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.
The 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 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 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.
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.
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.
Name: Nicole Yasinsky
Position at Store:Marketing Manager
Store and location: novel. Memphis, TN
Number of years as a bookseller: I will celebrate 21 years as a bookseller in August! Wow. Has it really been that long?
Best part about being a bookseller? Putting books in people's hands, of course! There is nothing quite like finding the perfect book at the perfect time for a person -- there are so many variables, and it seems so unlikely, but this is what indie booksellers do all day, every day. I keep an old Candlewick mug on my desk at all times that has a quote from Kate DiCamillo at the 2010 Indies Choice Awards: "We forget that the simple gesture of putting a book in someone's hands can change a life. I want to remind you that it can. I want to thank you because it did."
What book(s) are you reading? I am currently reading Slay by Brittney Morris -- and I just picked up The Yellow House by Sarah M. Broom and The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates!! SO much good stuff coming out this fall!!
Favorite handsell of 2019: I Miss You When I Blink by Mary Laura Philpott - this is funny and witty and happy and sad and inspiring and silly -- and exactly what so many of us need to hear and read in our lives these days!
Best thing you did this year at your store: It's a little over a year since we did it -- but it's still one of my favorite things -- and something I'm hoping to do more of in the future! We were fortunate enough to host Leslie Odom, Jr. at the Orpheum Theater. This, in and of itself, was a dream come true. BUT. The coolest part was that we were able to work with organizations and sponsors to bring 150 kids to this event - for free, transportation included! -- with a ticket that included a copy of the book AND a private backstage meet-and-greet book signing. We made a lot of public school theater kids incredibly happy -- and it's going to take a lot to top this event -- but we're working on it!!
What are some ways you work with your community? Something fun we did recently was to invite members of our community -- non-profit organizations, the mayor, long-time regular customers -- to submit shelftalkers for a special table display -- Friends of Novel. This allows us to highlight not just what we are reading, but what the rest of our city loves! Everyone seemed incredibly excited and honored to be a part of this, and we want to continue to forge strong and multi-faceted relationships with people in our community. We also work with schools and organizations to help raise funds through shopping nights in-store, selling books/sharing proceeds at offsite events, featuring organizations at in-store events and giving back a percentage of proceeds, in-school book fairs. We invite non-profit organizations to gift wrap during busy holiday times for donations. It has turned out that many of these are dog rescue groups (awwww!) and not only do they need donations, but they get TONS of doggos adopted by bringing them out to the store!
Do you have any community partners you work with regularly? Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Jewish Community Center, OUTMemphis, WKNO-FM, Memphis Public Library, Arts Memphis, Memphis Reads, Indie Memphis Film Festival, Books from Birth, St, Jude Children's Research Hospital, Lyceum Circuit
Do you have passions that carry over into your bookselling life? Well, since I haven't quite found a way to work my love of musicals into my bookselling life yet (but just WAIT until I write my musical about Indies v. Amazon!), I think that my passion for my city has played a huge role in my decision to work in indie bookstores here. It was definitely key in my dedication to helping create a new bookstore, truly and finally locally-owned here in Memphis.
Top priority for 2019: This isn't a very flashy or exciting answer, but honestly, since we will only be celebrating 2 years in business, we are really just trying to focus on the numbers and make sure that we are doing everything in a way that we can ensure we will be around for many years to come. (Told you it was boring!) BUT...we do have a SUPER fun side project for 2019: We've got an old bookmobile we are in the process of fixing up, and we are hoping to get that up and running and take it to hospitals, schools, retirement homes, festivals, and anywhere else we can think of where there is a need for books!!
As Southerners, we’re known for our connection to place and independent bookstores are an enormous part of our landscape. Independent bookstores serve as the backbone of many of our communities. In every town I’ve visited this last year of touring for my book, I’ve seen indie bookstores in action, helping readers connect with the power of story and providing a place to gather, a place to learn, and a place to explore. I’ve witnessed the way indie booksellers continue to guide readers to the perfect book at the perfect time.
So it’s only natural to have a holiday celebrating the role of independent bookstores. April 27 is Independent Bookstore Day and I hope that the day will be celebrated by readers across the country with the same level of energy and creativity that independent booksellers bring to their work every day.
As for me, I’ve gathered up a few of my book-loving friends to caravan to our three local indie bookstores. We’ll volunteer to help out in any way, we’ll buy lots of books for local children in need, and we’ll deliver bookseller care kits.
I’m a big believer in the power of the outdoors to spark creativity and renewal and my book contains a family tradition called “Woods Time.” I wanted to create a custom “Woods Time” experience for my local booksellers by providing them with a Bookseller Woods Time Care Kit. The kit includes supplies for a picnic including snacks to help while away an afternoon, prompts for engaging with nature, and a notebook to record all the great ideas that time spent in nature inspires.
Every day indie booksellers are making our communities better, book by book, and reader by reader and I look forward to hearing of the ways that communities honor their independent booksellers.
Jo Watson Hackl’s debut novel, Smack Dab in the Middle of Maybe (Random House Children’s Books), was awarded the Southern Book Prize and named an Indie Next Pick and an Okra pick. The book combines outdoor adventure with an art mystery clue trail. Free resources for readers and educators are available at JoHackl.com.
When I was beginning to write fiction, a mentor of mine urged me to find a community of writers. That, he said, was more important than taking writing classes or getting an MFA. His point was that writers need to connect with other writers, partly because writing is a solitary profession and we all need human contact, but also because we can find inspiration and encouragement in other writers: She’s making progress on her book, so can I.
He might have added, except that it probably seemed too obvious, that writers also need to connect with readers. I’ve managed to connect with other writers in various workshops and conferences, and I’ve learned a great deal from these peer-to-peer and mentor-to-peer interactions. I’ve been able to share in the successes of my writing friends, and commiserate over failures.
It’s not as simple for a writer, especially an emerging writer, to connect with readers.
That is just one of the ways independent bookstores are important, to both writers and readers. I don’t mean necessarily that I’m going to walk into an independent bookstore and literally meet readers, although that of course does happen. It happens all the time, in fact, when those stores host readings in which writers do share their work directly with readers. As both a writer and a reader I love that kind of interaction and it’s another reason to treasure independent bookstores.
...what I really mean is that the booksellers make the connection between the books they have on the shelves and the customers whose preferences they’ve come to know.
But what I really mean is that the booksellers make the connection between the books they have on the shelves and the customers whose preferences they’ve come to know. When I walk into one of the independent bookstores I frequent, I’m likely to be met with a recommendation. “Did you like that book by Wiley Cash you bought last month?” the bookseller might ask. “If you did, I bet you’d like this one by Jon Pineda.” Or, “I know you like Lee Smith’s work, so you should take a look at the latest by Jill McCorkle.” That kind of handselling of books doesn’t happen anywhere else.
So, for me, the true value of the Independent Bookstore is the community it creates. Sometimes that’s a real connection between writer and reader, in person, in real life, but more often than not it’s a virtual introduction for the reader, not to the writer herself, but to her words.
Clifford Garstang is the author of literary novel The Shaman of Turtle Valley and novel in stories, What the Zhang Boys Know, winner of the Library of Virginia Literary Award for Fiction, and the short story collection In an Uncharted Country. He is also the editor of Everywhere Stories: Short Fiction from a Small Planet, a three-volume anthology of stories set around the world. A former Peace Corps Volunteer in South Korea and an international lawyer, Garstang lives in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia.