What happened at McKay's bookstore? Inside the cross-state road trip for a hot bargain


The left turn into and out of the Knoxville McKay’s used books and record store on Papermill Drive is a headache on a normal day.

But when the store celebrated its 50th anniversary July 9 with an all-day, prize-filled road trip to five locations in Tennessee and North Carolina, traffic was exacerbated − and some got more than they bargained for.

Knoxville, as a convergence point between the far ends of Nashville and Mebane, North Carolina, took the day’s frenzy to a new level, as the Knoxville Fire Department and Knox County ambulance provider AMR evaluated 23 people while they waited in a heat index that reached 105 degrees.

Another three people were taken to the hospital, Assistant Chief Mark Wilbanks of the Knoxville Fire Department told Knox News.

A crowd of 500 to 600 people snaked in a line from the store’s entrance down to the road before McKay’s shut down the event early at 5 p.m. and told those waiting in the Knoxville line − and those about to arrive − that they should move on to their next stop.

Wilbanks gave credit to the store’s managers for closing down the event for safety while trying to ensure participants got what they came for.

“There were people there that certainly were healthy, but nobody can stand standing out in the hot sun for multiple hours, and it was so hot and humid yesterday,” Wilbanks said. “I don’t think they realized that it would be the size that it was. I don’t think they intentionally did anything wrong.”

Here’s how the wildly popular McKay’s got to this moment.

What happened during the McKay’s Ultimate Road Trip?

McKay’s created its ambitious Ultimate Road Trip in honor of its 50th anniversary. On one day, if fans ages 18 and older could navigate the roughly nine-hour road trip to five stores between Nashville and Mebane, North Carolina, they would be rewarded with $800 of store credit and other prizes.

Each store came with a prize, beginning with a passport to be stamped along the 570-mile journey. But fans didn’t have to visit all five stores to get rewards, or visit in any particular order:

  • First store: McKay’s passport

  • Second store: McKay’s T-shirt

  • Third store: $50 McKay’s store credit, travel mug and snack pack

  • Fourth store: $250 McKay’s store credit and commemorative poster

  • Fifth store: $500 McKay’s store credit

On the store’s FAQ page for the road trip, McKay’s seemed to understand the risks involved. Under the question, “Won’t too many people do this?” the site says, “You only turn 50 once, and we’re looking forward to giving back to our community in a big way!”

Early in the morning, it became clear McKay’s might have attracted more fans than it expected on the hot July day. At its Mebane store, people got out of their cars in a traffic jam to walk to the store, according to social media posts.

McKay’s began modifying the requirements, telling thousands of exasperated travelers they could skip stores and still get stamps. The store also extended the deadline from 10 p.m. to midnight.

Some travelers said they ended the night with $800 of store credit, even if they didn’t get to all the stores.

A public Facebook page for the event was flooded with memes and complaints throughout the day about logistical problems, line skippers and the heat.

How long has McKay’s been in Knoxville?

McKay’s was founded in North Carolina in 1974 to be a “free enterprise library,” where people could buy cheap secondhand books and return them for store credit if they wished. After opening the “Edward McKay” bookstore, the company split ownership and became McKay’s, according to its website.

McKay's customers walk down Papermill Drive to the Knoxville store on July 9 for the company's 50th anniversary celebration, which took place at five stores across North Carolina and Tennessee. The Knoxville store shut down early amid a large turnout that resulted in three heat-related hospitalizations.McKay's customers walk down Papermill Drive to the Knoxville store on July 9 for the company's 50th anniversary celebration, which took place at five stores across North Carolina and Tennessee. The Knoxville store shut down early amid a large turnout that resulted in three heat-related hospitalizations.

McKay’s customers walk down Papermill Drive to the Knoxville store on July 9 for the company’s 50th anniversary celebration, which took place at five stores across North Carolina and Tennessee. The Knoxville store shut down early amid a large turnout that resulted in three heat-related hospitalizations.

Knoxville was the first Tennessee location for McKay’s when the store opened here in 1985. It has been on Papermill Drive since 2005. Its Chattanooga store opened in 1990, and its Nashville store opened in 2007.

When McKay’s bought back the Edward McKay stores in 2017, it resumed its North Carolina presence in Greensboro and Winston-Salem. Earlier this year, McKay’s moved its Greensboro store to a new building in nearby Mebane.

What makes McKay’s so popular?

The McKay’s warehouse-style store on Papermill Drive is popular because of its abundance of used books, records, CDs, movies, video games and other collectibles. It’s open seven days a week and until 10 p.m. Monday-Saturday, making it a rainy day or late-night activity.

It also has upheld its original promise of allowing customers to return items for store credit. McKay’s offers cash or store credit for used books, DVDs, CDs, games, records and collectibles, regardless of whether they originally came from the store.

Why is Knoxville McKay’s unionized?

In addition to heat-related hospitalizations, Knoxville’s McKay’s is unique in another way: It’s the only McKay’s store that has unionized.

Workers voted overwhelmingly to unionize on Nov. 8, 2022, though the union has yet to reach a contract with the store after more than a year of bargaining. The union formed to negotiate store labor policies, like sick leave and discipline, as well as fair pay, according to a union pamphlet.

A draft letter to McKay’s owners posted online calls on them to “listen to workers’ priorities, reject union-busting tactics like dragging out the bargaining process and pitting stores against one another, and instead, take the high road – come to the table and bargain a fair first contract in good faith.”

Daniel Dassow is a growth and development reporter focused on technology and energy. Phone 423-637-0878. Email daniel.dassow@knoxnews.com.

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This article originally appeared on Knoxville News Sentinel: McKay’s 50th anniversary road trip heats up at Knoxville bookstore



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