didn’t my mother just go to the library? I’m fairly sure it was because my bombastically gregarious mother was also fiercely private and didn’t want to be judged for reading the likes of Salinger or Michener or Harper Lee or William Styron. 

Yes, people are judged at the bus station. But not for what they read.

•  •  •

When my mom died and my sisters and I were cleaning out the house, we found a couple of boxes she had filled with some of those old books, along with a few tattered MAD magazines. That whole moldy box was tossed, except for a copy of John Updike’s “Rabbit is Rich.” I had become a fan when I read his short story, “A&P” back in college. 

With each turn of the page, the brittle paper flaked away from the spine of red glue. I collected those scattered pages and placed them in the bottom of the fireplace as tinder for the upcoming winter.

Toots would approve and be amused. 

Andy Irwin, of Covington, is a natural storyteller, humorist, singer, songwriter and musician. He can be reached at