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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
Tin House’s Paris editor, Heather Hartley, might have traded her coal for a basket of croissants, but that doesn’t mean she’s abandoned all things from her home state. In today’s Book Clubbing, Heather takes some country roads back to her favorite West Virginia bookstore, Taylor Books.
“I flipped out when we got the cheese magazine,” laughs David Anderson at Taylor Books in Charleston, West Virginia. Taylor Books is not a boutique bookshop for gastronomical periodicals highlighting dairy products and David Anderson is not a specialist in lactose alternatives, but rather one of the many kind, generous and extremely knowledgeable booksellers in the largest independent bookstore in the capital city. The quarterly, Culture: The Word on Cheese, is only one of many fascinating magazines among their incredibly well stocked racks. From Tin House to Garden & Gun: Soul of the South to Vanity Fair to Foreign Affairs, even the most finicky browser will be enticed to stop and thumb through something.
And the same is absolutely true for their thoughtful, exciting and intelligent selection of books. “In addition to stocking the latest fiction and bestsellers, we have an incredibly strong West Virginia section—books about the region and books by local authors,” says Anderson. “Homer Hickam, author of Rocket Boys [that later became the movie “October Sky”], is one of our local heroes.” Bookseller Chris Rodgers explains that, “We have a lot more nonfiction than other stores in the area and I think this is one of our main draws.” He adds, “If I had a section here [to organize and stock], it would definitely be the classics.” Kyla Hilton, who worked in the store, left the city for a few years and came back to work at Taylor’s as soon as she hit city limits, notes that, “The children’s section does really well because it’s hard to find other places that sell such beautiful books.”
Located on one of the largest and busiest streets in the city, Anne and Paul Saville opened Taylor Books in the summer of 1995 and it has been open for business ever since. They restored the building to its original beauty of hardwood floors, red brick walls, with a stunning scarlet-colored tin ceiling. The space is elegant and simple with wooden bookshelves painted black that makes for a lovely—and tempting—presentation of books in all genres. “We’re open seven days a week,” says Anderson. “There’s the bookstore itself, the café, the art gallery. . .” Paul Saville passed away in 2010 at the age of 84 and Anne continues to live above the shop, coming down regularly to check up on things and baking cheese and dill scones for the café.
The café offers homemade fare and has a great space with funky, comfortable chairs and tables that can be moved for regular readings and musical performances. The Savilles bought the building next to the bookstore some time ago and opened the very cool Annex Gallery featuring regular exhibits by regional artists and work by local artisans; there’s also a large range of art classes at their on-site studio. As the gallery is now an integral part of the bookstore, you can step directly from fiction into fine art. Anderson confirms that, “The bookstore has been strong since it opened. It’s a great cultural hub for downtown.”
Regrettably, Taylor Books didn’t exist when I was a teenager growing up in Charleston. The great cultural hub for me and my friends back then was the spanking-new mall, complete with a Food Court, the size of which could rival Louis XIV’s immense Galerie des Glaces at Versailles, and that for us was just as sumptuous with its overflowing choice of boys, French fries and more boys. Those were the halcyon days of commercial centers when anything was possible and ours boasted one chain bookstore that did contain some real books with pages that turned and had stuff printed on them, but the selection was very slim. I like to think that if Taylor’s had been around, I would have camped out with a coffee in an attempt to look cool, loitered in the YA section with friends, or maybe even lingered over a book—but that’s all hearsay.
Now that I’ve cleaned up my act and acne a bit, it’s a great joy to stop by Taylor’s when I return home for a family visit. These days, I do linger over coffee trying to look cool and always find about a baker’s dozen of books to buy—and I’m not alone. “There’s a lot of people in here all the time,” explains Chris Rodgers. “[Visitors, students, and then] our regular customers who are definitely very special. You know them by name and they recognize you and you can joke with them. It’s really cool and laid back—a great atmosphere.”
In this relaxed atmosphere with its constant and constantly changing clientele, Daniel Carlyle, who makes the magazine selections, closely observes what periodicals are popular and dog-eared, and which ones are collecting dust. “I try and keep new stuff coming in and maintain people’s interest. Get rid of what’s not selling. Garden & Gun wasn’t stocked but a lot of people were asking about it so now we’ve got it.” And the cheese magazine? “Stocked—it’s a new curiosity.” At Taylor Books, the cheese does not stand alone.
Heather Hartley is Paris editor at Tin House. She’s the author of Knock Knock, released by Carnegie Mellon University Press. Her poems have appeared in Post Road, Drunken Boat, Forklift Ohio, Mississippi Review and elsewhere. She’s a Co-Director of the Shakespeare and Company Bookshop literary festival and lives in Paris.