Saying Goodbye to My Beloved
Susan Harlan Offers an Appreciation of Winston-Salem's Bright Leaf Books
Bright Leaf Books in Winton-Salem, NC closed early last month. It was just a small bookstore in a small city, but it was my bookstore for the last couple of years. It opened in the spring of 2017, on Fifth Street downtown. It was the first bookstore downtown.
And it was walking distance from my house. I came to appreciate this very quickly. Because I’m an English professor, I work from home a lot. I’m fortunate to have an office on campus, and I like my office—and have filled it with books and posters and tchotchkes—but I don’t write there. I prep for classes and meet with students and do administrative work there, but I prefer to write at home, where I can make endless pots of tea and hang out with my dog Millie and re-watch episodes of Schitt’s Creek.
But it can be isolating to work at home. I went to Bright Leaf a lot last summer. Summers are quiet here. Some of my colleagues and friends leave town, in search of more interesting pastures. Last summer, I started working on a new book. The book is about my house, so writing it in my house made sense. Three months of uninterrupted writing time is a dream, and I don’t take it for granted, but I was spending a lot of time by myself, even for someone who loves time alone. So I would walk downtown to Bright Leaf, to say hi to the owner Sam and look over the books and take a break from work.
There was always a table outside with $1 books: some hardbacks and mass market paperbacks. I have always liked old thumbed mass market paperbacks. I like it that you find unexpected covers on a classic books. I like it that the books are soft in your hands. I like it that they line up so neatly on shelves, a perfect line that varies only in color. I arrange them according to the color of their spines because this creates funny combinations, like The Pocket Aquinas next to The Big Sleep next to Hard Times next to All Quiet on the Western Front next to My Ántonia next to Lady Chatterley’s Lover.
The store was bright and modern, with tables of new books in the middle of the room surrounded by bookshelves of used books. (Sam built all the bookshelves.) Most of the stock was used books. I would walk around, picking up books and depositing them at the check-out desk, until a little pile had formed. I was never looking for anything in particular. I just wanted to see what I would find.
I found lots of things. I found Jan Morris’s A Writer’s House in Wales, in which she gives the reader a tour not only of her extraordinary home and life, but also of Welsh culture and history. And in the same National Geographic Directions series, I found W.S. Merwin’s The Mays of Ventadorn, which is about the troubadours, but also about his stone farmhouse in the south of France. These books helped me work on my own book. They helped me think about what home means. I sat on my front porch, which is sort of my second living room, and drank peppermint tea and then, in the evenings, bourbon, and read about Morris’s and Merwin’s houses.
I also bought Merwin’s The Shadow of Sirius and The Vixen at Bright Leaf: both nice hardback editions with dust jackets, light gray for the first and white for the second, with an image of a fox stepping onto the cover. I read these books on warm days, by a river in the mountains of east Tennessee, and I marked some lines with a black pen. I didn’t know Merwin very well before buying these books, and now I can’t remember not knowing him, not going back to his work again and again. Now that he has died, maybe he is part of the trees and rocks and water of Tennessee, which I hope he would have liked.I have been collecting books since I was in college, and I have a lot of books, many of which are arranged in stacks in my house. Now the books I bought at Bright Leaf are part of these stacks. . .
And then there are the books I have read at home. I have a tendency to leave books on my front porch, in stacks under the coffee table and on chairs. I like it that they get a little weathered (it rains here a lot). There was a snowstorm last December, right at the end of the semester, and when I woke up that morning, I found that the books I had left outside were covered in snow. The snow had blown onto my porch and covered everything. I brought the books inside and set them out on the floor in my foyer, and they dried out in a day, but they’re still slightly wrinkled, which reminds me of this storm. It was a nice storm because I was stuck at home for three days, peaceful and quiet.
I bought lots of other things at Bright Leaf, too. Some Seamus Heaney. Anne Sexton. Elizabeth Bishop. Norman Dubie. A.R. Ammons, who used to teach at my university. A stack of Paul Muldoon. Eileen Myles. A book about Toulouse Lautrec’s posters. A book called Fantastic Art. A lovely illustrated edition of Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. A Phaidon book about vintage postcards called Boring Postcards USA. Andrew Wyeth’s The Helga Pictures. Patti Smith’s Just Kids, which is one of the most wonderful things I have ever read. And a few weeks ago, I got Mary McCarthy’s Venice Observed and Jan Morris’s The World of Venice. And a book on diners called Diners, with lots of great old pictures.
I would walk home with my new books, sometimes flipping through them. Sometimes I stopped and picked up barbecue to go. And when I got home, I wrote my name in my books right away. I always do this. It’s a way of staking a claim. And if the books were new, I broke the bindings. I always left the price tags on the back covers so I would know which books were from Bright Leaf. When friends came to town, I took them to the store. My friend Sarah bought me a copy of one of her favorite books there: a Bantam Classic paperback of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio. It is gray with Wyeth’s Christina’s World on the cover, and she wrote a note to me in it.
Bright Leaf Books also sold my books, so the store was bound up in a time of change for me. I published two books last year: a book about luggage called (you guessed it) Luggage in March and a humor book called Decorating a Room of One’s Own in October. I had been told when I was younger, even before graduate school, that you’re either a scholar or a creative writer but not both, and I believed it. And so I was a scholar. I wrote a dissertation that I turned into an academic book. I wrote articles for academic journals. I wrote conference papers. I taught Shakespeare. I was lucky to be able to do these things, given the state of the profession today, and I liked doing them, but I found that I wanted something else.
About seven years ago, I stopped believing that you are either a scholar or a writer. I don’t think I had ever really believed it. I think I had just accepted it. So I stopped accepting it. I wanted to write in a different way, so I started writing essays. I had ideas for books, and they were not academic books. So instead of writing about Shakespeare, I worked on them.
When Luggage was published last spring, Sam ordered copies before it came out and set them on one of the tables in the store. This was the first time I had seen something I had written in a bookstore, right there for someone to buy. I liked looking at the stack of them, there on the table, next to other books. It seemed so strange that it was my book, but it was. The store also hosted book launches for me. I bought boxed wine from Target, one box of red and one box of white, and plastic cups. I felt celebrated by my friends, and I felt how bookstores bring communities together.
When I went by the store on the last day, most of the tables had been broken down and taken away, and the shelves were mostly empty. Sam was talking to customers about the closing, and everyone said the same thing: that the store had meant a lot to the community. There were cardboard boxes stacked in one corner, and you could fill a box for ten dollars. I picked one up and walked around. There were still some books in the theater section, so I boxed up a few. An Actor’s Book of Scenes from New Plays. Some Arthur Miller. Caryl Churchill. The Tempest. Miss Julie. Pygmalion. Some Aeschylus. Euripides. Racine. Some old Grove Press editions of Pinter (with great covers). I also found a Penguin edition of The Earliest English Poems, the first two volumes of Peter Gay’s The Bourgeois Experience, a copy of Dorothy Allison’s Bastard out of Carolina, Nancy Mitford’s biography of Edna St. Vincent Millay, and an anthology called Travels in the Americas.
I have been collecting books since I was in college, and I have a lot of books, many of which are arranged in stacks in my house. Now the books I bought at Bright Leaf are part of these stacks, blended with so many others from other places and times. Buying books can be expensive. But buying used books is a unique pleasure because you get something delightful for so little money. Part of the joy of used book shopping is the randomness of it. You never know what you’ll find. Even with such a diminished stock, there were still things to find on the last day. I’ll read some of these books—I have never read Bastard out of Carolina—and I won’t read others. Because books aren’t just for reading; they’re also for having.
Used books often have unknown histories, and part of their value is that they pass between people. They have been in the world. They have circulated. They have belonged to others, and sometimes they have marks of that ownership. I bought a book of poetry about a year ago that someone had read with a yellow highlighter. I remember reading with a highlighter when I was younger, but I tended to use it for textbooks—for informational reading. But I liked the idea of someone reading poetry with a highlighter. They had highlighted a couple of lines at a time. I don’t know who they were or why they chose the lines they chose, but the marks revealed something about a stranger, about what mattered to them.
Sometimes a book’s former owner has marked something that you would mark, so you don’t need to mark it. Sometimes the former owner has written their name in a book or made notes in the margins. Underlined words. Put stars or brackets next to passages. Sometimes there are price tags from other bookstores or an erased price in pencil in the upper right-hand corner of the first page. My Racine paperback is stamped with $3.95 from somewhere, before. I like looking for inscriptions, which remind us how books mark our immaterial ties and bonds, materially.
It’s appropriate that I should have bought many of my book from Bright Leaf last summer, when I was writing about my house, because now these books are part of my house—and part of many other people’s homes in my small North Carolina city. Now the store is gone, but maybe it is more dispersed than gone. Now the books are not in one place, but many. I wanted to buy one of the bookshelves, but I don’t have any room. I hope they found good homes.