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.

Want to discover great Southern bookstores near you (or on a trip South)?
Find a Southern independent bookstore near you! | What's happening in the literary South?


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.

--------

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.

Nicole YasinskyName: Nicole Yasinsky
Position at Store:Marketing Manager
Store and location: novel.  Memphis, TN

Website || Facebook || Instagram || Twitter

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."

The Yellow HouseWhat 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!!