The absence of regional, independent bookstores in Appalachia and the South is similar to an urban sprawl in a bone-dry, flowerless space. We are all, in one way or another, readers for life. And readers search for some kind of respite, or thirst for a more tangible knowledge, or crave a feeling of community. So, in this aridness, a few flowers rise through the asphalt. Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi and Malaprops Bookstore in Asheville, North Carolina are a few highly successful independent and regional bookstores. Knoxville, Tennessee has its own outstanding independent bookstore in Union Ave Books. Appalachia Bare recently asked owner and operator, Flossie McNabb, to tell our readers about her experiences as a local bookseller and to express how important independent bookstores are in the region. The following is her gracious reply (along with a photographic tour):
I have been a bookstore owner for 15 years – six years in the Bearden area of Knoxville and nine years in downtown Knoxville. In 2011, we became Union Ave Books, located in the Daylight building, and, since then, we have witnessed many shops and restaurants open on Union Avenue, Market Square, and all around town from the Old City to Main Street and beyond. Knoxville historian Jack Neely was instrumental in getting us to open a bookstore downtown after our Carpe Librum Booksellers closed in early 2011. Jack said, “A downtown needs a bookstore.” We listened to him, and in June of 2011 we filled that need.
In 2018, we expanded the bookstore to the space next door when that business closed. Finally, we had more room for author events and added inventory. At that time, our events were growing and people were attending in increasing numbers.
We partnered with the Friends of the Knoxville Public Library for many offsite events that needed a larger venue. Boy, we were feeling so good about the success of the bookstore. Our biggest year yet was 2019 and we looked forward to 2020 being even bigger! Well, we all know what happened in the first quarter of 2020. The dream of an even bigger 2020 became the dream of surviving as a small business during the pandemic. Thanks to the support of customers in Knoxville, and all over the country for that matter, we are thankfully surviving, paying our booksellers, our vendors, our rent, and utilities.
Here, in September of 2020, I am reflecting on the importance of a bookstore in our region and regions all over the USA. We take appointments every day now for private shopping. And the other morning two women came in to see our store, saying they opened a 600 square foot bookstore in Hazard, Kentucky at the beginning of 2020 and were now visiting other bookstores within driving distance. I am so thankful they came to Union Ave Books because they filled me with hope listening to their excitement about their small town needing a bookstore. They didn’t complain about their unfortunate timing of opening during the pandemic but were thinking mainly about the support the people in their little community were giving them, and their eagerness to have author readings in the future. They reminded me of how proud I am to be a part of this region filled with a rich bounty of poets and writers.
Looking back on the events of the last nine years, I now see that the most successful events we have had in the store are with authors from our region of Appalachia.
I am defining successful not only with the sales of books but with the attendance of people truly drawn to these writers’ gifts as storytellers. Let me just name a few: Lisa Alther, Nikki Giovanni, Ron Rash, George Singleton, Inman Majors, David Madden, Jack Neely, Silas House, Wiley Cash, Robert Gipe, Vince Vawter, Alan Gratz, Linda Parsons, Marilyn Kallet, Rita Quillen, RB Morris, Elizabeth Catte, Eddie Francisco, Jesse Graves, and most recently through Zoom, Lee Smith and Annette Clapsaddle.1)Lisa Alther, Nikki Giovanni, Ron Rash, George Singleton, Inman Majors, David Madden, Jack Neely, Silas House, Wiley Cash, Robert Gipe, Vince Vawter, Alan Gratz, Linda Parsons, Marilyn Kallet, Rita Quillen, RB Morris, Elizabeth Catte, Eddie Francisco, Jesse Graves, Lee Smith, Annette Clapsaddle
A bookstore offers a place for authors in our region to share their words with a rapt and enthusiastic audience. I hope those two bookstore owners in Hazard, Kentucky will soon experience many such authors in their bookstore, The Read Spotted Newt
I am thankful that Union Ave Books is surviving during the pandemic. I am thankful for the support of readers far and near. I am thankful for our hardworking and talented booksellers. I am thankful for being a part of downtown Knoxville. I am thankful to be a part of the Appalachian region. I am thankful for the written word.
**All photographs by Tom and Delonda Anderson