In the South, we understand the essence of story: Art, magic and mystery are what make a great book. They make a pretty great bookstore, too, and it’s why we have so many stellar independent bookshops in the South.
As a writer and owner at Church Street Coffee & Books in Birmingham, one of my favorite things about hitting the road is visiting bookshops to uncover their uniqueness. All 10 of these Southern shops stock great books, but they also have hidden talents—one thing that sets them apart from the pack and makes them quirky and one-of-a-kind.
These booksellers bring something important to their communities. Every one of them is extraordinary, unforgettable and larger-than-life—just like the characters in our favorite books.
1. Parnassus Books: Nashville, Tennessee Parnassus is an “independent bookstore for independent people”—and it’s run by a literary legend. In a city that’s no stranger to star power, Parnassus shines as a beacon of story, and co-owner Ann Patchett rocks the bestseller list with titles like Bel Canto and State of Wonder. Patchett and co-owner Karen Hayes work hard to curate a pro-writer, pro-literature collection. They’ll even export their favorite titles through two First-Edition clubs (fiction and young adult), books signed by the authors, and shipped right to your door.
2. 2nd Edition Book Sellers: Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina Need an antidote for layovers and missed connections? If you’re flying into Raleigh-Durham International Airport, pay a visit to 2nd Edition Book Sellers. Nestled into Terminal 2 is this busy bookshop full of old-school charm: Natural sunlight pours in through the windows, and wooden bookshelves are packed with an eclectic mix of bestsellers (that make great last-minute traveling companions) and collectible books (that make great last-minute hostess gifts). Traveling light? No problem—2nd Edition buys books from customers, so you can trade in the thriller you finished on your last flight for credit toward a new mystery.
3. Oxford Exchange: Tampa, Florida If you believe books should be beautiful, Oxford Exchange is the eye candy you’re looking for. Proving that a literary library can boast both beauty and intelligence, this bookstore (and its accompanying market, shop and restaurant) brings the look of private English clubs and Oxford University to the sunny streets of Tampa. Explore this gorgeous space for hours, flip through glossy coffee table books (especially from partner Rizzoli), and feed your imagination through design as well as through story.
4. Octavia Books: New Orleans, Louisiana If your city is as full of life as New Orleans is, it makes sense to bring its spirit inside the bookshop walls. Octavia Books certainly does hosting author events, launching local authors, and connecting customers with books so perfect it’s almost spooky. Octavia goes outside the walls as well, filling the city with books at dozens of events around NOLA, including Tales of the Cocktail, where booksellers sling hardcovers right alongside bartenders making cocktails. It doesn’t get more New Orleans than that.
5. Page & Palette: Fairhope, Alabama Addicted to art and storytelling? Meet your new home. In addition to its fantastic book selection, Page & Palette carries art supplies, catering to Fairhope’s thriving art community, as well as to its voracious readers. This third-generation, family-owned store is the quintessential small-town, locally owned shop: They’re snuggled into an old home, and sections like Fiction and Mystery are tucked into small rooms. The coffee shop serves up coffee and snacks, and the buyers are pros at finding books—even rare and out-of-print titles.
6. Little Shop of Stories: Decatur, Georgia This is one little shop that thinks big when it comes to events—go beyond the book with stories that leap right off the page and into birthday parties, craft events, and story-themed summer camps. Hardcore creative kids can go to Comics Camp or Wreck This Journal camp, and what junior wizard-or witch-in-training wouldn’t treasure a visit to Camp Hogwarts? Dream up a birthday party theme, and Little Shop of Stories will help you create the perfect celebration for pirates, princesses, and everything in between. There’s even something for the grown-ups—a Not So YA Book Club that caters to the growing group of adults who love to read fiction written for teens.
7. Square Books: Oxford, Mississippi There's nothing more Southern than a big front porch... unless you throw in storytelling, sweet tea, and tradition. Square Books has all that—an inviting porch that serves as a respite for readers, a huge selection of books (including an impressive collection from Southern authors), a café for snacks, coffee and tea, and a tradition of hometown literary giants like William Faulkner, Willie Morris, and Larry Brown. Spread out into three buildings (Square Books, Jr. and Off Square Books are close-by), Square Books is a must-see destination for book lovers and a great centerpiece for a trip to Oxford.
8. Reading Reptile: Kansas City, Missouri Walking into the Reading Reptile feels like walking into a book: Paper-mache children’s book characters soar above your head. Bright, illustrated book scenes are painted on the ceiling. Curiosities and creative literary allusions are ready to be discovered on every shelf, at every corner, and behind every book. The title selection is top-notch, carrying not only fiction, but also a well-curated choice of non-fiction, creativity-generating titles as well. But this isn’t just a bookstore. This is a hub of imagination, and it’s a fantastic land of discovery for kids.
9. BookPeople: Austin, Texas Huge selection. Great organization. Multiple floors of shelves and every title you could want. BookPeople has all the convenience you’ll find at a megastore, but with the carefully-picked selection, fantastic service and, well, independence of an independent. Take a closer peek at those stacked-full tables, and you’ll see surprise selections you won't find everywhere. Look twice at the organized shelves, and you’ll see homemade works of art among the book spines. From Sherlock Holmes graffiti in the bathroom stalls to the delicious coffee drinks and friendly service in the café, BookPeople is one big store that keeps small shopping at its heart.
10. Blue Bicycle Books: Charleston, South Carolina The eponymous “blue bicycle” that sits in the store is a great subject for Instagram selfies, but this shop is much more than its quirky two-wheeled mascot. Owners Jonathan and Lauren Sanchez work hard to make their store a true community partner, and Charleston residents reward them with a busy, bustling neighborhood store. Blue Bicycle Books is an important part of festivals like Y’all Fest (Charleston’s fantastic Young Adult Book Festival) and Write of Summer (a creative writing camp for kids), and its huge stock (more than 50,000 books!) makes it easy to find what you’re looking for—or to discover a new book you didn’t even know you needed.
Carrie Rollwagen is a writer and owner of Church Street Coffee & Books in Birmingham, Alabama. Her debut book, The Localist, available November 20 on Amazon, Kobo, and Barnes & Nobles, focuses on a movement to shop local. Join Carrie and Southern Living editors for the launch party at The Nest in Birmingham, December 3 from 6 to 9 p.m.