Is there such a thing as a professional bookstore enthusiast? If so, I’d like to claim the title. My qualifications include a lifelong book-browsing habit; a past stint as a bookseller (at Nashville’s Parnassus Books); and, as an author, two extensive book tours in the past three years—one right before the pandemic began, and one this past spring.
On my recent journeys across the South to sign copies of my memoir Bomb Shelter: Love, Time, and Other Explosives—all about being an anxious optimist in an uncertain world—I’ve noticed that people are hungry for uplifting stories that offer hope and joy. I am, too. So I’m happy to share a feel-good true tale: Independent bookstores, at least the ones I visited, appear to be flourishing. If bookshops have proved anything historically, it’s that when they get knocked down, they find a way up. Little wonder, then, that after two tumultuous years that saw countless small businesses struggle or even close, many local bookstores have emerged not so much “back to normal” as new and improved.
Along my travels, I asked some shopkeepers for a state-of-the-store report. What they said—and what I saw for myself—was that their success can be credited to staffers’ creative thinking and uncanny ability to intuit their neighbors’ needs and tastes. Several stores expanded their online shopping operations when their doors temporarily closed. Some reimagined how shop interiors and author events might look. And all returned with fresh energy to doing what they do best, cultivating havens for bibliophiles.
Holy City Holdout
Blue Bicycle Books looks tiny from the outside, with just ten feet of storefront nestled among the downtown boutiques and restaurants of Charleston, South Carolina’s King Street, but don’t let the optical illusion fool you. Like a magical cavern, the store keeps going and going. After you browse the stacks of new and signed books in the sunny front room, it’s time to wander down the narrow hallway to discover more first editions and antique classics, with a stop to gawk at wall-of-fame photos of authors including James Patterson, Angie Thomas, and David Sedaris. “We’ve got the true first edition of The Old Man and the Sea, cut out from the pages of Life magazine,” owner Jonathan Sanchez says proudly. Community support has a lot to do with Blue Bicycle’s success. Brooks Reitz and Tim Mink, co-owners of the restaurants Leon’s, Melfi’s, and Little Jack’s Tavern, sponsor a program that encourages employees to visit the store to pick out a free book each month. And when Sanchez says the store was built to inspire lingering, he isn’t kidding: “We have the best public restroom in the city.” Having freshened up there myself before an event, I can confirm it doubles as a workable dressing room.
Art and Ambience
Books & Books owner Mitchell Kaplan applauds not only Miami book lovers for remaining loyal to the store when times were tight, but also the “brave, remarkable” booksellers here for reinventing the business on the fly. Books & Books boasts several locations around Miami, including its flagship store in Coral Gables, which occupies a Mediterranean-style building that dates back to 1927. Always a popular stop on author tours, that location—so charming you’ll swear you’re on a movie set—also includes a picture-perfect courtyard café, which has increasingly become the airy backdrop to outdoor events. (I will never forget inhaling dinner there after my last signing. The Cuban sandwich still visits my dreams.) Books & Books, which celebrates its fortieth anniversary later this year, should be on the agenda for art lovers, too. Don’t miss glossy volumes celebrating Miami art-world legends such as Purvis Young, Julio Larraz, and Andy Sweet.
Should you find yourself checking off a must-see list of historic monuments on a visit to Washington, D.C., do your soul a favor and leave a little extra time for East City Bookshop, a bustling and beloved neighborhood spot close to the Capitol. “In many ways, Capitol Hill feels like a small town,” says head buyer Emilie Sommer. She and store owner Laurie Gillman had fun working with staffers to dream up ways to reach readers when everyone was homebound, including Zoom-based book club meetings and—Sommer’s favorite—a hot-line readers could text for personal book recommendations. While literary fiction and nonfiction are still the bread and butter among the shelves here, one of the most delightful plot twists they’ve observed has been a booming demand for romance novels, and you’ll now find an expanded section packed with juicy, escapist fun.
Music City Muse
Already accustomed to running a busy online bookselling operation thanks to its First Editions Club subscriptions, my hometown shop, Parnassus Books in Nashville, still had to adjust when online demand spiked during the stay-at-home period. The staff pops over to an off-site location to fulfill orders from faraway customers, many of them drawn in by social media posts highlighting recommendations from the author Ann Patchett, the store’s co-owner, and the staff. But what warms my Nashvillian heart most is walking into Parnassus and seeing it full again, customers browsing in every section and happily wagging shop dogs wandering about. On that note: Keep an eye out by the register for copies of The Shop Dogs of Parnassus, a canine history of the store written by Patchett (with an introduction by Kate DiCamillo and an afterword by yours truly). Proceeds of the tiny gift book go right back to the community; the Parnassus Books Foundation puts free books into the hands of disadvantaged students.
Okay, technically, you can’t visit the Snail on the Wall, because it’s a “bookstore without a store.” But time your visit to Huntsville, Alabama, right, and you might catch some of its visiting author programs, held at venues around the city. My event this spring took place at the elegant Burritt on the Mountain, a historic mansion overlooking lush park grounds. A locally based online bookselling business seemed a far-fetched idea when the Snail’s owner, Lady Smith, launched it in 2017, but Smith has since become Huntsville’s friendly neighborhood book supplier, offering both a book-ordering website and complimentary delivery to area doorsteps. Devotees of the Snail’s email newsletter use it as a shopping list, browsing reviews by Smith and a Readers Circle of book lovers. And how’s this for literary cred: The store is named for the thought-provoking little creature in Virginia Woolf’s story “The Mark on the Wall.”
Peachy Keen Reads
You’ll find the book experts of A Cappella Books at the store in Atlanta’s Inman Park neighborhood, but you’ll also spot them setting up shop at events all over town. Nimble enough to take their show on the road, they regularly pop up in locations ranging from the Fox Theatre to the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum. The staff is thrilled to be hosting live events again in-store, too, where there’s more elbow room since completion of a long-planned build-out that absorbed a studio apartment behind the original brick building. “Shopping at A Cappella now feels like shopping at two stores in one,” owner Frank Reiss says, with new releases housed in a separate space from the impressive volume of used and signed titles. Highlights among its collectible inventory: the first U.S. edition of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake and a first edition of The Moviegoer, inscribed by Walker Percy on the day of publication to his brother Phin.
The curbside cart by the door of Main Street Books in Davidson, North Carolina, started as a way to offer contactless pickup during the days of social distancing, but it has become a favorite feature of townsfolk eager to swing by and quickly grab the books they’ve ordered. Though it’s a handy convenience, I recommend bypassing the cart and lingering inside for a while. When I was a Davidson College student approximately two million years ago, the place was dusty and cluttered, but in 2015, Davidson alum Adah Fitzgerald bought the shop and undertook a major renovation. The store is now warm, bright, and easy to navigate, not to mention stocked to the hilt with tantalizing book-adjacent gift offerings—like the Bookaroo pen pouch, which attaches to books for obsessive underliners like me—everywhere you look. (This is one of those places where I might go in to buy a single greeting card and leave with a dozen, plus a locally made Mood Indigo soap or two. Maybe that’s why some people use the order-and-cart method: self-control.) Make your visit a scavenger hunt and keep your eyes peeled for tiny gnome figurines hidden throughout the store, inspired by the work of the late artist Tom Clark, whose studio once anchored this Main Street block.