Monday, August 25, 2014

Booking It In Savannah

I'm just home from a vacation in Savannah, Ga. a city with a stunningly beautiful historic district and a booming tourism business that's based on one of the best-selling American books of all time, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt. Folks flock to Savannah to see the locales where events in the book take place; it seems that you can get a tour -- including an evening jaunt in a specially-outfitted hearse -- anytime, day or night.

"The Book," as it's known in Savannah.
I wasn't there for the tours, as I prefer to do my own exploring. So, instead of jumping on the hearse or taking a nighttime ghost tour, my husband and I spent our week doing our own walking tours of each of Savannah's 23 squares, eating some great meals, and checking out the city's two great museums.

Jepson Center for the Arts, part of the Telfair Museum.
We visited the Jepson Center for the Arts, part of the Telfair Museum, which is situated in the midst of Savannah's historic district. One night while we were in Savannah, the Telfair hosted a reception -- open to the public -- to mark the opening at the Jepson Center of Deep River, an incredibly thought-provoking exhibit on the nature of freedom by artist/MacArthur Fellow Whitfield Lovell.

The other museum we visited was the Savannah College of Art & Design (SCAD) Museum. Interestingly, the SCAD Museum was featuring an exhibit of the photographs of Savannah native Jack Leigh, including the one for which he became internationally famous: the cover photo of Berendt's book. But the exhibit focused much more broadly on Leigh's work, and contained many memorable photographs of the people living and working in the "low country," the coastal areas near Savannah.
SCAD Museum

This was all well and good, and I can unhesitatingly recommend a visit to Savannah, a quite sophisticated city that a friend recently called "the San Francisco of the South." In this blogpost, however, I want to focus on what a bookish city Savannah is. It begins, of course, with the fact that the city's tourism boom (going strongly for a couple of decades) is based on a book (as well as the movie made from Berendt's book). But Savannah also has several interesting independent bookstores and of our visit, my husband and I visited four of them.

The Book Lady Bookstore

The first bookstore, The Book Lady Bookstore, was just steps from where we were staying. It's a treasure trove of used books, as well as those specifically focusing on Savannah and Georgia history.  Here, I found a used copy of The Sweet Life in Paris by David Lebovitz, a book that I had been wanting to read because I am a huge Francophile. It was a bargain at $10, especially because Lebovitz included a number of recipes that I plan to ask my husband, the family chef, to try out. I also found a book, The Law's Delay, by one of my all-time favorite mystery writers, Sara Woods. She wrote more than 40 books featuring a character named Antony Maitland, an English barrister who is constantly "going beyond his brief" in the search for justice. I have read most of Woods' book,s but never this one, which was published in 1977.

A small taste of the Books on Bay series collection.
Next (bookstore) stop was Books on Bay, a "must-visit" bookstore for anyone who is a collector, or just a love, of children's series books like the Nancy Drew or Hardy Boys. The bookstore is close to the popular (and heavily touristed) River Walk, but is enough off the beaten path that I would have missed it except that my friend Tom Swift -- his real name! -- had recommended it. I was so glad to find it and thrilled to spend time with the knowledgeable proprietor, Betsy Holt-Thetford.

Betsy Holt-Thetford
We talked about the Nancy Drew books, and I mentioned that because the books weren't considered appropriate reading for children by librarians when I was a kid in the 1960's, libraries didn't stock them. That meant that I had to use my allowance each week to buy the latest Nancy Drew. Betsy loves to talk with -- and take pictures -- of customers, so I found myself later that week on the Books on Bay Facebook page, with Betsy telling the story of how I had to buy all my own Nancy Drew books. I was then able to chime in with a link to a story that I wrote some years ago on the 75th anniversary of the Nancy Drew books. When I'm next in Savannah (our son is a SCAD student and so I'll be back!), I definitely plan to head back to Books on Bay.

E. Shaver, Bookseller
E. Shaver, Bookseller is a Savannah tradition. Located just behind the Savannah (DeSoto) Hilton, Shaver has an enviable location. Years ago, before I even had kids, my husband and I visited Shaver's and purchased mint-condition copies of Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner by A.A. Milne. At that point, we were starting to think about having children; I had never read the Milne books, and my husband insisted that we needed to purchase and read them -- together. Two years ago, visiting Savannah as my son was considering SCAD, I returned to Shaver's and purchased Bruno, Chief of Police, the first book in a series by Martin Walker and set in the Dordogne region of France. The series has since become a real favorite series for my husband and me. On this most recent visit, I bought Letters from Yellowstone, an epistolary novel about a woman scientist working in the national park in the days when woman weren't allow to pursue such careers. In addition, I bought Woman in the Dark by Dashiell Hammet for my husband, a true Hammett fan.

Our final Savannah bookstore destination meant leaving the historic district and traveling to a strip mall along the main drag (Victory Drive). But Wiley's Book Exchange was definitely worth the brief drive.
 I bought a number of books, including a $3 copy of The Tale of Despereaux, the Newbery Medal-winning book by Kate DiCamillo. Kate is coming to speak at our library (in partnership with Politics & Prose Bookstore) this coming Friday evening, and I plan to ask her to sign my newly-purchased copy of The Tale of Despereaux.

One last literary note for Savannah: if you go, you must have a coffee or glass of wine at the Gallery Espresso, an atmospheric cafe located on one corner of Chippewa Square. Besides its great, central location in Savannah's historic district, Gallery Expresso features an array of delicious sandwiches and pastry. It's the perfect place to sit with a book.

You also might meet Chris Berinato, a friendly manager-type at the cafe whose passion is working on something called Seersucker Live in his spare time. The tag line for Seersucker Live is a real come on: "Part literary reading. Part talk show. Part cocktail party." Also, we weren't there for the latest Seersucker Live program, but Chris told us about a program he did a while ago with Daniel Handler, also known as Lemony Snicket. It's definitely worth checking out the YouTube video of that program, and it's just one more demonstration that Savannah is indeed a great destination for book lovers.

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