Tuesday, January 17, 2012

A Short Trip in Atlanta--We Not Only Visit Three Bookstores, but Also Three Sites of Atlanta Bookstore History.

As folks know from the blog, I was recently in Atlanta for a gift show. We'll be able to judge the success of this buying trip once some of the orders come in (and even more so if they sell out), but that's not what this particular blog is about. It's about trying to visit what I would consider the most interesting parts of Atlanta in the shortest amount of time.  Fortunately my former coworker Brian has lived in the city long enough and knows me well enough to point out some of his highlights.

I passed up The World of Coca Cola and the Margaret Mitchell house (the former because I didn't want to go through security and the latter because I still haven't read Gone with the Wind) for what I consider the most important part of Atlanta history--the legendary locations of Rich's and Davison's department stores.

Davison's was easy--Brian works in the building. Bought by Macy's in the 1920's, the store was called Davison-Paxon and then Davison's until the 1980s. I never understood why some Macy stores changed names very quickly (San Francisco, Kansas City) while others (Bamberger's in Newark, Lasalle's in Toledo) held onto their names for decades. The store closed in 2005 when the Macy's and Rich's stores were merged.

You can see why the Rich's store closed earlier, in 1991, despite being the stronger brand overall in the market. This part of downtown is not in as good a shape as Peachtree Street. That said, the building is beautiful and the store had one of the best book departments, led by Faith Brunson. In their day, department store book buyers were very active in the American Booksellers Association, almost always holding a seat on the board of directors. Here's an article from EW talking about how the Gone with the Wind sequel Scarlett was an Atlanta phenomenon.

We headed for Decatur, where there's is actually more than one bookstore, perhaps due to the popular Decatur Book Festival. It's a bustling inner suburb shopping district with strong pedestrian traffic, perhaps due to a well-placed Marta stop, which nonetheless gives the square a sort of speed bump.

The Blue Elephant Book Shop is a few blocks from the core, having moved to Decatur a few years ago from the Emory area. It's former location was once a branch of Chapter 11, a local Crown-ish phenomonenon of small, bestseller driven discount stores.

Blue Elephant is in a converted house, with several rooms a la King's English in Salt Lake City. I had a chat with both booksellers working that shift; after going back and forth on books we both liked, we settled on a local author as the best rec for me, Thomas Mullen's The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers. It's said to be Chabon-esque. The author has several books out, including the newly released The Revisionists.

I really liked the collection of blue elephants!

Several blocks down the street was Little Shop of Stories, the legendary bookstore for kids that is well-known for their events, service, storytimes, and teen outreach. Doing some research, I read that this store also moved, but just across the square. They also had a decent-sized section of adult fiction and nonfiction; I've seen this at other children's bookstores, but this was probably a bigger selection than I've seen elsewhere. I didn't get to see it, but I hear they have a nice storytime/event space upstairs.  They have three storytimes per week--very impressive. And what an event list! They just had John Green, author of The Fault in Our Stars. I would have gone, but they were sold out.

Having finished the Nerds books, I decided to get the first volume of the Sisters Grimm series there. I'm looking forward to it.

I couldn't leave Decatur without visiting the two locations of Wordsmiths, the indie that opened in 2007 and closed in 2009, just before we opened, with not one but two interesting locations in its short life. The first was in a converted post office. It had a great parking lot but was a bit too off the square for foot traffic. The second was in a converted bank building, where the vault was for comic books and graphic novels. I'm sure two store openings in two years was tough on their cash flow. The first store is now Greene's a fudge/nut/toy store (yes, I brought back pecans for the Boswellians) and the second is sort of a convenience store.

Driving around the city, we headed through Midtown, where Outwrite Books is--hope I'll visit that store next time, as I had a friend who once worked there. Instead we went to Buckhead to visit another Atlanta bookstore ghost, the beloved location of Oxford Bookshop in the Peachtree Battle Shopping Center.

Oxford was the store Atlantans talked about the way someone from Denver discussed Tattered Cover or a Portlandian pondered Powells. The store opened in 1973 and the store quickly became an institution. However, it was one of the casualties of the big Barnes & Noble and Borders expansion in the mid 1990s. Like several other stores, the store tried to expand in response to the chains potentially cutting into their business, but found themselves unable to make up for lost revenue. If you'll remember, we did that at Schwartz but survived that round--the Mequon and Shorewood openings and Brookfield expansion were meant to solidify our position in the market for B&N's arrival.

So here's an article that remembers the great Oxford now that one of its rivals, Borders, has closed. We did wind up heading to Richards Variety, a houseware, toy, candy, and novelty shop in that shopping center with a pretty large book section. It's very, very well stocked, focusing on face-outs in quantity. It's sort of like Winkies, only without a Hallmark store.

Off to Little Five Points to visit A Capella Books, a store that was doing what seems to be Atlanta's favorite activity, moving. Their new location is in Inman Park. The store is a mix of new and used. It's a general-ish bookstore, but wears its heart on its sleeve with a small section devoted to Howard Zinn, plus a UFO/mysterious phenomena  shelf. We'd probably do a bit better with that stuff if we curated it better.

I wound up buying the paperback edition of Open City by Teju Cole. I don't think I ever had a copy, but it's possible I'll go back to Milwaukee and find it at the bottom of a pile.

I had heard much about Little Five Points, with folks telling me it would probably be the neighborhood I found most interesting. I was sort of surpised at how many clothing stores there are, but Brian assured me that fashion is very, very important to an Atlantan.

So next we went to a part-clothing store, part everything else alternative store, the legendary Junkman's Daughter, a store I read about in the book Retail Superstars. It's kind of an indie Urban Outfitters, but the clothing is vintage instead of faux vintage. I thought it was a very interesting place but either they had an amazing holiday and are waiting for more product or they have to store some of their fixturing. Here's a website link. It was not working when I looked at it--Daughter, I know what that's like! I've now been to six stores on Whalin's list. Don't ask me why I haven't been to Abt Electronics, as I pass it periodically on the freeway and I could just get off and look.

What also could have been on the list of Retail Superstars was Your Dekalb Farmers Market. I asked Brian what he'd most miss about Atlanta if he moved away and this was his pick, with no hesitation. The market is sort of like Woodmans in that it is a bit warehousey and doesn't take credit cards, only debit. But it's a little like Sendiks in that their produce, meat, and fish is pretty amazing. And it's a little like Outpost in that they have a lot of organic products and make a lot of their own bakery. And it's a little like Pete's Fruit Market, only I don't know why; I've never been there.

We went on a Sunday evening--apologies for the blurry outside picture. It was very crowded. I had a lentil samosa from the cafeteria line. I thought to myself, there's so many interesting things here I could say to myself, "Only blue things today" and walk out with blue potatoes and blue corn chips and fresh blue crabs. I have never seen live blue crabs before--their appendages are blue. Really.

I still need to go to Jungle Jim's in Cincinnati.

We also went for a drink at Dante's Down the Hatch. This was a bar that was originallly located in Underground Atlanta during its first heyday, in the early 1970s. Apprarently the place was done in by Marta construction, relaxing of blue laws in Dekalb County, and oddly enough, a relaxation of the dress code that required bars that served alcohol to require jackets and ties. There's still a location in Buckhead that is apparently quite popular with proms. There's a boat and moat inside and its a jazz club and fondue restaurant. Need I say more? One author told me that she set a scene there because, well, how could you not? But now I can't remember the author or book and neither could the bartender. Please tell me if you remember!

And what's my favorite thing about Atlanta? No question, it's the hexagonal tiles that line the sidewalks of old neighborhoods like Cabbagetown and Candler Park. Originally acutal titles (see top of blog), the tradition has been continued with scored concrete (at left). Sometimes the lines are down by machine and look pretty authentic. Sometimes they are done by hand and are ridiculous. The old tiles are often popping up due to rampant tree root growth. It's apparently hard to jog on the sidewalks of some neighborhoods. But I couldn't get enough of them.

More from Brian on his blog, where he ponders architecture, Atlanta, urbanism, transportation, and lychee-flavored candy.

Addendum on February 6--I don't know if I am bad luck, or what, but since this blog post, not one but two bookstores mentioned here have announced their closing. First Outwrite Books in Midtown shut their doors, and now Blue Elephant has announced their closing in mid-March. Perhaps visiting the ghosts of bookstores past in Atlanta disturbed the bookselling spirits. Or perhaps it was just a question of timing. I'm sad.


Anonymous said...

Loved the tour of Atlanta, a city I have yet to visit. Denise

Brian said...

I made it on the blog! Yes! Now that I'm famous, I guess I can just sit back, put my feet up and let the bags of money come pouring in. Hopefully, said bags will be bedazzled with over-sized novely dollar signs.

Dan Riley Denver, CO said...

I worked with Faith Brunson at Rich's Department Store in the early 80's. She was a true character, a true Southerner and a great lover of books. I think her often when I drive by the Tattered Cover book store here in Denver. Thanks for bringing back good Southern memories!

Dan Riley Denver, CO