A Southern Lit Road Trip

A reader’s pilgrimage from New Orleans to Nashville

Photo: Tristan Duplichain

Paris, a French bulldog, perches amid the stacks at Lemuria Books

The secret to a great road trip, I contend, is to visit independent bookstores. This is not just because I like books and book chat. The indies still in business are invariably operated by people with excellent taste who can point me toward the best places to explore—and the ones to avoid.

I put this theory to the test on a five-hundred-mile journey from New Orleans to Nashville, a stretch of ground with a rich literary heritage and some of the best bookstores in the country. New Orleans is spoiled for choice, with more than a dozen independents, but it seems fitting to begin at Faulkner House Books on Pirate’s Alley in the French Quarter. The South’s literary colossus once lived in these two small, narrow, high-ceilinged rooms, where he wrote his first novel, Soldier’s Pay, in 1925.

First editions of Faulkner’s books are kept in an antique glass-fronted cabinet. Unsigned, they start at $500, and soar to $8,900 when inscribed with his “squidgy little signature,” as the store’s manager, Joanne Sealy, describes it. But it’s more than a collector’s haven. Most of the stock is new, with an emphasis on literature and poetry.

When I ask Sealy where to eat, she jots down a list of her favorite spots. The venerable Galatoire’s makes the cut, but she also sends me to the very contemporary Paladar 511 in the Marigny, where I eat an expertly prepared tuna crudo with pistachio, avocado, fennel, and orange.

It’s never easy to leave New Orleans, but in the morning, I load up on coffee and obligatory beignets at Café Du Monde and head north into Mississippi. My head spins when I think of the staggering number of great writers the Magnolia State has produced: Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Tennessee Williams, Walker Percy, Richard Wright, Richard Ford, John Grisham, Donna Tartt, and many more. At the elegant Library Lounge at the Fairview Inn in Jackson, the state’s best are commemorated in cocktail form. I knock down an invigorating Shelby Foote (bourbon, black tea syrup, and mint), and then walk the few blocks to the Tudor Revival house where Welty lived and wrote for more than seventy years. Books from her personal collection still line almost every wall.

I learned of both these places while loitering at Jackson’s beloved Lemuria Books. It’s a calm, inviting haven. “Book culture is strong in Mississippi,” says the owner, John Evans. “We’re proud of our literary heritage. And we’ve managed to form a strong bond with the community. That’s what you need in this business.”

He recommended a steak and seafood joint called Crechale’s out on Highway 80, but added, “you don’t go for the food.” Not that there’s anything wrong with it, but you go because you walk through the door into 1956. Gangsters and bootleggers used to eat in these vinyl booths. Liquor is legal now, but not much else has changed.

From Jackson, I head into the vast fields and primordial swamps of the Mississippi Delta, where Faulkner hunted bears in the Big Woods and young Charley Patton learned to play guitar. In Greenwood, I stop at Turnrow Book Co., founded ten years ago by Jamie Kornegay, now himself a published novelist, and his wife, Kelly. It has become a vital fixture in the effort to revive the downtown.

For lunch, Jamie suggests the Delta Bistropub, founded by the James Beard Award–nominated chef Taylor Bowen Ricketts and now run by chef Robert Gillespie. Here, I commit a glorious act of gluttony involving black-eyed-pea gumbo, cornbread loaded with cheese and bacon, a fried chicken slider, french fries with duck and mozzarella, and the best bread pudding I’ve ever tasted.

The next stop is Oxford, Mississippi, home of the legendary Square Books, which is easily the worst bookstore for my wallet. Something about the place—its rich Southern charm, the artful way the books are displayed, the infectious enthusiasm of the staff—always triggers a buying spree. A book lover in Oxford is duty bound to visit Rowan Oak, where Faulkner overextended his finances to restore an abandoned antebellum home with stables and grounds. I fall into easy conversation with the curator, Bill Griffith, chatting about the author’s fetish for uniforms, his drinking habits, his loathing of air-conditioning, his marriage and affairs. One could almost hear Faulkner, a very private and guarded man, rolling in his grave.

The following day, armed with a collection of Faulkner audio stories, I make the 250-mile drive to Nashville, speeding by wild gardens of kudzu and a few aging country stores. Old South gives way to the new in Nashville’s exurbs; then it’s heavy traffic all the way.

When Music City’s last independent bookstore closed in 2011, Nashville novelist Ann Patchett was so horrified she opened one herself, in partnership with an experienced bookseller. It’s called Parnassus, and against all odds, it’s a raging success. Readings are packed. Parents come so their children can play in the kids’ section. The store hosts wine events, where authors and a wine seller decide which vintages fictional characters would drink. Hardbacks—remember those?—move off the shelves.

To be hand sold a book by an expert, who’s delighted to discover your tastes, is something the big chains and online retailers can’t quite accomplish. But judging by the tower of books on my passenger seat, it’s a thing that Southern booksellers still do remarkably well.

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