Charlottesville Under Cover
Wednesday, March 16, 2005
Writing a book demands blood, sweat and tears, but it's hard to imagine a comfier place to open a literary vein than Charlottesville. Set Brigadoon-like in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, this Piedmont town of 50,000 serves up all the stimulants a writer needs to confront the blank page -- or be distracted from it: bookstores, bars, coffeehouses and the intellectual riches of the University of Virginia, one of the nation's powerhouse institutions of higher learning.
Blame Thomas Jefferson. The Sage of Monticello opened his "academical village" in 1825, and the place has never gotten over it. Charlottesville's a book-loving town. And it doesn't get much more bookish than it will be today through Sunday, as some 300 authors and thousands of readers (22,000 last year) descend for the 11th annual Virginia Festival of the Book.
Two poles anchor literary life in Charlottesville: the Corner, as the commercial strip near the university is known, and downtown, whose centerpiece is the pedestrian-only Downtown Mall. When I visit on a still-wintry March day, the Mall's filling up with visitors and locals who've come to trawl the bookstores, and maybe enjoy a meal, anything from Cuban to Thai to high-end nouvelle American.
I duck into Daedalus Books at the corner of Market and Fourth streets, a place I used to haunt as a literature grad student here 15 years ago. I'm happy to see a table of free books still parked outside the door. With a sign that simply reads "Books" and an invitation to "Explore the Labyrinth" of volumes it stocks (100,000, give or take a few hundred), Daedalus is the shaggy dog of used bookstores, lovably down-at-heel and unpretentious, its titles always perfectly askew on the dusty shelves. This is the spot for a mass-market beach read or a cheap Signet edition of that classic you've been meaning to get to since high school, but owners Sandy and Donna McAdams will take a chance on almost any title you can imagine -- and even more you've never heard of.
Downstairs, in the dim basement room where hardcover fiction goes to die, I find such delights as "Quietly My Captain Waits," "a story of the French in early Canada and of the historical role played by a gallant woman," by Evelyn Eaton. (She's probably not a product of U-Va.'s well-regarded MFA program.) I take a quick look to see whether the copy of Graham Greene's "The Comedians" that was there during my grad-school days still is -- and there it sits, not far from a first printing of John Grisham's "The Runaway Jury" that could be mine for $11.50. Reassured, I leave both of them there and walk out with a 1937 Modern Library Giant edition of Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Complete Novels and Selected Tales . " It may or may not be a bargain at $9.50, but the pale blue dust jacket sure is pretty.
A couple of blocks away at Read It Again, Sam, which occupies prime real estate at 214 E. Main, I talk to co-owner Gene Ford, who sports a Whitmanesque beard and suspenders, about the vagaries of the used-book trade. "The best place to have a used bookstore," he says, "is in the midst of a lot of used bookstores." If that's true, Ford ought to be sitting pretty; there are seven other used and antiquarian bookstores within walking distance of his shop, and several others in the general vicinity. (Pick up a copy of the free brochure "Antiquarian Bookhunting in Charlottesville" at any of the stores for a complete list.) He's near the town's best venue for new titles, too -- the independent New Dominion Books. The shop specializes in mysteries -- they occupy one long wall of the store -- and vintage science fiction, fantasy and horror paperbacks from the 1940s and '50s, each tucked neatly in a plastic bag to preserve its cover.
Pulp fiction puts me in the mood for a refreshment break at Splendora's, a gelato and espresso parlor across the way that's done up in mid-20th-century mod tones of orange, yellow and brown. After a cone of tiramisu gelato I venture into Blue Whale Books, at 115 W. Main, where library-like calm and order invite a more refined sort of browser. This feels like a place for the white-glove book lover, to judge from a 1926 Methuen edition of "Winnie-the-Pooh" in the display case -- beautiful, and no doubt a steal at $1,500.
In the late afternoon I head over to the Corner and take a nostalgic turn around the Jeffersonian precincts of the Grounds, as the campus is known. The white-domed Rotunda catches the dying light; Jefferson patterned it after the Pantheon in Rome, but at this time of day it floats over the scene like a Virginian Taj Mahal. Over at Heartwood Used Books on Elliewood Avenue, the mood has taken a funereal turn; the owner, Paul Collinge, laments that the Internet is killing the fine art of bookstore browsing. Everybody orders online now, but businesses like his rely on the I-didn't-know-I-needed-it-but-now-I-can't-live-without-it impulse purchase familiar to any regular haunter of bookstores.
If book browsing survives anywhere, it'll be in Charlottesville, which has been a magnet for readers and writers for 200 years. You can't throw a used copy of "The Sound and the Fury" without endangering a leading literary light: John Grisham, maybe, who lives on a spread outside of town and back in my day was spotted tooling around in his Jaguar. Or Rita Mae Brown, co-author, with her cat Sneaky Pie, of "Whisker of Evil" and other feline thrillers with Piedmont settings. Or, moving toward the highbrow end of the spectrum, Ann Beattie or John Casey or George Garrett, all of them fixtures in the U-Va. writing program, along with Peter Taylor, Christopher Tilghman, Charles Wright, Deborah Eisenberg and a multitude of other prize-winning and well-published names. The university can claim more recent great writers, too: MFA grad Edward P. Jones, for instance, whose novel "The Known World," about black slave owners, won a Pulitzer Prize last year.
Still, for a town that adores writers, Charlottesville hasn't always been lucky for them. As an undergraduate at the University of Virginia in 1826, Edgar Allan Poe got himself so badly into debt he split after one term. That hasn't stopped U-Va. from making the most of its connection to the tortured author of "The Raven": Walk along the West Range, a row of student rooms near the Rotunda that dates to Jefferson's day, and you discover that one has been turned into a Poe shrine, complete with uncomfy-looking bed, washstand, desk and stuffed black bird. A Virginia state historical marker assures the visitor that Poe did in fact inhabit lucky No. 13. As students, we heard the school simply picked the room for the number's spooky associations. It's pleasantly weird, anyway, to think of Poe dining at Monticello with Jefferson, who liked to have students over for dinner during the last year of his life. (He died in 1826.)
William Faulkner, who arrived in 1957 to be the university's first writer in residence, used to sit alone in his office reading the paper and waiting for people to come talk to him. Colgate Darden, then president of U-Va., offered up the opinion that the school didn't need the reflected glory of having the Nobel Prize-winning author on campus. The undergraduates who attended Faulkner's public readings and famous Q&A sessions disagreed.
Faulkner maintained a connection to Charlottesville for the rest of his life; he wrote "The Reivers" there and even took up fox hunting. You couldn't count on him to be the life of the party, though. As one resident reported, "He would take his glass over into a corner and sit by himself until it was time to go home, nursing his drink in solitude." Nobody said it was easy to be a writer, but in Charlottesville at least it's a little more comfortable.