As a bibliophile and an author, I truly believe that literature holds more cultural currency down South than in other parts of the country, and nowhere is this more evident than in our bookstores. Sure, there are some good bookshops North of the Mason-Dixon Line, but (and my writing pals agree with me) the most impressive literary soirees and most passionate crowds are down South. So here is my short list of our most literary and most loved bookstores, all independent, all deeply invested in their communities, all destinations in and of themselves.
Bigger isn’t always better, but it is in this case: At 28,000 square feet, Book People is the largest bookstore in Texas. The mood is a happy marriage of professional and funky—University of Texas students, tourists, and longtime Austin residents in “Keep Austin Weird” T-shirts mix among the well-curated stacks. The bookstore is famed for its massive events schedule. David Sedaris once read to such a huge crowd that he hung out until 4:00 a.m. (five hours after the store normally closes) chatting with customers and signing autographs. 512-472-5050; bookpeople.com
Faulkner House Books
New Orleans, Louisiana
From Jackson Square, the bustling heart of the French Quarter, narrow, shady Pirate’s Alley leads past the charming house where twenty-seven-year-old William Faulkner wrote Soldiers’ Pay, his first novel. In 1988 the bottom floor was transformed into a bookstore by husband-and-wife team Joe DeSalvo and Rosemary James. Before they bought the building (they live above the store), DeSalvo was an attorney and a book collector, a hobby he likens to “a disease, the last stage of which is owning your own bookstore.”
Faulkner House Books exudes old-world sophistication with its floor-to-ceiling vintage cypress shelves (James is an interior designer). Because the bookstore is small—just one room and a hallway—DeSalvo can’t afford to shelve anything but the best. Alongside rarities, such as a $25,000 first-edition The Sound and the Fury, DeSalvo carries fiction and poetry, reserving shelf space for New Orleans writers.
But DeSalvo and James do more for literature than merely sell it. They’ve founded the nonprofit Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Society. The Society’s fund-raisers, like Juleps in June, are swanky white-linen-suit events patronized by New Orleans aristocracy. The profits fund outreach in the community and the city’s racially diverse arts magnet school. 504-524-2940
When novelist Richard Flanagan was entering U.S. customs from his native Australia, the agent required that he provide a home address in the States. Although Flanagan would be visiting a different store every night while on book tour, his choice was easy. He gave the address for Square Books, he said, “because it feels like home.”
And does for many, both far and near. Housed in what 125 years ago was a dry goods store, with high ceilings, large windows, and worn Oriental carpets, Square Books has become a top destination bookstore for serious bibliophiles.
But the bookstore, which recently celebrated its thirtieth birthday, owes its mojo to more than good looks. At its helm is Richard Howorth, recently presented with an Authors Guild Award for Distinguished Service to the Literary Community. When the late author Larry Brown was a fireman yearning to write stories but unsure how to improve, he frequented the bookstore. He and Howorth often discussed authors such as Harry Crews, Flannery O’Connor, and Cormac Mc-Carthy. Later Brown would claim his writing career owed a debt to his Square Books education. Manager Lyn Roberts acknowledges the store has a special place in the community: “We’ve had numerous engagements here, a few weddings, and even a death—the whole life cycle.” 662-236-2828; squarebooks.com
That Bookstore in Blytheville
Just off Highway 55 in Northeast Arkansas lies a slow-paced river town with one of those down-at-the heels main streets we’ve come to expect. But something we wouldn’t expect is the vitality of its bookstore. Mary Gay Shipley, a Blytheville native, opened her store in 1976 and ever since has remained its “manager, owner, and janitor.” And though she would never admit it herself, Shipley is also one of the most powerful figures in bookselling.
Shipley’s ability to hand sell books is so celebrated that she’s been profiled in the New Yorker. Unknown authors such as Rebecca Wells, David Guterson, and Terry Kay were early finds for Shipley, who couldn’t stop talking about them. And like the E. F. Hutton of old, when Shipley talks, people listen. She also knows her clientele and matches book to reader with the gravitas of a marriage broker.
The bookstore exudes the warm, cluttered feel of Grandma’s house, if Grandma had impeccable taste in literature and a sense of humor to boot. 870-763-3333; tbib.com
Turnrow Book Co.
All over the country, well-established independent bookstores are closing, so what would motivate a young couple to move to a sleepy Mississippi Delta town and open one? Jamie and Kelly Kornegay were intrigued by the downtown rejuvenation of Greenwood, spearheaded by the Viking Range Corporation. They sensed enthusiasm for a bookstore and possessed the skills to run one—Jamie had proven success managing a bookstore, and Kelly had a background in graphic design and public relations.
After selecting a location in a historic downtown building, the Kornegays studied photos of European libraries for design inspiration. The grand feeling of those spaces, particularly the Trinity College Library in Dublin, is evoked in Turnrow’s sweeping vertical lines and oversize chandeliers.
And in a town without a movie theater and little live music, the bookstore’s creative author events are the best show around, and the locals know it. Sometimes Turnrow teams with Viking and the luxurious Alluvian Hotel, both just down the block, for weekend events, such as a cooking class followed by a cookbook signing and party. It’s no wonder that in just three short years, Turnrow has become a business Greenwood wouldn’t trade for anything—not even a movie theater. 662-453-5995; turnrowbooks.com