In 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.

Want to discover great Southern bookstores near you (or on a trip South)?
Explore our directory of Southern independent bookstores.


  • Troy Ball on Malaprop's Bookstore & Cafe

    Troy BallI have three sons, two with special needs who are confined to wheelchairs. We moved from Austin, Texas to Asheville, North Carolina in 2005 because they were experiencing serious health problems, and the mountain air was better for their lungs. I didn’t know many people, and unsure what to do with my time, I started taking one of my special boys for a long walk downtown each day. We would always stop at the old Woolworth five-and-dime, which had been converted into an art space and had an old-fashioned soda fountain. Then I would push them up the block to Malaprops Bookstore. My son Marshall, especially, loved Malaprops. Pure HeartMarshall can’t talk or hold things in his hands, but he’s very bright. We would sit in that wonderful, comfortable store for hours, while I read him poetry, short stories and magazine articles, and he would tap his heels with excitement, his way of expressing joy. I’m not sure I bought anything in those first fifty or sixty visits. I can’t remember talking to anyone. I’m sure the staff would have talked with me if I had wanted them to, but somehow they sensed—even if I didn’t quite understand it myself—that I needed some space to sit, relax and adjust to my new life. I’m a regular customer now, in both senses of the word, and I often meet friends there for conversation and hot tea. Malaprops is everything a bookstore should be, from their passionately knowledgeable staff to their local author promotions and community events. There are thousands in Asheville who agree with Marshall and me that the store is the heart of our city. Asheville wouldn’t be the same without Malaprops. But it’s those first months that still stand out for me, when I was tired, unsure, and looking for a home, and I found it in the warmth and comfort of the space between the books.

     

    What I’m Reading Now

    DarktownDarktown by Thomas Mullen. Set in 1948, this history-based mystery follows Atlanta’s first black policemen as they try to solve a murder most of their white counterparts would rather ignore. It’s easy to read, despite touching on hard truths, because it’s so well written. And such great characters! Mullen entertains, without flinching from the darker parts of our shared past.

    Just Mercy

    Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson. It’s impossible to read the story of Walter McMillan, an innocent man who spent years on death row in Alabama, and not be moved. The woman in the chapter “The Stonecatcher’s Song of Sorrow” left me in tears, but the good kind that make you want to jump up, run outside and embrace life.

    Pure Heart by Troy Ball. Well, you asked, so I’m taking the question literally! It was so much work getting the book ready for publication that some important things fell through the cracks without me even realizing it. Then, over the Christmas holidays, my son Marshall asked me—he “speaks” by touching letters in a board—to read the book to him. We have been sitting together every morning, as I slowly read him a chapter at a time. It is such a gift to see a story through someone else’s eyes, even when it is your own. Or maybe especially when it is your own. I love you Marshall, Coulton, Luke and Charlie. You are my wonder boys.

  • The writer and the reader. And the bookseller.


    Corey MeslerListen: I wrote a novel once. Some nice people said some nice things. It sold considerably fewer copies than The DaVinci Code. It sold considerably fewer copies than The Satanic Verses, and The Land that Time Forgot, and The Poky Little Puppy

    You may not know that publishers send out sales reports as detailed as a medical record, and as chilling.  It not only lists every bookstore that ever ordered your book, it lists their subsequent returns. Dreams dashed!

    What does a writer do with such a document? He or she sets it aside, along with wills and that letter from the bank that is as confusing as algebra. He or she tries to forget it, tries to argue marketplace vs. creativity. Tries to remember sales figures for early Faulkner or early Woolf. Then, if he or she has any intestinal fortitude, he or she begins another story, or poem, or essay.

    But, that’s not really what I want to talk about.

    I want to talk about all the conflicting reports about the death of the novel, the death of the book, the recrudescence of the novel, the rebirth of the book, the losses at major houses for fiction and poetry titles, the gains at midsize houses for fiction and poetry titles. And the reports about how the Browser is obsolete, the bookstore browser, not the little electronic other-self that one employs in virtual reality. Apparently there are fewer people who go to bookstores just to poke around, hoping for inspiration to hit them, a novel, say, by an Eastern-European fabulist, or a slim volume of poems by a stranger.

    Reuben Reuben This shopper, let’s try to imagine this chimera of myth. He or she obviously has time on his or her hands. He goes to a bookstore in the middle of the week with a café au lait in his hand, a BookPage under one arm, and just piddles around. His expression is dreamy. He is drawn to Fiction, meaning Bellow and Murdoch and Rick Powers. He spends an inordinate amount of time reading jacket copy, looking at author’s photos (posed B&W eidolons of imaginary erudition). He takes 32 minutes to pick one paperback: Peter DeVries’ Reuben, Reuben. When he finishes this delicious item he will say, “He isunjustly neglected.” Ok.

    Or: She enters the store having just come from the gym. She looks good in her stretchy leotard. She smiles at the book clerk (a papuliferous mooncalf with a passion for Bukowski, now in love with our female browser, just like that) and heads for Biography. She wants something as good as Ellmann’s Joyce. Today she may find it. She may find another 500 page tale of writerly angst and wandering affections that just clickswith her. She is optimistic. But maybe this isn’t the day. Maybe she goes home without a new book and chooses to reread Ellman. Yet, her time in the bookstore was not a waste. She has been enriched, if that is not overstating it, because she has engaged with the culture, if that is not overstating it, and she is contented. 

    Now, is the Browser a ninnyhammer, a person out of step with his or her fellow man? Would he or she be happier punching a CC number into B&N.com, or calling ahead to have a chick-lit waiting at the counter so there is no wasted time involved?

    No, I say. No, I shout from the housetop (later my wife will coax down a sheepish me and put me to bed with a warm Updike). The Browser will always be. And not just as some retro-hipster who insists on vinyl over digital. Nothing will ever replace boards and paper, just as the web-surfer will never replace the instinctive Browser.

    Listen: I’ve written many novels since my first. They passed through the public consciousness the way castor oil—well, you get it. Don’t, please gentle reader, check their numerical rankings on Amazon. Instead use this inspirational message—that there is still a place in American letters for little trickles of storytelling talent like Yours Truly—to spur you out of your chair, into the bustling thoroughfares of the modern city, and through the portals of your nearest INDEPENDENT bookstore. Once there, decelerate, friend, and look around. And say hi to the book clerk. He or she is as lonely as a cloud.


    COREY MESLER has been published in numerous anthologies and journals including Poetry, Gargoyle, Five Points, Good Poems American Places, and Esquire/Narrative. He has published 9 novels, 4 short story collections, and 5 full-length poetry collections. His novel, Robert Walker, is just out from Livingston Press.  He’s been nominated for the Pushcart many times, and 2 of his poems were chosen for Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac. With his wife he runs a 140 year-old bookstore in Memphis. He can be found at https://coreymesler.wordpress.com.

  • Richard Grant on the importance of bookstores

    Richard Grant

    When I try to explain to people outside the South that Mississippi has some of the best bookshops in America, if not the world, I usually hear a “huh” noise that reminds me of a puzzled dog tilting its head. As a bookhound who moved to Mississippi from New York City, and grew up in London, England, it was a surprise to me too.

    Oxford was my gateway drug to the rest of Mississippi, and Oxford is unimaginable without Square Books at its geographical and cultural heart. I linger there for the atmosphere and conversation as much as anything, but the store also pries my wallet open with remarkable ease. Enthusiasm for books spreads like a gentle contagion among the staff and the customers, and I invariably buy more books than I was intending, and feel refreshed for doing so.

    Dispatches from PlutoWhen I bought an old house in the Mississippi Delta, near the tiny farm settlement of Pluto, my cultural lifeline was Turnrow Books in Greenwood. I would make the 50-mile drive there at least twice a week. It’s a marvel that such a first-rate bookstore can exist in such a modest-sized town. Turnrow has become a hub for the community, a lunch spot and meeting place, a venue for musical and literary events, a bastion of civilization in the old crumbling cotton town.

    Now I live in Jackson, within walking distance of the Lemuria Book Store, yet another Mississippi independent that rivals anything in London and New York, and outmatches it for charm, hospitality and comfort. Down on the Gulf Coast in Pass Christian, Pass Books is another state treasure, and chooses its coffee beans with the same care and good taste as its books. All these independent bookstores add so much to the pleasure of living here. They do what the big chain bookstores were never able to do, and that is to make you fall in love with them.

     

    WHAT I’M READING NOW

    The Transformation of the World The Bloody Shirt Barkskins Life is Meals

    The Transformation of the World, by Jurgen Ostenhammel. Lately I start my days at 5am and read this massive, dense, intellectually dazzling history of the 19th century for an hour. In this way, I strike a small blow against the internet, and the damage it’s doing to my powers of concentration. 9780691169804

    The Bloody Shirt, by Stephen Budiansky. A blistering indictment of Southern racial violence and terrorism after the Civil War, and a necessary corrective to Southern mythology about Reconstruction. 9780452290167

    Barkskins, by Annie Proulx. I’ve just finished this epic saga about the ransacking of the world’s forests. Exhaustively researched and brilliantly told, it requires Proulx to kill off dozens of characters over the centuries, which she does with perverse glee. At 80 years old, she seems at the height of her powers. 9780743288781

    Life Is Meals, by James and Kay Salter. This delicious collection of bite-sized vignettes about food and drink is best enjoyed in bed at night, and preferably read out loud by your bedmate. 9780375711398

  • Finding the Road Not Taken with Julia Franks

    I don’t like being channeled—which is what happens to us in the digitized age. Our past behavior channels the new information we’re exposed to. Online booksellers have got this down to a science. All those nifty algorithms that tell us “If we liked this, then we’ll like that,” are channeling us. Sometimes I imagine these rutted grooves in cyberspace, worn deeper and deeper and funneling us more and more into the paths we’ve already taken.  (I’ll resist the urge to quote Robert Frost here.). And it’s not just buying books. It’s news too. If you tend to look at news sites featuring women’s issues, then your browsers and your advertisers will give you more of the same.

    This is the way lots of retail works too, of course. If you’ve ever bought, say, clogs online, well guess what? Here come more advertisements for more clogs. And large bookstores work the same way. If stories about teens dying of cancer were popular last year, then let’s buy lots and lots more of them. As a purveyor of school kids’ literature, I’m constantly befuddled by the number of series books about, say, dragons, repeating the same basic story over and over again.

    And of course our brains work in “channels” too. We tend to reinforce the same neuro-pathways we’ve already created. We tend to notice information that fits with what we already believe. Data that doesn’t fit easily into our neural pathways often doesn’t even register. (Again, I’m resisting the urge to quote Frost.)

    But my sense—my hope—is that indie bookstores are countering this trend. They’re not using the same data analytics. Instead you have real live people reading real live books and making real live decisions about them. Walk into an indie bookstore and you’ll see shelves populated with books based upon judgment calls and personal taste. I’m lucky enough to have three in my Atlanta neighborhood. One, A Capella, is going to be stacked chest-high with glossy literary hardbacks that I’ll pick up and heft in my hand and wish I’d written. Down the street, Charis, is going to offer lots of titles that empower women. And if I want someone to recommend to me the hottest kids books, I’m going to head to the Little Shop of Stories.

    None have an algorithm to tell you in advance what you will like. You have to go inside. You have to pick up the books, hold them in your hands and riffle through the pages. You might find a different road. It may not make all the difference, but it will make some.


    JULIA FRANKS has roots in the Appalachian Mountains and has spent years kayaking the rivers and creeks of Tennessee, North Carolina, and West Virginia. She lives in Atlanta, where she teaches literature and runs loosecanon.com, a web service that fosters free-choice reading in the classroom. Her novel, Among the Plain Houses (Hub City Press) was released in May, 2016 and is a SIBA Spring Okra Pick.


  • Remembering Nancy Olson: A North Carolina Original

    On a spring morning, a community of writers, readers, politicians and residents bid farewell to the beloved bookseller Nancy Olson, who died of kidney disease on March 27, 2016.

    Olson was the founder and owner of Quail Ridge Books for 29 years until she sold it in 2013. In 2001, she was named Publishers Weekly’s Bookseller of the Year. Her business savvy and knack of picking bestsellers earned her a local and national reputation as running one of the best independent bookstores in the country.

    As photographs flashed on a screen of Olson with her trademark white pageboy hairstyle and mischievous smile during her memorial service, a steady flow of literary and political figures filled the seats of Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in west Raleigh, just a short distance from the former location of Quail Ridge Books. The store has moved to North Hills in Raleigh.

    Family and friends from near and far came to honor Olson, who found a way to thrive as the bookselling business shifted from bricks and mortar stores to online retailers. She created a community gathering place, where readers and writers came together to get informed, buy books and hang out.

    While Olson attended booksellers conferences, she always followed her own instinct as an avid reader and an astute observer of the community she served. “She believed the bookstore should stand on the side of literature, not commercial writing,” says Sarah Goddin, the store’s longtime store manager.

    “Even though she held strong political view, she believed the store should not take a political stand because she wanted everyone to feel comfortable in the store and to be able to explore any ideas, regardless of their beliefs,” Goddin says. “She believed in hosting authors with widely divergent views and respecting that her customers could make up their own minds and do it better if they had an opportunity to hear from many different perspectives.”

    “Nancy also believed strongly in good old hospitality, greeting everyone who walked in the door and helping them to the full extent possible,” Goddin says.

    Olson was fan of many writers but she especially championed the local ones: Lee Smith, Kaye Gibbons, Angela Davis-Gardner, and Clyde Edgerton. The first signing at her original Books at Quail Corners was for Jill McCorkle of Hillsborough. She sold 6,000 copies of Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain.

    Frazier recalled during the service thinking that Olson’s store was a club of sorts. And that her customers were club members who all seemed to know each other’s names. And Nancy seemed to know all of them and the exact book they were looking for.

    In short, the narrative was the same. Nancy Olson touched more lives and enriched them than most of us. She did it with wit and if you were lucky, a good book.

    ______________
    Bridgette A. Lacy is an award-winning journalist with a public love affair with food and culture. She authored a column “Morsels” for The News & Observer in Raleigh for many years and writes about food, chefs and culinary trends for The Independent Weekly and the North Carolina Arts Council.  She's now the author of Sunday Dinner, a part of the Savor the South series by UNC Press and a finalist for the Pat Conroy Southern Book Prize


  • The Book Worm Searches for a New Owner by Rona Simmons

    While the saying “it takes a village” was popularized some years ago, but the residents of  Powder Springs, Georgia believe the refrain should be “it takes a book store.” One book store in particular: The Book Worm.

    For over a decade Susan Smelser’s independent book store has occupied a prominent spot in the heart of our community. It’s a popular place, drawing locals and visitors alike, some from as far away as Cumming, Newnan, and Conyers.

    Take one step inside and you’ll know why. Books line the floor-to-ceiling shelves on every wall and here and there a cozy overstuffed chair waits for anyone who wants to linger. “But there’s a method to the madness,” Susan says. She and a tireless staff keep everything where it should be, whether it’s new or old, a novel or nonfiction, a children’s book, a book of true crime, science fiction, inspiration, or mystery. And if by chance the Book Worm doesn’t have exactly what you are looking for among its 30,000 titles, Susan will find it for you.

    Finding long sought books for customers has been Susan’s trademark. That, along with her dedication to serving her customers. It’s not just lip service. Everyone gives the store high marks for friendliness and helpfulness.

    Susan Smelser of The Book Worm in Powder Springs, Georgia.

    In 2005, Susan’s online book business had outgrown her garage. She drew on her years of retail business experience to create a solid business plan and then bought the building housing the former Main Street Antiques at 4451 Marietta Street. Soon, she discovered she had a knack for “hand selling” books and making people happy and the business turned a profit in its first quarter of operation.  

    Ten years later, she still treasures the squeals of delight when a young reader visits the store for the first time, or seeing the smile on the face of a customer finding a favorite, rare, or out-of-print book. And then, there’s the smile she can’t see, on the face of a soldier far from home who just received one of the many books the store donated.

    Even as society embraced ebooks and ereaders and some traditional “big box” book stores across the country closed, the Book Worm thrived. “What’s more,” Susan says, citing statistics from a recent industry conference, “there’s good news. Independent book stores like the Book Worm are making a comeback.”  People are flocking to these inviting nooks where they find friendly faces and people who share their love of reading.

    To this happy story, however, we add a footnote. After Susan and her husband Steven together lost a total of 280 pounds, she is embarking on a new direction. She’s now working as a health coach, where she says she’ll be able to make an even bigger difference in changing people’s lives.

    It’s a calling she can’t refuse, but it’s a full time job.

    Eventually, Susan decided to put the Book Worm’s charming building up for sale. While the realtor works to sell the building, Susan is searches for another book lover who wants to continue the book business. When asked what type of person she’s looking for Susan says, “Above all, someone who has their heart in the community. Merchants in Powder Springs are a close-knit group. We’re all just two doors down.” She also hopes that whoever takes on the Book Worm will continue to help customers track what they’ve read, offer credit for book trade-ins, and donate books to community groups.

    While we wish Susan well in her new endeavors, we suspect she’ll be spotted from time reading a book or two in the comfy red chair in the back room.

    To inquire about purchasing the building contact Delain Climmons at 770-891-5403. For information about The Book Worm Bookstore, contact Susan Smelser at 770-605-7323. thebookwormonline.com

    Rona Simmons lives and works in Atlanta. Her freelance projects include biographies and articles for various publication. She is also the author of a short story collection, and the novels The Quiet Room and Postcards from Wonderland, Deeds Publishing.

  • Parnassus Books and the Nashville Literati by J.T. Ellison

    Nashville author J.T. Ellison.

    A few nights ago, I attended a signing at the wonderful Parnassus Books in Nashville. The signing author was Ariel Lawhon, who was launching her brilliant story chronicling the doomed flight of the Hindenburg, Flight of Dreams. As Ariel and I hugged and kissed hello, bookseller extraordinaire Bill Long-Innes smiled benevolently and asked, “Do you guys have a writer tribe? It seems like Nashville authors really make an effort to support one another. I wonder if any other cities have such a tight knit group?”

    Ariel and I nodded, because we do have a tribe here in Nashville.

    Our literary community, dubbed the Nashville Literati, is tight. There are cliques within it‑young adult writers in the SCBWI, crime fiction in Sisters in Crime, romance writers in MCWR, literary authors big with Salon 615 and Humanities Tennessee and The Porch Writers’ Collective. But when it comes to supporting another author, we cross genres like a boss. We lunch together. We attend each other’s signings. We hang out in East Nashville at East Side Storytellin’. We pull together all our writing buddies when a writer friend comes to town. We even go on writing retreats together.

    And now one constant we all have in common is our indie store, Parnassus. I think the store’s staff has made it such a welcoming, open place for writers of all genres, of all stripes, that we can’t help but want to gather there.

    Davis-Kidd Booksellers in Nashville in the 1990s.
    Photo courtesy of Johnson Johnson Crabtree Architects, P.C.

    When our beloved former indie, Davis-Kidd, closed its doors in 2010 (and Parnassus didn’t yet exist), it suddenly became much harder to get everyone together. We have the annual Southern Festival of Books, which is always well-represented with local authors. We did lunches and cocktails, drove out to other counties to attend signings, but not having an indie store that represented and celebrated all the writers in town was hard. A town without an indie store is a sad one indeed. It’s been very fun to watch Parnassus take hold in our community, to see stories being made there.

    Davis-Kidd had a long history in this town. As a matter of fact, it was one of the reasons I was okay with moving here. When my then boyfriend (now husband) brought me to Nashville in 1993 to meet his parents, he drove me around, and our last stop was Davis-Kidd. “See?” he said. “This is the best bookstore in town. You’ll have plenty to read if we ever move here.”

    (I’m not sure if I was more entranced by the idea of books‑books!—or the fact that my boyfriend had just hinted strongly he wanted a long future with me.)

    Davis-Kidd was everything you could ask for in a bookstore: great staff, great events, a huge, diverse collection of titles. I attended my very first author signing there (John Connolly! My writing hero!). At that signing, I met a woman who became my other mother, who mentored me through years of writing, getting an agent, getting a deal. I did one of my first signings at David-Kidd. I hit my first bestseller list while I was launching my fourth book there. I attended Sisters in Crime meetings there. I wept with everyone else when it closed.

    Nashville's Parnassus Books.

    So to have an indie in our midst again is incredible. The Nashville Literati grows stronger day-by-day, with new writers coming up to join the established ones. And Parnassus is our hub. Several writers are booksellers there (And one co-owns it. You might have heard of her . . . her name is Ann.). This lends a verisimilitude unmatched anywhere else.

    Yes, Nashville has a writer tribe, just as strong as Chicago, New York, and L.A. And thanks to our favorite indie, we have a place to call our own, too.


     

    Writer J.T. Ellison lives and writes in Nashville, Tennessee. She is the New York Times bestselling author of fifteen critically acclaimed novels, including WHAT LIES BEHINDWHEN SHADOWS FALL, and ALL THE PRETTY GIRLS, and is the coauthor of the Nicholas Drummond series with #1 New York Times bestselling author Catherine Coulter. Her latest novel, NO ONE KNOWS, is available March 22.

  • The Intimate Bookshop: At the Heart of North Carolina's Literary Life for Six Decades

    Squeaky wooden floors. Yellow walls. Curling, hand-lettered signs on tall shelves. Red and white striped awnings. Jazz playing in the background. An enveloping, powerful, impossible-to-describe yet instantly familiar aroma of books. For anyone who ever set foot during the Intimate Bookshop’s long presence in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, those things embodied not only the Intimate itself, but the essence of what a bookshop should be.

    The Intimate Bookshop in 1970 at SouthPark Mall in Charlotte, NC.
    Photo credit: The Charlotte Observer.

    However, my love for the place started not in Chapel Hill but in Charlotte, and not on a bustling college-town main drag, but in a glossy new shopping mall. 

    In 1984, I was a directionless recent graduate of the University of North Carolina with vaguely bookish interests. I had recently returned to Charlotte, my hometown and as was often the case when I couldn’t think of another place to be, I headed to the Intimate Bookshop in SouthPark Mall. Though I had spent considerable time at the store’s original and renowned Chapel Hill location on Franklin Street, I had practically grown up with the SouthPark store. I didn’t even know another Intimate Bookshop existed until I wandered past it during my first year of college. Once inside, I found the same squeaky floors and yellow walls, the same tall shelves I had always loved, but now with a tweedy college-town glamour that girls like me found utterly irresistible. I was instantly homesick no longer, and ready to investigate shelves intriguingly labeled “Semiotics” and “Eastern Religions.”

    When I returned to Charlotte, now homesick for Chapel Hill, the Intimate beckoned yet again and this time with a “Now Hiring” sign in the window. In short order I was working the evening shift in the upstairs Paperback Gallery.

    I was hired by Barbara Svenson, who along with her husband Eric, had managed the store since its opening in 1970. They were close friends with and associates of owner Wallace Kuralt (brother of the famous Charles) who with his wife, Brenda, had purchased the Chapel Hill store in 1965 from Paul Smith, its second owner. The Svensons lived in the Kuralt family’s former home—a gracious, generously porched and large-lawned house at which the Svensons hosted staff parties. But here the story of my connection with the Intimate Bookshop ends. I’m not sure I was a terribly valuable or efficient employee, though to this day I can still hum the greatest hits of Bix Beiderbecke. I once absent-mindedly bagged a large pile of assigned summer reading books for a boy without ringing them up and he, being no dummy, walked right out of the store with them. I console myself with imagining that he has since become a respected scholar who traces his passion for literature to the kindly idiot who threw free books at him one day.

    A parade on Chapel Hill's Franklin Street passes the Intimate Bookshop
    in the 1950s. Photo credit: Chapel Hill Historical Society.

    During my time at the Intimate in the mid-1980s, Wallace Kuralt presided over a small chain of stores throughout North Carolina worth over ten million dollars. By the early 1990s the chain grew to nine or twelve (reports vary), including a store in Atlanta. In each, he sought to preserve the original store’s college town minimalist yet well-loved aesthetic and atmosphere. The stores stocked books and pretty much only books—perhaps a few calendars and tote bags crept in. Inventory reflected the interests of the population it served: literature, poetry, and cookbooks in Chapel Hill while business books and travel guides sold well in Charlotte. However, the staff of every store took special pride in being able to finding any book for any customer, and I have vivid memories of the large, packed special order shelves behind the main cash register. And the only database relied upon was the encyclopedic knowledge of long-time staff members, and if that failed, the vast, unflagging memory of Wallace Kuralt himself.

    Kuralt’s love of and belief in books, his unwavering integrity, and genial presence were legendary throughout his decades of association with the Intimate, and it his long tenure with the store that’s probably most remembered about the Intimate Bookshop today. In the 1990s, the Intimate faced the same pressures all independent booksellers did as big-box chains such as Barnes & Noble and Borders rapidly expanded. The Intimate’s well-worn minimalism suffered in comparison to sleek wood-paneled stores with cafés and leather chairs. Most of all, along with other independent booksellers, the Intimate could not match the deeply discounted prices and enormous inventory of the large chains. In addition, fire destroyed the Chapel Hill store in 1992, and Kuralt’s decision to not only rebuild but expand placed even greater financial strain on the business. In 1998, the Intimate Bookshop left its Franklin Street location, and in 1999, the last location closed. “The end of an era,” read headlines across North Carolina, and it was not an exaggeration.

    Wallace Kuralt, long-time
    owner of the Intimate.
    Photo credit: Chapel Hill
    Historical Society.

    The business did not go down without a fight. Kuralt spent years protesting what he saw as the big chains’ (and burgeoning online booksellers’) unfair advantages and tactics. In 1994, he sued the chains, citing their collusion with publishers and distributors to cut prices, considering it his mission to represent independent bookstores everywhere suffering his same plight. Kuralt pursued his quest even after the Intimate went under. In fact, facing ill health, Kuralt even recorded his deposition in case he died before the case was settled. Ultimately, Kuralt and the Intimate lost their fight in 2003 when the case was dismissed, just a month before Kuralt’s death. One has to wonder how he would feel about the similar fate of many big-box stores, brought down by the very same tactics and changing business models decried by Kuralt.

    But even before Wallace Kuralt’s decades with the Intimate, the store had been deeply connected, even fundamental, to North Carolina’s intellectual history, especially the radical literary and political fervor of the 1930s and 40s.

    The Intimate Bookshop in the early 1930s. Owner and founder Ab Abernathy is pictured seated at far left.
    Photo credit: North Carolina Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

    In 1931, Hickory native Milton “Ab” Abernethy, expelled from North Carolina State University (then called State College) for writing leftist editorials in the student newspaper, enrolled in a desultory fashion at the University of North Carolina. He quickly associated himself with other campus radicals, and with his friend Anthony Buttitta founded a literary journal, Contempo, dedicated to publishing avant garde and experimental writers from the United States and abroad. Though short-lived and run on an almost impossibly small budget, in its three years of existence Contempo published new work from many of the early twentieth century’s most notable writers and thinkers including James Joyce (to whom an entire issue was devoted in 1934), William Faulkner, Hilda Doolittle (HD), T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Langston Hughes, Luigi Pirandello, and many more. 

    At the same time, Abernethy (known universally as simply “Ab”) opened an ad hoc bookshop in his boarding house room. Supplied by books from Paul Green (founder of the Carolina Playmakers) and Phillips Russell, plus any other books he could beg, borrow, or otherwise appropriate. In 1931, advertised the opening of his new store in Contempo:

    Not many people know of the existence of such an agency as The Intimate Bookshop. [It is] a place where one can read without cost and buy with regular discount any book from The Death of the Gods to Lady Chatterley’s Lover, a place one goes for a quiet hour or so to browse about books that seem to stick his imagination, feel the intimate and personal touch of writers that lived to live, literature move before him as a vital and dynamic force rather than as a support for the dust of the ages. [sic]

    In Chapel Hill in Plain Sight: Notes from the Other Side of the Tracks, writer, teacher, and long-time Chapel Hill resident Daphne Athas describes the Intimate Bookshop at that period as “the guts of the town’s intellectual life,” and Abernethy himself as the “gatekeeper to the town’s imagination.”

    Ab Abernathy (right) with William
    Faulkner in Chapel Hill, 
    1931. Photo
    credit: North Carolina Collection,
    University 
    of North Carolina at
    Chapel Hill.

    The store quickly grew in both size and reputation, finally settling in its first Franklin Street location by 1933. Abernethy was known for allowing people who didn’t want to leave to stay in the store overnight, and just locking them in until the next morning. When famous radicals and intellectuals came to town, most notably Langston Hughes and William Faulkner in 1931, they all spent time at the Intimate. And even more important, Abernethy operated a small printing press (supposedly donated by a Communist operative) in a back storeroom on which he published Contempo as well as material for other radical campus groups and anyone else he thought needed help.

    It was just these sorts of associations and activities that eventually landed Abernethy in trouble in the 1950s. Even though Contempo had long since ceased publication, and the Intimate Bookshop had been sold in 1950, his radical reputation placed him and other Chapel Hill activists and intellectual in direct conflict with the tense political realities of the time. In 1953, Abernethy faced a U.S. Senate subcommittee hearing on his alleged Communist past. After hours of hostile questioning, including bizarrely detailed testimony about the exact placement of that dangerous printing press and minute-by-minute accounts of who had entered or left the store nearly two decades before, Abernethy was cleared. However, the ordeal and particularly the ugly reaction of many Chapel Hill residents soured Abernethy on his longtime home, and he and his family left. He also left both bookselling and politics behind, and finished his career as a successful stockbroker in New York and Chapel Hill property owner. At the time of his death in 1991, the Intimate Bookshop was still a fixture in Chapel Hill and across North Carolina, but its radical beginnings were forgotten by most. 

    Anthony Buttitta (left) with Langston
    Hughes in 1931. 
    Photo credit: North
    Carolina Collection, University of

    North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

    I like to think that the Intimate Bookshop’s thrilling and peculiar past still lived in those squeaky floors, even as it faded from memory. When Wallace Kuralt, a UNC graduate, returned to Chapel Hill in 1960 after being discharged from the Army, the Intimate Bookshop was the first business to give him a job. Newspaper stories about the Intimate’s closing and every one of Kuralt’s obituaries describe his dedication to fostering a love of books, and his belief that books should be affordable and accessible to all. Just as Ab Abernethy envisioned in 1931.

    Author's note: Though the last page may have turned on the Intimate Bookshop’s story, independent bookstores still thrive all across North Carolina. Discover them here here, and when you visit, tell them hello from Wallace and Ab. Many thanks to Susan Newrock of the Chapel Hill Historical Society for her help in researching this story.


    SP Rankin is North Carolina writer and graphic designer. In a bygone era, she received a BA from the University of North Carolina, and more recently a MFA in Creative Writing from Queens University in Charlotte. SP loves talking and writing about books and the reading life, and a number of other things you’re probably not all that interested in and who could blame you? Her most recent book, Common Threads: Gastonia and Gaston County Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow, was published in 2014.