Most people don't associate Wichita, Kansas with anything literary. But then, many people don't really associate Kansas with anything in particular. Usually, when I tell other book-minded folks I'm from Wichita, all I get is semi-blank stares.
"Kansas?" they say. "Isn't that the place where Dorothy's from?"
Well, yeah. It is set in Kansas, but L. Frank Baum wasn't actually from here.
"Okay, I know. Truman Capote wrote that book right? The one Capote's about?"
Uh-huh. But that's not Wichita, and we really don't want to be known for a book about a serial murderer, no matter how good it is, do we?
They think and think, but nothing springs to mind. "Okay, I give. What is there that is literary in Wichita, Kansas?"
The answer: not much, at first blush. Our current connections with the famous are that the current Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, hails from here, as does Phil Stacey who's on the current season of American Idol (but interestingly, he doesn't say that he's from Wichita). In fact, in a perusal of interesting people from Wichita as listed in I found that there was not a single literary person on the list.
Undaunted by these facts, I set out to see if I could prove that Wichita is indeed a literary town. If we can't produce notable authors, at least we can appreciate them, right?
I looked up bookstores in the Yellow Pages (always a good place to start), and after winnowing out the box stores, explicitly Christian stores, and adult bookstores (who lists adult book stores under books? If I were going to buy that stuff, I wouldn't look for it under the book listing), I was left with nine stores to visit. Of those nine, there are three that are worth mentioning (the rest? two were typical big-city used bookstores, three didn't exist -- being private houses on back roads, and one was a new-agey bookstore with limited hours).
The first store, Delano Book Room is not your typical used book store. Sure, they have the usual used-book fare: mostly horror, sci-fi, romance and mystery, with a smattering of really good books (ones that I wonder why on earth people would want to get rid of). Even though their children's section left something to be desired, my children (all four of them) each managed to find something to curl up with in one of the many cozy chairs scattered around the store. But the store is so much more than that. It's located in the historic Delano district in Wichita, a local hot-spot for clubs, live music, and cafes. Admittedly, being there on a Monday afternoon with my kids, I wasn't able to experience all that. But the number of community events offered through the store impressed me, and shows how well integrated they and the Delano neighborhood are. The store has both an open-mic poetry night and a "No Podium Poets" night for those microphone-shy every week. There's a mystery book club, an American history book club, and a story time that each meet once a month. In addition to all that, the store puts on several special events over the course of the year. Most recently, they had a Shakespeare's 443rd Birthday celebration (alas, I wasn't able to attend). I've never seen a used-book store that is so involved in the community. Very cool.
Next is Wichita's biggest independent bookstore, Watermark Books and Cafe. Watermark is one of those places where you just feel hipper walking in to -- the buzz of conversations at the cafe, the welcoming atmosphere, the staff's friendly smile -- and I immediately wanted to be a part of it. It's been a fixture in Wichita for 30 years, originally part of the downtown area. They moved to their current location -- on the east side -- in 1996 and expanded to include a cafe. It's a welcoming place; there are comfortable chairs scattered throughout the store, and the cafe has ample places to sit and enjoy a coffee while perusing books. My daughters (only the youngest two this time) made a beeline for the children's section, mostly to play with their Schleich princess toys. While they played, I wandered. Watermark has an amazing collection of reader-oriented stuff: glasses, bags, dolls, cups, footnotes, magnets, all of which I wanted to buy. Their books are an eclectic collection: not much of the hot-new-bestseller ones, but rather tables of staff-recommended books, books for their store-sponsored book groups, and a few best-sellers. Not only do they sponsor book groups (to be expected), but they put forth the effort to be Wichita's link to the wider literary world, bringing in authors, sponsoring lectures, and connecting the community to books. I was surprised and impressed with the number of authors they've had in: Lane Smith, Tomi DePaola, Jan Brett, Linda Sue Park, T.A. Barron have all signed the wall in Watermark's basement meeting room. They've got Anna Quindlen scheduled to do a reading and a signing for the paperback release of Rise and Shine as well as a visit from Khaled Hosseini during is book tour for A Thousand Splendid Suns. It's not only the biggest independent bookstore in town, but the best one I've visited in a long time.
The last store worth mentioning, and possibly the most unique, was Eighth Day Books. It's situated just east of Wichita's downtown in a lovely old house. Once inside, it's like nothing I've ever seen before. It's a cozy, crowded place: all available wallspace is covered in bookshelves and religious icons. There's benches, tables, and chairs to sit that look inviting for reading or discussing. There are books everywhere: rooms full of classics, poetry, religious studies, philosophy, and Kansas authors. I chatted for a while with Josh, one of Eighth Days' three employees, who told me that the store has been part of the Wichita literary scene for 18 years. They sell both used (labeled "recycled") and new books, specializing in good literature, Christianity (though there's a world religion section) and philosophy. While they don't have any book groups, and only occasionally have author signings (they hosted Scott Cairns a recent weekend), they do open up their space to anyone who wants to meet and discuss books. We were even more pleasantly surprised when Josh said that there was a children's room in the basement. We headed past the "hobbit hole" sign (love that!) to find a little space filled not only with an extensive collection of picture books on saints, but assorted other picture and chapter books. While my girls enjoyed the books, I think the best part for them was going down the stairs to get them. We didn't have the time to thoroughly browse the stacks (that would take hours), so I'll definitely be heading back there.
So, there. I have presented the evidence for Wichita's literary status. Personally, I was disappointed that there weren't more stores for a city of 300,000 people, but I found that their small numbers are more than made up for in quality. There are both readers and owners working to build a literary community here, and I respect that and want to be a part of it. Come and see for yourself sometime.