When the noted Appalachian food writer and editor Ronni Lundy wished that her small town of Burnsville, North Carolina, had an independent bookstore, she did the logical thing. She opened one. Not quite a year after launching Plott Hound Books, she shares her insights on bookselling—and plenty of insider tips on the local food scene.
How did you come to open Plott Hound Books?
Every September, Burnsville hosts the Carolina Mountain Literary Festival. It’s really intimate and brings in stars such as Barbara Kingsolver and Charles Frasier and also some brilliant lesser-knowns. Anyway, based on festival attendance and also the type of books I saw being donated to our local library, I realized I was living in a seriously book-loving community. In 2019, I asked Asheville’s great independent bookstore, Malaprop’s, about doing a holiday pop-up bookstore in Burnsville, and it was very successful. It looked to me like the town could support a full-time store, but it didn’t make sense for Malaprop’s to do it. Through the grace of some friends who love bookstores in general and Burnsville in particular, I opened my own brick-and-mortar bookstore downtown last April, and it’s been a blast ever since.
What’s the significance of the name Plott Hound?
We wanted a name that spoke of the region, since one of our big draws is our Southern Appalachian section. We talked about Redbud or Dogwood Books, but eh. Then I thought of North Carolina’s state dog, the Plott Hound, a breed originated in the Blue Ridge–Smoky Mountains area in the 1700s by a German immigrant. It’s an intrepid hunter, especially of bears. So there’s that, and then there’s the pun factor of a store by and for “plot” hounds. I love that the settler was from Germany, because it complicates the stereotype that all Southern Appalachian people are from a single European gene pool in Northern Ireland, and if there’s one thing I aim to do, it’s to complicate and challenge stereotypes about the region.
What are your reflections as you approach your first anniversary?
First, that the indie-bookstore community is so supportive—everyone has been so generous with time and information. That said, every indie is different, a reflection of the interests and quirks of the community. So you have to pay attention to what your community is into, and build your store from that. Plus all the books you love yourself, because you’ve got to sell from the heart.
What are some recent books close to your heart?
If I started in on books I love, it would go on forever. But okay, recent: The Whalebone Theatre by Joanna Quinn. I call it the anti–Downton Abbey because it takes place on an estate in England, mostly between the World Wars, but instead of being proper, the family is dysfunctional and every character is fascinating, and it’s funny and you can just curl up in it like a comforter. Also Chilean Poet by Alejandro Zambra. It’s lyrical and bawdy and full of the love of words and the craziness of the love of people. The book I have been sipping from in the very few down times at the store is Bob Dylan’s The Philosophy of Modern Song. What a blast just reading the index of the fifty songs he’s picked to write about.
As for cookbooks, I sell lots of Bress ’n’ Nyam and Mosquito Supper Club because the food is good and the stories are even better. Both Red Truck Bakery cookbooks have been huge sellers. Once I get time to cook again, I’m going to adventure into Masa by Jorge Gaviria and Cooking with Mushrooms by Andrea Gentl.
Is there a book you’re anticipating in 2023?
I am most looking forward to getting my hands on Praisesongs for the Kitchen Ghosts, Crystal Wilkinson’s cookbook-memoir-magical-realist-historical-fiction work that comes out in February. To my knowledge, it will be the first cookbook based in the Black Appalachian experience since Malinda Russell’s groundbreaking cookbook from 1866. Plus it’s Crystal—her Birds of Opulence is one of the most beautiful, moving novels ever written. Oooo, just talking about this makes me bounce up and down in my chair.
Beyond visiting Plott Hound Books, what are some favorite things to do in Burnsville?
Burnsville’s food scene is starting to simmer. We’ve got several places you can get good Southern food, from livermush and burgers at the diner Bantam Chef to the plate lunch at Pig & Grits to the slightly elevated, locally sourced dining at Cast Iron Kitchen; they make cornbread from a sixth-generation family farm’s fresh-ground Jimmy Red cornmeal. Homeplace Beer Company is a genuine community hub with music, and when its Hog Hollow wood-fired pizza ovens are cold on Mondays, there are great food trucks like The Scarlet Bee and Root Down. Oh wow, that reminds me that we have a new food truck at the—not making this up—Crazy Car Wash called Las Cruces that has a vegetable tamale to die for. But the big deal is this: The historic NuWray Inn is being restored from the foundation up, and new owners Amanda and James Keith are bringing the dining room back to its glory days, so they’ve hired executive chef John Stehling who, with his wife, Julie, primed the pump in the Asheville food scene twenty years ago when they opened Early Girl Eatery. The renamed NuWray Hotel’s dining room won’t open until later this year, but word is that John will be dishing up breakfast, lunch, and small plates from an adjacent location by early spring.
Wow. What about when we can’t eat another bite?
I realize everybody isn’t motivated by books and food to the extent that I am. Many come to Burnsville for the mountain air, views, and hiking. Mount Mitchell in Yancey County is the Appalachian’s highest peak. And for the art. Yep, I said art. The Penland School of Craft, about fifteen miles out of town, is going on a century of schooling and supporting artists and craftspeople. If you make a rough diamond shape out of Burnsville, Spruce Pine, Bakersville, and Celo, there are more than 150 art studios, many internationally known and at least one MacArthur Fellow among them. The Toe River Arts Council sponsors semiannual studio tours, and there are numerous galleries that showcase the work—most notably pottery and glass, but also fabric arts and painting. I could go on, but hey, you should just come on over and see for yourself.