People of the (Independent) Book(stores)

One of my favorite parts of traveling the South are these literary gems

Did you know that the second week of May is “Reading Is Fun” Week? I think that’s a holiday worth celebrating – along with all the other literary holidays we can squeeze into the calendar.

As an Education Fellow at the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life, before coronavirus curtailed travel, my backpack and I constantly hit the road to visit unique communities across the South. Along the way, I enjoy exploring the unique personalities that define the South from Austin, Texas’s creative energy to Montgomery, Alabama’s historic soul. This diversity can be experienced through the plethora of local businesses that make up each city’s respective downtown. Local ice cream parlors, antique thrift stores, restaurants, and artistic centers all obviously contribute to the character of a place. But my first stop on most road trips is the nearest independent bookstore.

What’s not to love? Beyond their colorful decorations and worldly staff, bookstores contain precious stories, large and small. Patrons are instantly enveloped by overwhelming sections organized by genre and media. Some customers arrive searching for a specific book, but I perceive that most bookstore-goers enjoy the bliss of leafing through unfamiliar texts and leaving with an unexpected treasure.

My strategy when facing these daunting shelves is to actually judge a book by its cover! While spellbinding tales occasionally lie within mundane book jackets, I note that a catchy title or an intriguing backside summary often forecast the best stories. My finger gradually moves across the spines in a row until I find a feature that attracts my curiosity. Finally surveying my selected read, I begin by skimming its pages. I scan for any anonymous annotations hidden among paragraphs. Revealing the thoughts of past confidants, a “used” book resembles the tradition of rabbinic commentators interpreting the Torah and other spiritual writings. These figures intensely discussed words and phrases of text with a profound attention to legal debates, scripted inconsistencies, and moral quandies. Their legacy is the recognition that books are living, breathing companions that we invite into our lives and wrestle with their messages.

My perennial stops in bookstores also serve a more personal purpose. Interacting with new people and locations is exciting and meaningful, but I appreciate the comforts of a separate space from my work to regroup and reflect. While the physical layout and available materials differ between businesses, stepping into an independent bookstore makes me feel immediately safe amid a shelter of stories.

These past weeks, I’ve missed being in bookstores. But I still find refuge in stories – and still plan to support the independent bookstores that have enriched my journey so much. My time as an Education Fellow is drawing to a close, but I am so grateful to have visited so many wonderful indie bookstores across the South in my time here. Below is a list of three of my favorite bookstores that I have visited during my adventures across the South. Consider making a stop if you are ever in the vicinity of these fine establishments once travel is safe again—and in the meantime, you can support your favorite indie bookstores by ordering books online through the site IndieBound.

Square Books – Oxford, Mississippi

Situated along the historic courthouse square, Square Books is must-stop when visiting Ole Miss or William Faulkner’s family home. As an independent shop, Square Books offers a lovely collection of southern literary fiction and histories. During my visit in the fall of 2018, I especially enjoyed examining the mounted photographs of celebrated writers that line the business interior inviting patrons into the company of other passionate bookworms.

Dickson St. Bookshop – Fayetteville, Arkansas

This densely-filled store is steps away from the University of Arkansas campus. Guests navigate narrow corners and long hallways to discover a diverse array of literary choices. I specifically browsed shelves showing off selections on world religions and theatrical plays. Dickson St. Bookshop also boasts a sizable offering of out-of-print work.

Bookshop on the Avenue – Lynchburg, Virginia

The Bookshop on the Avenue displays its many reserves on three levels of a house. I stumbled upon this used bookstore on my third stopover in Lynchburg when I needed to dry off during a storm. The store interior was immediately alluring as I meandered up and down stairs and discovered new and familiar titles.

Books can always transport us – and independent bookstores help make the magic happen. Keep reading, and here’s to when we can once again discover the worlds contained within the walls of an indie bookstore.

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