By Amanda Addison
When most people think of a literary American city they picture Boston or New York. I know I always pictured a metropolitan haven of cultural significance with tall buildings, smokey bars, and vast libraries. I never would have suspected that a relatively small city nestled in the mountains of North Carolina would be home to literary superstars and relish in a rather bookish community. Asheville, North Carolina is, indeed, the perfect bookish escape for its rich literary history and its unique and well-stocked bookstores.
Authors native to Asheville include Charles Frazier, Gail Godwin, and Thomas Wolfe. Charles Frazier is the author of the novel Cold Mountain and the actual mountain is a mere 35 miles south of Asheville and can be viewed from the Blue Ridge Parkway. Asheville native Gail Godwin’s novel, Father Melancholy's Daughter, contains a small town very similar to Asheville. Thomas Wolfe wrote his novel Look Homeward, Angel about his life at his mother’s boardinghouse. Visitors can visit the boardinghouse Old Kentucky Home – it was called Dixieland in the novel – and they can visit Thomas Wolfe’s grave at Riverside Cemetery near downtown Asheville.
Many writers non-native to Asheville found themselves residing in this southern community. Poet Carl Sandburg retired to nearby Flat Rock, North Carolina, in 1945. O.Henry, the author of hundreds of short stories, married an Asheville native and spent his last years in Asheville. A plaque dedicated to the author is located downtown. Zelda Fitzgerald – author, painter, ballerina, and wife of F. Scott Fitzgerald – spent her final years in the Asheville Highland Mental Hospital. She was one of nine patients who died when the hospital caught fire in 1948. Her husband would often stay at the Grove Park Inn when visiting Zelda during her hospitalization.
Obviously, a city with this much literary talent is bound to be peppered with great bookstores! Malaprops Bookstore and Café at 55 Haywood Street (http://www.malaprops.com/) has an eclectic mix of new books and particularly good sections on politics, women’s studies, and GLBT resources. In their café you can feast on author-themed coffee drinks such as the Robert Frost (mint mocha) or the White Rabbit (white chocolate latte). Malaprops’ sister store, Downtown Books and News at 67 North Lexington, boasts a huge inventory of over 35,000 used books, the largest selection of newspapers in Asheville, a store cat named Retail, and is open everyday of the year. For more used bookstore goodness visit Atlantic Books & Folk Art at 15 Broadway Street; this store has a good selection of rare and out-of-print titles and fascinating local folk art. I found the staff very knowledgeable about the titles and about local authors. For a bookstore where you can feel free to sit and read for awhile, hit Reader’s Corner at 31 Montford Avenue. In addition to their great selection of used books, Reader’s Corner also has rare books, music, and yes, another store cat. The most interesting aspect of Reader’s Corner is that they hang up all the weird and random items they find left in books: pictures, tickets, notes, etc… all cover the ends of the bookshelves and the walls.
Asheville definitely has the criteria to be hailed as a literary city, but unlike Boston and New York, Asheville is an inexpensive trip. Hostels, bicycle rentals, and campsite make Asheville a literary treat for those of us still paying back student loans.