Crossing over the gentle roll of the Ozarks, through dark stands of white oaks and shortleaf pines, and past the Walmart world headquarters, I came upon Fayetteville, AR. I’d heard tell of some interesting literary goings-on in this collegiate outpost—rumors satisfied in short order by walking through the doors of Nightbird Books on Dickson St. First off the shelf was Anselm Berrigan’s Notes From Irrelevance, and other works by Wave authors like Graham Foust and Geoffrey G. O’Brien were close at hand. The store acts as a locus for regional poets, but has an appeal that attracts energy from all over—thanks in no small part to local advocates like Matthew Henriksen, whose efforts as organizer were apparent all over in the form of readings curated and journals edited by his hand. It was a quiet morning when I wandered in, but I could feel a rumbling as classes were letting out..
Most of my priorities have been made quite plain by now. I’ll sniff out a bookstore from 30 klicks—sometimes to the point of utter distraction. But presently racing headlong into the South afforded me a mysterious excitement akin to ripping open a pack of crisp Upper Deck baseball cards (you never know what you’re gonna get, but you hope on everything sacred there’s a Ken Griffey, Jr. rookie in there). it wasn’t even quite clear to me until rolling into Memphis, TN that along with my usual fixations, there would be drawls, BBQ ribs, and Graceland (see Jungle Room below for shag-carpeted ceilings). Put briefly: various histories awaited.
And what better way to bring my very contemporary campaign to a region of many historical intersections than to swing through Burke’s Books. Open to the intellectually curious of Memphis since 1875—making it one of the countries oldest surviving bookstores—Burke’s has been brought quite flawlessly into our historical moment. With Cheryl and Corey Mesler behind the counter and out in the community, the sometimes-fickle literary identity of Memphis has solid foundations upon which to build and branch out. And they’re the first two to tell you that Memphis is up-and-coming, which makes sense as they collaborate with and engage writers near and far who are drawn to their passion and know-how. May Burke’s thrive to see yet another century!
Many miles on long stretches of open road. City after city and face after face of unknowns. Truly, the traveling life can be wearisome and solitary at times. One can perhaps be so lonesome one could cry. One could perhaps find a tear in one’s beer. As far as finding a little desperation in common goes, the disposition has long been shared in Nashville, TN. Though you can always trade in desperation for good reads and sweet satisfaction at Parnassus Books. Popularly recognized as Ann Patchett’s bookstore, Parnassus is really the result of a young literary crowd cropping up in the city known for its music. Patchett, along with Karen Hayes, was able to bring the independent spirit back to Nashville at a time when even the big boys started croaking. What they’ve started to foster in the wake of their project is a realignment of the commerce of the physical book with the welfare of writers in a physical space. With Wave Books on the shelf and prospective readers a buzz, it felt like quite a slick space indeed.
Across the Cumberland River and into East Nashville, I had to stop into East Side Story. This efficiency-studio of a storefront—clustered with a huddle of new, single-unit spaces available for retail and art studios—has quite a bit going on inside. I chatted with proprietor Chuck Beard, who laid on me his version of the literary Nashville that’s budding, his hopes for and role in helping that precious fruit to flourish, and how the rise of East Nashville’s arts & culture has provided fresh acreage where writers can assemble, read their work, and (especially in Chuck’s TN-centric shelves) be found in printed & bound formats. His place is stuffed with local materials from zines to hardbacks, children’s to poetry to ghost lore. Showing up unannounced at a place like East Side Story and meeting someone as genuine and committed to the cause (in talk and walk) as Chuck is really what a trip like this is all about. No glad-handing, no product placement—just face-to-face real-talk with an individual whose enterprise holds steadfast to the raising of underrepresented voices to the fore, sharing a little joy over the written word.