The Southern Bookstore: exploring the literary SouthIn a region known for its distinctive literary voice, the South is also known for its legendary bookstores. From small shops tucked away in surprising places, to labyrinthine stacks with decades of history, to sellers staking a claim in once-faded downtowns, the story of great Southern bookstores and booksellers is intricately connected with both the history and future of Southern literature.In The Southern Bookstore, Authors 'Round the South features some of the South's most interesting book people and book places.

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by Susan Rebecca White

Susan Rebecca White

It’s a Tuesday, and I’m at North Decatur Presbyterian Church. I came here for a meeting, but that ended hours ago. Now, I’m working in the study, a cozy room lined with bookshelves that contain as many novels as theological tomes, as our co-pastors were both English majors.

Perhaps you are thinking, “That is all very nice, Susan. But what does it have to do with independent bookstores?” In my case, everything. I found NDPC because of Cynthia, who is married to Frank Reiss, who owns my neighborhood independent bookstore, A Cappella. Frank is Jewish, Cynthia Presbyterian, and when my husband and I were looking for a church, she suggested I check out North Decatur, which is known for its progressive theology and activism. From the first sermon I heard—which made space for doubt—I knew I had found my place.

Such a feeling of homecoming was not unlike first walking into A Cappella nearly 15 years ago, new to the neighborhood if not new to Atlanta, my MFA freshly minted, my drive to become a published novelist palpable. And when I did get published, Frank read the galley of Bound South, and called to tell me how funny it was, how well it captured a certain slice of Atlanta.

Soon after, Frank introduced me to Jessica Handler, whose memoir, Invisible Sisters, was published within months of Bound South. My writing group was short a member, so we invited Jessica to join, and over the years our friendship has grown and deepened. When I was going through a divorce, Jessica invited me over, fed me, and sat talking with me in her living room, a cat on each of our laps, a glass of wine in our hands, the guest bed freshly made, so that I didn’t have to worry about driving home. How cool that we each published a novel last year, and that our writing group critiqued early drafts of both books.

Truly, A Cappella Books has a history of providing me with unexpected treasures. Often the treasure is actual books. Visiting the store, I always find something perfect to read that I didn’t even know I was looking for. Once, it was How to Be Idle, a book that encourages people to, among other things, take more naps—which is, seriously, the best advice. Another time, it was The Skies Belong to Us, an account of the spate of airline hijackings that occurred from 1968-1975, a book that indirectly influenced my fourth novel, which explores a group of radical militants during the Vietnam war era. Last December, I found the charmingly illustrated Your Cabin in the Woods, a how-to guide that was a spot-on present—if only for daydreaming—for my carpenter husband.

Yes, I can sometimes find a book for cheaper on Amazon, but at what cost?

When I buy a book from A Cappella, I know that over 40 cents of every dollar spent gets reinvested into the local community. I know that A Cappella’s employees are paid fairly, and treated well. I know that they, in turn, promote books they love, including those written by lesser known authors. It’s a virtuous cycle of support, allowed for, in part, because A Cappella has no shareholders, demanding short-term profit above all.

Indies matter because, like a beloved place of worship—whatever the religion—they bind communities together. May we all worship at the altar of independent bookstores, for they deeply enrich our lives.

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Susan Rebecca White is the author of three critically acclaimed novels, Bound SouthA Soft Place to Land, and A Place at the Table. A graduate of Brown University and the MFA program at Hollins University, Susan has taught creative writing at Hollins, Emory, SCAD, and Mercer University, where she was the Ferrol A. Sams, Jr. Distinguished Chair of English Writer-in-ResidenceAn Atlanta nativeSusan lives in Atlanta with her husband and son.

George WeinsteinWhen I was a kid in suburban Maryland in the 1970s and ‘80s, bookstores seemed ubiquitous. We had two independent bookstores at opposite ends of a single shopping center. The mall boasted one chain bookstore after another. Books were everywhere, and everybody in my family had a preferred store based on stock, layout, lighting, and staff personalities.

I wish I remembered the name of my favorite independent bookstore back then. Though I can’t recall it, I can tell you exactly what the store looked like. Glass-fronted on two sides, it had a mitered corner so as not to obstruct the view of the treasures inside. In fact, the first time my parents took me there, I learned the term “miter” from my dad, as I ran my pudgy index finger down the subtle seam that joined the windows.

Once they led me through the door, I completely forgot about the glass. All manner of books lay and stood before me. To my left, dozens of low, square platforms supported glossy coffee-table books with lush photographs and illustrations, neat columns of fiction and nonfiction hardbacks, and stacks of comic books arranged like ziggurats and epic Marvel-versus-DC mahjong games. To my right, mass-market paperbacks lined row upon row of free-standing shelves and, beyond these, rotating racks of still more pocket paperbacks.

Howard Carter’s first glimpse of King Tut’s tomb couldn’t have felt more momentous.

Every weekend, I contrived a pilgrimage to that bookstore. Toys "R" Us never saw another dime of my allowance.

Every weekend, I contrived a pilgrimage to that bookstore. Toys "R" Us never saw another dime of my allowance. From the checkout station near the door, a staff member always greeted us. Once they learned our tastes, they noted the newly arrived stock that would appeal to me and to whichever parent had the unenviable task of trying to limit my browsing and decision-making time. As if anything could be more important in their Saturday schedule than my evaluation of the relative merits of the latest Avengers and Justice League comics or competing titles that promised to unlock the secrets of Loch Ness, Project Blue Book, and the Bermuda Triangle.

Watch What You SayIn a way, I grew up in that bookstore. My interests expanded, and, guided by the always-helpful staff, I kept discovering new sections of the store I’d overlooked before. In my teen years, an allowance gave way to summer job money. A good thing, because the books that captivated me were more expensive. I learned to budget and save due to that bookstore. My first serious crushes were on the pretty cashier and several customers—which taught me how to deal with longing, rejection, and heartache.

I went off to college and, during spring break of my freshman year, I returned to find the store had closed, a victim of changing tastes and a sharp-toothed recession. This helped to teach me how to cope with loss.

Now, whenever I visit my local indie bookstore, I still get excited. Maybe I’ll discover something life-changing. I know exactly where on Earth I stood when I first felt that thrill of possibility.


George Weinstein is the author of six novels. His latest is the suspense thriller and 2019 Okra Pick Watch What You Say. George is also the once and current president of the 105-year-old Atlanta Writers Club and the creator and director of the nationally renowned Atlanta Writers Conference.

John ShoreI needed a job, badly. I was as broke as Wimpy on a Monday. (Young people: google “Popeye the Sailor,” and enjoy learning about that cartoon character’s pal, Wimpy, who was clearly a homeless alcoholic.)

I was also living with a girl named Cat, with whom I was swooningly in love. So I was fairly desperate to prove to Cat that I was the kind of man upon whom she could always depend to at least be a stoner with a JOB.

We were living in San Francisco. There was only one place in that whole city where I wanted to work: the venerable, three-story, glass-fronted independent bookstore in the heart of downtown called Stacey’s.

But the people who worked at Stacey’s seemed to have as much in common with me as I did with David Niven. (Young people: David Niven was . . . oh, forget it.) They were serious, bonafide, hardcore intellectuals. They knew things. They knew a lot about a lot, and were no doubt learning more every day.

Meanwhile, the last thing I had learned was how to open a beer bottle with my teeth. (The key to which, in case you’re wondering, is to deeply and truly give up finding your bottle opener.)

What a young and/or lost person needs most is people around them who have given themselves over to something greater than themselves. And that’s what I found when I entered the world of independent bookstores.

But I told myself that the people who worked at Stacey’s, for all of their formidable gravitas, were lovers of books and words. Well, I was a freak for books, and felt born to be a writer. I used those two rods o’ truth to stir up the pot of courage I needed to walk into that bibliophile’s Disneyland, and ask for a job application.

That night, in neat little letters, I wrote on literally every blank micro-inch of that application. When it was finished, my “Please Hire Me” manifesto looked like an experiment to see how much ink a typical sheet of paper can absorb before it disintegrates.

Having taken in both sides of my mondo-missive, Cat said, “Well, they’ll call you, or they’ll call the police.”

Luckily, they called me. And before I knew it, I was working with three other guys in the shipping and receiving department at Stacey’s, where I spent my days preparing new books to be wheeled out onto the sales floor, ogling publishers’ catalogs, and rushing to be the first to open the latest case in from Random House or Simon & Schuster.

It was 1980. I was 21 years old. I didn’t know who I was. I didn’t know where I belonged. I’d spent the previous year being a working student at San Francisco State University, and the year before that working the graveyard shift at a chewing gum factory. I couldn’t see one day into my own future.

I wasn’t exactly prepared for life, is the short of it.

I knew I loved Cat (to whom I’ve been happily married since 1981); I knew I loved books; I knew I was a writer. Beyond that, life for me was all it could be, which was basically a brilliant, blinding fog.

Over the next few years I worked at Stacey’s and one other independent bookstore. Those were the two jobs that saved my life. Because they took an idea I had—which was that books and writing, in and of themselves, were worthy of dedicating one’s life to—and made it real.

Today it’s so obvious: of course books and writing are worth dedicating one’s life to. But back then, I wasn’t so sure. I wasn’t sure of anything having to do with the relationship between life and purpose, life and will, life and hope.

Everywhere She's NotBut being around so many books—and mostly being around so many people who had made their passion for books foundational to their lives—changed all of that.

What a young and/or lost person needs most is people around them who have given themselves over to something greater than themselves. And that’s what I found when I entered the world of independent bookstores.

The people who worked in those stores cared. They cared about ideas. They cared about literature, about history, about sociology and science and art. They cared about how positively books can affect the lives of children.

They cared about understanding the world. And through their caring they helped me to understand not just the world, but my place in it.

I moved from working in independent bookstores, to writing for magazines and newspapers, to editing and ghostwriting books, to writing “Everywhere She’s Not,” a novel about a lost young man living in San Francisco in 1980 (whom, we learn in the final chapter, has landed a job at — you guessed it! — Stacey’s).

It’s possible that if things go well with “Everywhere,” I’ll soon be visiting independent bookstores throughout the South. That will of course be so good for sales. But, even more than that, I know how much good going into each and every one of those stores will be for my soul.

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John Shore is the author of “Everywhere She’s Not,” and writes a popular advice column for “The Asheville Citizen Times” newspaper.

The TravelersThe world is upside down without a book in my hands. Whenever I am feeling out of sorts, it usually means I’ve gone too many days without reading. My mother was a stay-at-home mom for several years, but when she returned to work, she would treat me to a new book on her payday. Books have always figured prominently in my life—high fiction and low fiction. Books are like forts surrounded by moats within whose walls I can retreat, daydream, and become someone else for a while. Many of the places I would travel to as an adult were inspired by novels I’d read when I was a young and voracious reader. (Giovanni’s Room, for example, sent me in search of Baldwin’s Paris. By the time I got there, both Baldwin and his Paris were long gone.)

I have this habit of roaming the aisles of bookstores and lingering at display tables, of running my hands along the covers of books and the seams

There are a handful of independent bookstores in Savannah, Georgia now, but when I was growing up, E. Shaver Booksellers was the main bookstore in town.  The little bookstore, tucked behind the imposing Desoto Hilton, is where my mom treated me to my first copy of To Kill a Mockingbird and, later, Song of Solomon. I have this habit of roaming the aisles of bookstores and lingering at display tables, of running my hands along the covers of books and the seams, of turning the books over to read the jacket before opening the book and reading the first few passages.

This ritual of browsing began as a child and it is one I’ve passed down to my daughters with whom I would later read Ferdinand and The Giving Tree and Amelia Bedelia in the children’s nook at Shavers. The Travelers bristles with the stuff of history and the stuff of fairytales: chance encounters, sudden changes of fortunes, tall tales. Savannah is a port city, a lot of people have come through, free and in chains. Much of its loveliness and complexity owes to the very issues of race and class that are part of its existence. It’s not a coincidence that two fine writers—Flannery O’Connor and James Alan McPherson—both hailed from Savannah and attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. (Their works are in conversation with one another.)

“And what have you read lately?” was the question

The TravelersThe South has a rich literary tradition, despite the low literacy rate. And as a child, I grew up with an awareness of the importance of books.  The late W.W. Law—a mailman and the President of the local branch of the NAACP—documented Savannah’s African-American history and was active in the Civil Rights Movement. He lived around the corner from our house and my family held him in high esteem. He also loved to gossip with my mother and sometimes asked after her oyster stew. Dr. Law kept a living room run amok with books that students could come and pick through to help them with their studies. “And what have you read lately?” was the question.  One of my favorite books, which in some ways informed the chapter in The Travelers, “The Moving Man Stands Still”, is a picture book I found at E. Shaver Booksellers about the Civil Rights Movement in Savannah. I bought that book and read it often to my girls, delighting in the fact that I once knew this extraordinary, everyday man.

 

Regina PorterRegina Porter is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she was an Iowa Arts Fellow and recipient of a 2017-2018 Rae Armour West Postgraduate Scholarship. She is also a 2017 Tin House Summer Workshop Scholar. Her fiction has been published in The Harvard Review. An award-winning writer with a background in playwriting, Porter has worked with Playwrights Horizons, the Joseph Papp Theater, New York Stage and Film, the Women’s Project, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, and Horizon Theatre Company. She has been anthologized in Plays from Woolly Mammoth by Broadway Play Services and Heinemann’s Scenes for Women by Women. She has also been profiled in Southern Women Playwrights: New Essays in History and Criticism from the University of Alabama Press. Porter was born in Savannah, Georgia, and lives in Brooklyn.

De'Shawn Charles Winslow I didn’t have the opportunity of growing up around bookstores. The ones we had were on the two local college campuses, and because Elizabeth City isn’t a literary town, those stores carried textbooks, mostly. But once I moved to NYC and started visiting various bookstores around Brooklyn and in Manhattan, I realized how different and important Indie bookstores are. The people who work in them know so much about the books they sell. They are more than cashiers; they are book lovers.

In West Mills

I fell even deeper in love with the Indie bookstore when I moved to Iowa City and discovered Prairie Lights Bookstore. I knew a handful of the book specialists there because we were classmates, but I eventually learned the names of other people there, too, because I’d turned to them so many times, in search of very specific types of fiction. It’s also nice to walk into a bookstore and see more books than other merchandise. I enjoyed that about Prairie Lights. Big bookstores serve their purpose. Indie bookstores serve their people.


De’Shawn Charles Winslow was born and raised in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, and in 2003 moved to Brooklyn, New York. He is a 2017 graduate of Iowa Writers’ Workshop and holds a BFA in creative writing and an MA in English literature from Brooklyn College. He has received scholarships from the Napa Valley Writers’ Conference and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. De’Shawn lives in East Harlem.