The South's Most Creative Small Towns
Best Literary Town: Hillsborough, North Carolina
The most literary small town in the South has no university. It hosts no famous arts festival. And the nightlife consists almost exclusively of two dank taverns about a hundred feet from each other. But historic Hillsborough, North Carolina, can probably claim more critically acclaimed authors per capita than any zip code in the region. “If you sit down anywhere in town and open a good book, a dozen different authors might come by and offer to sign it,” says novelist and longtime resident Michael Malone.
A list of Hillsborough’s resident authors reads like a who’s who of Southern letters—Malone, Allan Gurganus, Lee Smith, Jill McCorkle, Randall Kenan, Craig Nova, Annie Dillard, Frances Mayes, Hal Crowther…the list goes on. The influx can be attributed to many things, but you have to start with the town’s beguiling old homes. A North Carolina native, Gurganus moved there from Manhattan in 1991. “You could still get a three-thousand-square-foot crumbling Victorian for under two hundred thousand,” he says. Which is exactly what he did. Though prices might not be quite as sweet today, Hillsborough real estate is still inexpensive compared with neighboring Chapel Hill, and its close proximity to UNC, as well as to Duke (in Durham) and North Carolina State (in Raleigh), makes it the perfect enclave for authors who also haunt the classroom.
But real estate and geography can only count for so much. While in some places an author or artist might primly be euphemized as “interesting” or “different”—Southern code for weird—Hillsborough not only abides the eccentric and creative, it embraces them.
What’s Going On
Head downtown to Purple Crow Books for a quick primer on the town’s literary output. The historic Burwell School museum, home to the Hillsborough Literary Association, often fills an entire season of readings with hometown talent. And every Christmas, the town flocks to St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church to see Gurganus and Malone present their staging of A Christmas Carol.
But there’s more to Hillsborough than just a life of letters. It has a thriving downtown clustered around the intersection of picturesque Churton and King streets, where buildings dating from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries now house a surprising selection of storefronts and restaurants. The Hillsborough Gallery of Arts and the Eno Gallery put the town’s burgeoning visual art scene on display. Gulf Rim Café and Panciuto are favorite stops for dishes culled from the Carolina coast and area farms, and the Inn at Teardrops welcomes visitors with classic Southern charm. “On one little section of King Street, you’ll find the latest novel, along with a fancy latte at Cup-A-Joe coffee shop—and the Dual Supply hardware store, which has not changed one thing in forty years,” says Lee Smith, the author of more than fifteen books. “And right across the street, hunters are hauling deer off their trucks for weighing in at the bait and gun shop.”
Hillsborough’s literary scene received a lift in 2007 with the appearance of Eno Publishers, founded by Elizabeth Woodman. Eno titles include 27 Views of Hillsborough, a collection of prose and poetry penned by its famed residents. A new generation of Hillsborough writers is also on the rise, including novelists Zelda Lockhart and John Claude Bemis. And while independent bookstores have had a rough go of it in recent years, Purple Crow Books, opened in 2009, has seen its business thrive. Gregarious owner Sharron Wheeler lines her shelves with the work of locals, and she’s quick to share her knowledge with visitors. “The reading of books might have decreased in other parts of the country,” Wheeler says. “But it’s alive and well in Hillsborough.”
The Runner-Up Milledgeville, Georgia
The fact that Flannery O’Connor lived most of her life in Milledgeville forever assured its place on the Southern literary map. O’Connor’s old house, Andalusia, is still open to the public and plays host to readings and book signings along with a steady stream of O’Connor devotees. But it isn’t Milledgeville’s only bookish attraction. The town is home to Georgia College, where a prominent literary journal, Arts & Letters, is produced, and it teems with young writers and the esteemed faculty who teach them.—N.B.