On the Greatest Bookstore in Human History
I took the call for someone in magazines behind the main customer service corral, which felt palatial compared to the where-the-sausage-is-made back hallway where I typically roosted when not kembing the chronically unkempt magazine section. Adjacent to the back service entrance, it was not even utilitarian enough to be called a storeroom. I wore a blue apron befitting the nature of my job, which was mostly sanitation. So I felt an uptick in my spirits when I got to visit the spacious command center of the bookstore where the full-time cats in blue vests, 90’s haircuts, and oversized jeans manned the oversized computers and the telephones, tethered to their bases by springy coils. I swaggered through the swinging saloon doors of customer service HQ like Liberty god-damned Valance barging in for a steak like he owned the joint (it was called “Peter’s Place” in the movie, after all). I yanked the phone off the cradle.
Magazines, I said. “Yes, good afternoon,” the man on the other end said. “I’m looking for a copy of the Holy Quran,” he announced. I did not need to put the gentleman on hold and walk over to the stacks to check for myself (which is what one did with tethered telephones), for I knew we had a copy in stock. “Oh, excellent, excellent,” he said. “And also, sir—do you carry Players Magazine?” I didn’t need to check the shelves for that, either.
In case you are unfamiliar with the title, Players is not the sort of magazine you will want to google right now, especially if you are in a public place. Let’s just say it makes for an odd pairing with the Holy Quran. But if you were looking to procure a copy of each in one stop, you went to The Oxford Book Store in Atlanta.
There is a reason the Unknown Caller seeking both the Quran and Players called Oxford. He had reason to believe we would carry it—in fact it was so much beyond doubt that I wonder whether he was just having me on. Maybe he was attempting to prank me, but it didn’t work. Oxford may have had—to some—a reputation for the tawdry, but only because its unstated mission statement as a bookseller was a desire to leave nothing out, which it pursued with quasi-religious devotion. There was virtually nothing outside the comprehensively catholic reach of the Oxford stock list. The high and the low, the base and the exalted, the profane and the sacred: Oxford had all of it. Its adult magazine section was prodigious and—as far as I know—exhaustive. Situated right by the entrance in a partially enclosed cubby sort of thing, the racks were overflowing with dirty mags for every conceivable demographic, members of which crowded in to browse the plastic-wrapped glossies in full view of passers-by on the other side of the large picture window, and of customers coming in and out.
I worked two stints in the magazine section in the mid-1990s. It was my job regularly to clean up the magazine racks, which was the only real site of disorder in Oxford. (Magazine readers, as a general rule, are less tidy than readers of books: much of my time was spent aligning and reshuffling the mags on two huge, double-sided display cases.) A summer earlier, I had trained for five weeks on a software system as a customer service representative at a local bank, which employed me for the following five weeks out in the distant burbs opening and closing accounts on a completely different software system. It was a discouragingly inefficient use of funds by the bank that both employed me and which I entrusted with my meager wages, but it taught me that so-help-me-God I would gladly schlep magazines for minimum wage in a place where I might feel at home, rather than dress for a part for which I was not at all qualified, doing a job that could just as well be done by a roomful of unschooled lab rats.
I hold it as a sort of sacred obligation, whenever I am in any place, to patronize the local bookstore (if there is one). I would like to think that writing is my vocation, but who am I kidding? My vocation is clearly to go to bookshops. When Herman Melville—in the face of whom I would not dare to claim the mantle of “writer”—found himself “growing grim about the mouth,” he went to sea. I go to bookstores. It is my own way of “driving off the spleen, and regulating the circulation.” So when I got to work in one—and not just any bookstore, but the greatest of them all—I felt like I had unexpectedly been granted a knighthood.
Maybe Melville—or at least his Ishmael—went whaling because there were no good bookstores in New Bedford. Based on my years of non-scientific analysis, bookstores near a coastline are not normally to be trusted. They are typically stocked with “beach reading,” a category of literature that is 1) generally awash with six-pack abs and hot sex and maybe some death but 2) chronically averse to spleeny existential crisis. The next time you are in one such beach-adjacent bookshop, just observe how often books by Nicholas Sparks are classified as “Southern literature.”
But no one wiggles their toes into the sand in order to settle in for a few with William Faulkner or Toni Morrison. How many times have you ever witnessed someone (or been seen yourself) chillling in a beach chair reading Moby-Dick? Never, because why on earth would you or anyone else spoil a beautiful ocean-front panorama with a hulking masterpiece of American literature specifically occasioned by the peculiar mixture of consolation and terror one experiences at the edge of the sea?1
We have a lot of coastline in the South—2,544 miles of it, way more than the northern states, and even more than the whole Pacific coast—which does not sound like good news for our region’s bookstores.2 The South includes the highest point in the nation east of the Mississippi (Mount Mitchell, in North Carolina), as well as its lowest (New Orleans, eight feet below sea level at its lowest point). It is a region of extremes, of course, but the heights and depths of the South are not really measurable in terms of geographical elevation: the highest point in the South could be Congo Square, or Milledgeville, or Beale Street, or Rowan Oak, or a mysterious crossroads in The Mississippi Delta. Most of life in the South is lived in-between, at some modest relationship to sea-level. But in my own experience, the ideal environment for a bookstore is at roughly 800 feet above sea level, the middling ground and perfect equilibrium between sand and summit where Oxford Book Store positioned itself, once.
Based on years of experience milling about in the religion and philosophy and/or religion sections of bookstores, I can confidently report that the lingering effect of such lingering is existential dread. If you are at all inclined to philosophy then by all means, for the love of all that is holy, stay clear of the “Metaphysics” section in any bookstore. Don’t go looking for Aristotle or Leibniz or Spinoza there. You won’t find any of them. You will begin to being unexpectedly drawn to nihilism (which Big Box stores offer in droves in every category). Big Box Religion and Philosophy sections do not typically traffic in serious works of theology or philosophy, but a few minutes spent among those shelves does tend to inspire in any serious seeker a deeply religious question: is this really all there is?
This was not the case at Oxford, whose philosophy and religion section—just behind the customer service corral on an appropriately raised platform—were full of treasures I encountered for the first time there. It was on those shelves—the top shelf, as I recall—that I first encountered the Princeton edition of the works of Søren Kierkegaard, edited by Howard and Edna Hong of St. Olaf College, a husband and wife who spent the bulk of their married life translating the enigmatic Dane’s work into English. (Suck it, Nicholas Sparks—that’s romance.) Oxford had Nietzsche, Karl Barth, Aquinas. Whoever bought for and stocked that section knew what they were doing.
I was in my mid-twenties then, a time when one is supposed to be squandering one’s youth on worldly pursuits; I was squandering mine on other-worldly ones. I squandered plenty on all-too-worldly habits, too, but I always returned to Oxford like a storm-tossed ship seeking a berth. Visits there occasioned both gratitude and humility: it made me aware of how little I knew, and how much I could learn. I was paid six twenty-five an hour to work there, but even that felt like more of an honorarium than a wage. It’s the only workplace I’ve ever been a part of that I would choose to visit on days off, and would still, if I could.
Founded in 1970 by Rupert Lecraw, Oxford was by my early adulthood was more than just a book shop. It was a destination: it was mentioned in every travel guide to the city as a must-visit. In 1981 it apparently inspired a nationwide trend when it opened a little coffee shop on a catwalk above the rear part of the store, called The Cup & Chaucer, which will never be surpassed as the coolest name for a bookstore-embedded coffee shop. I spent my lunch breaks up there reading books and drinking black coffee I bought with my employee discount.
From the lofty perch at The Cup & Chaucer, one could appreciate how the place positively thronged with life. We had everything. All the R.L. Stine you could ever want. Every level of the Themen Neu German language textbooks (and accompanying cassette tapes), which would later simultaneously feed my love of both languages and comic book.3
Once, during my time there, a famous local singer whose duo had become huge in recent years came into the store. Like the Unknown Caller, she was looking for something she believed, and probably knew intuitively, that Oxford would have: a complete set of the Oxford English Dictionary. She was right: above the yellow section-signage, in the overstock section near the cash register, it was all there, all twenty-six hefty volumes of quiet, hidden, and absolutely indispensable labor. She didn’t buy it then—it wouldn’t fit in her convertible Porsche two-seater, which was not designed for the OED.
The main Oxford store carried plenty of stuff that wasn’t to my taste, too, but that was what was beautiful about the place. To every taste, Oxford offered something like a feast. But to my own appetites, Oxford was a kind of salvation: as a young theology nerd whose interest was pricked by second-rate evangelical thinkers, Oxford laid before me a banquet of words and ideas I could choose to take down from the shelf and inwardly digest. It enlarged my vocabulary, my imagination, my world. I had been drawn to theology—and to books generally—by an early love for Tolkien, but Oxford enlarged that world, too. Other bookstores might have had ample copies of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, but Oxford had on hand a full set of The History of Middle-Earth, twelve volumes of background and substructure to his magnum opus edited by his son Christopher. I never bought any of them, but it at least made me aware of a world much deeper and more thought-out than the one I already inhabited, peopled by creatures mysterious, magnificent, and malevolent. What is more, long before the staple of American retail fashion became associated with retired greeters at the biggest of the big boxes, Oxford was staffed with blue-vested wizards who could talk rings around one another about that world, and speak its languages.
If those collected works did not count as works of love, what would? The Hongs, Christopher Tolkien, and all the mostly anonymous editors of the OED were models of the kinds of labor for which Oxford Books was, in my mind at least, the world’s greatest showcase. Sure, the store made plenty of money off of pulp fiction and crappy romance novels, but what clearly drove the place was a love of big ideas, and the often thankless labor of translating, editing, curating, and bringing them forth. All of which is noble enough, but Oxford was animated by a love so deep that it wanted to give those ideas a home at the lower corner of the Peachtree Battle Shopping Center.
The store was the regular terminus for an evening itinerary that often began with cheese dip and the No. 4 combo at Jalisco Mexican Restaurant, may have included a pop-in at Richards Variety Store, possibly ice cream at Baskin-Robbins. But the ending was inevitable: a luxuriating browse amongst Oxford’s labyrinthine shelves, a momentary dip into an alternative reality in which time was suspended, the lights would remain on forever, and the soul would never, ever go hungry.
One night, an old friend and I set out from his house on Northside Drive with one golf club and one glow-in-the-dark golf ball each. We hacked our way across Bobby Jones Golf Course in the deepening dark, not really keeping score, not really following the course map. When we ran out of fairway, we picked up Peachtree Battle Avenue and walked it until we arrived at Oxford well after dark. We browsed in the improbable quiet of the stacks, and returned home nearing midnight, restored.
Oxford was more than a bookstore: it was a glade of plenitude, a benevolent forest of curiosities in an increasingly non-descript city. As Atlanta was changing rapidly, and its fever for self-demolition intensifying, Oxford was a safe harbor, a welcoming port city of its own that practically never closed. It was open every day of the year, and stayed open until midnight (at one point in its history, it stayed open until 2 a.m.). Its newer branch was in some ways even better than the original at Peachtree Battle: in a former Mercedes-Benz dealership designed by legendary architect Bruce Goff, the Pharr Road location was a 30,000 square-foot circular structure with the feel of an enclosed treehouse. Winding staircases led to a round central chamber in the trunk of the treehouse, and around it radiated a labyrinth of shelves and cases. It was utterly disorienting and it was easy to get lost in there. It was overwhelming, it was magical, it was paradise. It was the best a bookstore could or will ever be.
Oxford was there for us like my own mother, who would prepare huge meals I was sometimes too adolescently inconsiderate to eat, flitting off with my friends for pizza or Mexican. But the offering was always there, whether I took it or not. Oxford was a haven of prevenient generosity: you were likely to find what you were looking for there, but as or more likely to find something you didn’t know you were looking for. Its modus operandi—as it seemed to me, at least—was built less on profit than on providence.
But nothing gold can stay, they say, especially not in Atlanta, which loves to exact special vengeance on its most stable and worthy institutions, or at least watch them suffocate to death under the wheels of “progress.” Not even a pre-Olympic boost could save Oxford: the day before the Opening Ceremonies in July 1996 brought international attention to the city, Oxford announced that its Peachtree Battle store would close. Three months after the Closing Ceremonies, Oxford was $3.5 million in debt. It filed for bankruptcy on April Fool’s Day 1997, and finally shuttered that summer. Locals who knew what we had in Oxford weren’t just disappointed; we were bereft. In a particularly pointed irony, the space was occupied by a Chapter 11 Bookstore specializing in “discount” books. The new booksellers were explicit to the point of spitefulness about taking the location in a different, very new-Atlanta direction. “Not everybody thinks of going to a bookstore as an event,” the new owner said. “When you go into one of our stores, you go in to buy a book, not spend the weekend.”
The new model wasn’t exactly a hit, though: Chapter 11 filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 2005.
It hadn’t helped that Oxford’s finances were a mess, tainted by mismanagement and an over-eagerness for expansion. Nor that in 1993 Barnes & Noble opened up a strategically-located branch a few blocks away from Pharr Road. A very ill wind was in the air for local bookshops like Oxford. It would only get iller.
When I was at Oxford, I knew plenty about Ingram, the nation’s largest book distributor (based, fittingly enough, in a suburb of Nashville in La Vergne, Tennessee), and effectively the keepers of the keys when it comes to what gets stocked in big-box as well as most independent bookshops. Everything went through them. In 1998, as Barnes & Noble was eating up the book-buying market as voraciously as the Cookie Monster but with as much enjoyment as Oscar the Grouch, the bookstore chain also made a move to purchase Ingram, and effectively to control the distribution and sales networks of America’s book trade. The intention was to stub the toe of the new online upstart that would become B&N’s nemesis: amazon.com. After intense pressure and resistance from local booksellers, the deal was scrapped. But amazon won anyway.
Oxford was beloved, but its closure showed me that sometimes love is not enough to save something worth saving in a culture that recognizes loss only in terms of a balance sheet. Oxford’s closure was a watershed moment for me, though. It was a sign of how precarious even beloved institutions are in a city whose memory is infamously short, always set on the next shiny thing. In retrospect it was perhaps as close as I may ever come to a Damascus moment.
That summer—1997—John Hayes and I set out on a road trip in search of nothing in particular, save signs of other lives in peril. We wanted to see how far the predatory amnesia of Atlanta reached, and what, if anything, lay beyond it, if there was a still-fertile region mysterious and strange enough to produce an imagination like Flannery O’Connor’s.
There was, and there is. But the seed from that initial sense of loss took over twenty years to germinate, and when we returned to the road in 2018, I began to see not just old buildings and city squares and an occasional sit-a-spell or speakeasy that were in danger of being forgotten or paved over; I saw the stories I had once ignored, and the people who belonged to those stories. In some sense, I learned to begin to see only because I first failed to do so. I owe that to Oxford’s success, but more to its failure. When we lost it, it made me care about other things, stories, places we might lose, too. For me, Oxford was a world that always waited up for me. That world is not really lost, just displaced—and perhaps it was that world’s final act of providence to depart from us, in order that we might continue to search for it.
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OK so my rule isn’t very scientific: New Orleans has some of the best bookshops in the country, but to be fair, it’s not really a beach town.
Including, perhaps controversially, Florida, and not including, perhaps controversially (but only to Texans), Texas.
I spent way too much time indulging the latter avocation traipsing the creaky wood floors in Oxford’s nearby used bookstore—Oxford, Too—housed in a former book-bindery built in 1929 and, predictably, slated for demolition to make way for some new condominium until local preservationists managed partially save it.