Paging through the warring past

By Frank Ruggiero - 23 November 2006

ruggiero@wataugademocrat.com

Some consider C. Clayton Thompson a Civil War hero.

This is not in the literal sense, though he has come to the aid of many a scholarly soldier seeking particularly hard-to-find books on the American Civil War.

Bookseller C. Clayton Thompson operates a store just outside of Boone, which is said to house the largest selection of Civil War books in North Carolina.

Photo by Frank Ruggiero

For five and a half years, Thompson has run a local bookstore just outside of Boone, specializing in military titles. However, he has been a bookseller for much longer.

Thompson began selling books about 15 years ago, while stationed at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. A Navy man, Thompson retired in 1999 as a master chief. It would be simple to say his interest in military books is derived from his 34 years in the service, but the Watauga County resident seems to enjoy helping others find that rare, published gem.

He and his wife, Suzanne, moved to the area seven years ago, and Thompson worked as director of the local Habitat for Humanity for about a year and a half. Part-time, though, he would sell books.

His hobby soon turned into a living, as his store is said to boast the largest collection of old and rare Civil War books in the state. However, Thompson started small. Fifteen years ago, a catalog accounted for most of his book sales, but the demand grew to the point that it practically became unmanageable for a small operation.

He would visit Civil War shows with his selection, selling in such historic locales as Gettysburg, Vicksburg and Harper’s Ferry. His operation consisted of books, fold-up book cases and a trailer.

Since the books were old and rare originals, prices were set on the steep side – fine for collectors, but somewhat out of range for the casual reader and researcher. So, Thompson began selling reprints of the old books to those who couldn’t afford the originals, such as “The Personal Memoirs of P.H. Sheridan,” a two-volume set that sells for $400.

“And now we sell lots of books, most of which are brand new,” Thompson said.

A conversation with publisher and author Eric Hammel sparked an interest in titles on World War II. Thompson was skeptical about selling such merchandise, thinking there wasn’t much of a market for the genre, but Hammel insisted. The market proved to be quite fruitful, and Thompson began carrying World War II books from the publishers whose books he already carried, such as the Naval Institute Press.

He then expanded his inventory to include titles on the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, though his concentration remained on the Civil War and World War II. About two years ago, he began selling genealogy books, after realizing many of his customers were visiting to learn about their families’ histories and distant relatives that served in wartime.

“It turned out to be a really great idea,” he said. “People buying Civil War and Revolutionary War books were doing so not because they were reading about a Civil War unit or a battle, but because their great-great grandpa was in there.”

Thompson recalled when a customer contacted him a short while back. She told him her father was said to have died in a car accident in Nicaragua but, as it turned out, her father was an agent of the Central Intelligence Agency and did not actually die in such a manner. She found Thompson’s Web site and located a book on the war in Nicaragua, which featured her father. Thompson shipped it overnight.

“A lot of people come because they’re working on family history and resolving issues,” he said.

Many titles can  only be found via their publishers, some of which are “one-horse publishers,” meaning they’ve only published one title, Thompson said, adding, “When you’re a specialist bookseller, you need to serve the customers’ needs and go to the small publishers with one to five titles.”

Not a publisher, Thompson has more than 40,000 titles in his database with new books coming and going, and he never returns books to publishers, unless they’re defective.

“If I decide to put a book on the shelf, it stays on the shelf, even for two years, until I sell it,” he said.

Unique titles include reprints of original World War II unit histories, like a unit cruise book completed after the war. Other subjects include the Holocaust and Native American history, as well as titles on World War I, the Korean War, Vietnam, the Cold War and Desert Storm.

His stock includes some historical fiction, such as Patrick O’Brian’s “Master and Commander” series, as well as feature motion pictures of a historic nature. The store is also laden with collectibles, ranging from war memorabilia to replicas to autographed books – some dating back to the 19th century.

“People who find it and buy it get real excited because either it’s been signed by somebody or has some connection to someone of historical note,” Thompson said.

There is also a section of North Carolina-based Civil war books, mostly published by McFarland, the University of North Carolina Press and Parkway Publishing.

Thompson has sold books to military libraries, military academies and museums, such as the Army Museum at Ft. Knox, to which he sent 35 books. “They know they can come to us and get a good collection of books from the same place,” he said.

In addition, Thompson assisted the producers of the film “Cold Mountain” by selling books on period clothing and buildings. He is also hosting a drive to send books to soldiers serving in Iraq. Customers need only buy the books, and Thompson will ship them overseas at no cost to the customer.

“Unlike most businesses, it’s a business that’s always interesting and fun,” he said.

His store is not usually one for walk-in business, as it’s located down N.C. 194 on Briarwood Lane near Green Valley School, but those who know it – or know of it – come to visit.

Situated on old farm property, the space was converted from an old tobacco barn into a fully climate-controlled, old-fashioned bookstore.

“When folks come out, they’re always amazed at our selection,” Thompson said. “They’re always skeptical until they get out here.”

The bookstore is located at 584 Briarwood Lane off N.C. 194. For more information, visit www.civilwarmall.com/bookseller/main.htm or call (828) 265-4970.