How to Spend a Literary Long Weekend in Richmond, Virginia
Home to Art Students, Southern Debutantes, and Edgar Allan Poe
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“If charm were a bathtub, Richmond could float 100 rubber duckies and still have room for half the Royal Navy,” says Tom Robbins, author of Even Cowgirls Get the Blues.
The 90s punk band (Young) Pioneers described Richmond as “a per capita murder kind of town, a teen pregnancy kind of town.” Soul legend D’Angelo sings, “back in Richmond, shit ain’t changed a bit” on his recent comeback album.
These quotes are all accurate. Richmond is a city full of fascinating contradictions. It’s the home of horror fiction pioneer Edgar Allan Poe and Nikki Turner, the queen of hip-hop lit. It’s a majority black city that was the capital of the Confederacy. Its population includes starving art students and southern debutantes. If you find yourself 90 miles south of the nation’s capital—maybe for the annual James River Writers Conference—the following is a guide for a book-centric (and mostly bike-friendly) tour of Richmond.
· FRIDAY ·
412 S. Cherry St.
Immortalized by Virginia Poet Laureate Ron Smith in “Running Again in Hollywood Cemetery,” this historic, 130-acre graveyard offers views of the James River and the south side of town. Pay your respects to 1920s fantasy fiction author James Branch Cabell and historian Virginius Dabney. You can walk through the cemetery or drive, but leave yourself a little extra time—you’re going to want to take pictures of lots of graves (keep an eye peeled for two US presidents and an iron dog), and you’re probably going to get lost on its winding paths.
The cemetery’s entrance is in Oregon Hill, a small neighborhood that has recently gentrified, but residents are still known to fly Confederate flags, creating what could kindly be called a “locals only” atmosphere. It’s also the setting of Howard Owen’s Oregon Hill, which follows mixed-race, African-American reporter/sleuth Willie Black. Each of Owen’s fast-paced novels is set in a different Richmond neighborhood, providing a highly entertaining crash course in the city’s culture. Follow Black’s steps down Pine St. on your way to one of the hard-drinking newspaperman’s favorite haunts.
501 S. Pine St.
This quirky, long-running Italian restaurant is a dark and cluttered, low-ceilinged box with some incredibly layered sauces—taste for garlic, garlic, tomato, basil, and garlic. A generation back, legendary local drag queen Dirt Woman had an odd job peeling tubs of garlic during the day. Sadly, Dirt Woman has since passed, but the restaurant powers on. Just make sure to get there early, because people start lining up around 5:30 PM.
· SATURDAY ·
825 W. Cary St.
Sitting on the border of Oregon Hill and the ever-expanding Virginia Commonwealth University, this punky, sunny cafe offers a tasty mix of vegan dishes and fresh takes on diner standards, plus craft beer on tap. Willie Black sometimes stops here for coffee, and it’s easy to see why—they pour a great cup.
The historic Fan District, which “fans” out from Third to Eighth Avenue heading west, is a former bohemian enclave that will never entirely lose its funk. From 821 Café, head north on Lombardy St. When you’re in the heart of The Fan, take a left on Monument Ave. (or “loser’s lane,” as it’s called in Dennis Danvers’ sci-fi novel The Watch), a lovely boulevard, despite its grassy median dotted with tall statues of treasonous slave owners.
Black Swan Books
2601 W. Main St.
Black Swan recently moved from a cluttered side-street location to a sunny and spacious spot in The Fan. This antiquarian store specializes in rare and old books, but don’t be scared off by the first editions on the shelves; I once found a 1960s copy of Soul On Ice for not much more than the cover price.
This large storefront on the edge of downtown houses an all-vinyl record store, and a carefully curated vintage shop. Make a stop, because writing’s always better with music, and you can browse for something to wear to your next reading.
Chop Suey Books
2913 W. Cary St.
This bookstore’s original location was once a Chinese restaurant called George’s Chop Suey. Chop Suey, or Za Sui in Mandarin, translates to English as, “a little bit of this and a little bit of that.” Since this describes the store, the owners decided to keep the name. Chop Suey specializes in used books but also carries new titles—it currently has over 45,000 in stock—and regularly puts on literary events. Chop Suey has recently entered the publishing business, and their latest title River City Secrets is a collection of Richmond-set young adult stories.
(Speaking of younger readers, Richmond YA author Gigi Amateau suggests that you check out BBGB, the new children’s bookstore up the block in the quaint Carytown shopping district.)
St. Christopher’s School
711 St. Christopher’s Rd.
On the way to dinner, stop by this chichi suburban prep school to see where Tom Wolfe (Bonfire of the Vanities, The Right Stuff) and Dean King (Skeletons on the Zahara, Unbound) went to high school.
6004 W. Broad St.
This huge Vietnamese restaurant is credited with kicking off the city’s craft beer scene. The menu has pho, bún, and all of the delicious Vietnamese standards, and their phone book of a beer list specializes in hard-to-find Belgian selections.
· SUNDAY ·
Ellen Glasgow House
1 W. Main St.
Pulitzer Prize-winning, early 20th-century author Ellen Glasgow grew up in Richmond, and the house where she lived from age 14 to the time of her death has been preserved as a National Historic Landmark. Over the course of those 58 years, she wrote 20 novels, two story collections, and an autobiography. Her work, as a 1923 reviewer noted, “preserved for us the quality and the beauty of her real South.” Her Pulitzer Prize-winning and final novel, In This Our Life, was adapted into a film that was later censored for its depiction of racial inequality. Glasgow’s historic home is not open to the public, but it’s worth driving by.
Devil’s Half Acre / Lumpkin’s Slave Jail
E. Broad St. and N. 16th St.
Nudging up against the interstate, this small, grassy park is the former site of a slave-trading complex known as “the Devil’s half acre” or Lumpkin’s jail. Richmond was the second-largest center of the slave trade in America, and an estimated 350,000 people were sold into slavery from this point; Solomon Northrup describes being held and sold here in his memoir Twelve Years a Slave. There’s not a lot to see, but the anonymous setting serves as a chilling reminder of just how ordinary cruelty can be.
Edgar Allan Poe Museum
1914 E. Main St.
Although he was born in Boston, Edgar Allan Poe considered Richmond his home. His actor parents were married here while on tour in 1806, and his mother died in 1811 while touring through Richmond again. Poe and his sister were taken in by the local Allan family, from whom he adopted his middle name. He never lived in the building that houses the museum—all of the Allan homes have been destroyed—but it boasts a collection of artifacts from his life, including his newspaper desk and childhood bed, one of the world’s largest collections of original manuscripts, letters, and first editions, a garden planted with flowers mentioned in his poem “To One in Paradise,” and materials from the original office of the Southern Literary Messenger, where Poe worked as an editor and made name for himself as a critic, publishing dozens of reviews and a few short stories.
1312 E. Cary St.
While you’re passing through Downtown, make a stop at this charming little bookstore on cobblestone Shockoe Slip. The store is on the ground floor of a building that was built in 1867, and it boasts exposed brick, hardwood floors, and lovely wood shelves.
Open since 1978, Fountain is a center of local literary life, and regularly hosts readings, book club meetings, and other literary gatherings.
1020 Hull St.
If you like your food golden, crispy, and fresh out of the water, cross the James River and indulge in a late lunch at this long-running, seafood-focused soul food spot on a historic stretch of Hull St. in Southside Richmond.
Tyler Potterfield Walking Bridge
West of the 9th St. Manchester Bridge, south side of the James River
Walk out over the rolling James River on the T-Pott walking Bridge. Legend has it that young Edgar Allan Poe and his friends had a swimming contest that started here, and that Poe won, coming out of the water six miles downriver.
I don’t suggest following Poe’s path. Instead, why not wind down your visit on scenic Belle Isle, the river island with walking paths and an old, abandoned nail factory, epitomizing Richmond’s balance of verdant nature and rusting industry.