Planning a literary tour doesn’t have to mean long distance travel. Elizabeth Marshall took a short trip to Charleston to a small independent bookstore.
I have always been drawn to Charleston. The culture and history are palpable, like the thick humid air that distinguishes the South. Known for its mannerly people, well-celebrated restaurants, architecture and churches, every corner offers up a piece of her to visitors. And like other cities with a soul, there are hidden places to be discovered. Charleston, the oldest city in South Carolina, was recently named both the Top U.S. City and Top Destination in the World by Conde Nast Traveler 2012 Readers’ Choice Awards.
Today, I am headed for a little bookstore in the heart of King Street. Founded in 1995, it was renamed Blue Bicycle Books in 2007 when local writer Jonathan Sanchez bought the store. Says the store’s website:
We have about 10 feet of storefront on King Street, belying a much longer (and a little wider) space…
In the narrow paths of a 10-foot-wide store I discover humor, wit and a mirror image of what Charleston represents. There are grander and more notable stops you can make in The Holy City. But if you love bookstores, don’t miss this one.
Before I set out to pine among the titles, I do a little research online. This independent bookseller carries used, rare and local books. I believe their collection of rare books may hold my attention the longest. Their rare offerings include a signed copy of Gone With The Wind priced at $19,000 and a copy of To Kill A Mockingbird signed by Harper Lee for $2,000. I find instead it’s the spines of ordinary books that intrigue me. The noise on the street blows in when the door is open, but otherwise this quiet place is a sanctuary in a bustling city.
Sarah, the shopkeeper, shows me the poetry room. Black shelves house a nice collection. The white board on the wall has these words in blue marker, written for an earlier workshop on writing:
It all began with a laugh, a cry and a thud.
I take a visual inventory, finding The Bourgeois Poet, The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson and The Poetical Works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrapped in a blue leather binding. This room is a poet’s haven but I have places to go outside these walls. I move into the other small spaces to scavenge and explore.
Favorite son Pat Conroy’s books are displayed, stacked and stately in their own small corner. I count eight and am impressed by his life’s work. Blue Bicycle Books represents local authors well with works by Southern writers such as Conroy, the Lee Brothers and Sue Monk Kidd prominently displayed in the regional section. I sit to study the titles when I see Purdy, the 17-year-old female cat sleeping on top of a book entitled Fried Chicken and Champagne. This winsome and aloof store staple ignores me as I gaze through titles such as When Fred The Snake Got Squished And Mended. A colorful city begets colorful authors.
Outside the bathroom is the writing style and usage section. I try not to take offense and make unfair assumptions about the placement. I settle on the floor to browse and read. In gold lettering on a Georgia red clay cover is the book Fondling Your Muse: Infallible Advice From a Published Author to the Writerly Aspirant by John Warner.
I ask Sarah which book holds the distinction of oldest and she pulls a fragile 1730 copy of Milton’s Paradise Regained. Its leather cover is the perfect blend of every shade of brown on the Pantone color wheel. Classic and beautiful.
A customer, one of just a handful while I am here, requests a copy of Gone With The Wind. She says her mother, even at her age, is requiring her to re-read it. I spy an unauthorized parody, The Wind Done Gone by Alice Randall. And I wonder why Sarah didn’t mention it to her.
I wish I had stayed longer among the Caldecott award-winning titles in the children’s room; these were the books my mom brought home to me and my sisters. I watch as a father brings his young son in to browse and build book memories.
The bookstore has sheltered me from a torrential summer rainstorm. The rain lets up and I decide to leave, knowing I will be back. With 50,000 volumes I have only scratched the surface. At the exit, I discover an easel chalk board sign meant to appeal to the children out of school for the summer months. It also captures the tone of my playful “adult” time here.
“And now,” cried Max, “let the wild rumpus start!”
I thank Sarah and before saying my goodbyes I ask if that is in fact a picture on the bathroom wall of the store’s owner with Alex Trebek . That is another story involving Shakespeare, Jeopardy and some more humor.
Purdy, the ever-present cat is not saying a word.
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