“It had been startling and disappointing to me to find out that storybooks had been written by people, that books were not natural wonders, coming up of themselves like grass,” Eudora Welty once said. “Yet regardless of where they came from, I cannot remember a time when I was not in love with them—with the books themselves, cover and binding and the paper they were printed on, with their smell and their weight and with their possession in my arms, captured and carried off to myself. Still illiterate, I was ready for them, committed to all the reading I could give them.”
In their quest to mimic Welty, visitors to Landmark Booksellers in Franklin, Tennessee, have the additional delight of visiting one of the area’s most historic buildings. The shop under management of its delightful owners tells a home-grown story of the resilience to change in the town, state, and region.
The store sits on one of the oldest sites in the city in a building constructed around 1808. One of its first occupants was The Old Factory Store, in operation by 1825 along with a nearby cotton and grist mill. There is reason to believe that Andrew Jackson paid some of his troops at this location after the Battle of New Orleans. Sitting near the corner of First Avenue and East Main Street, the charming Greek Revival storefront today smiles at the local Catholic church with its four Doric columns and pediment. It’s the smile of survival: The Old Factory Store was spared the fate of the mill in 1862, when supplies of flour and whiskey spoke loudly in protestation of her demise at the hands of occupying Union troops.
Proprietors Joel and Carol Tomlin transformed the store into Landmark Booksellers on July 15, 2005. Desiring to work together at something they loved, the Tomlins swelled the interior of the building with some 60,000 volumes in an embarrassment of written riches. Both have a keen sense of the historical value of their shop, and they take pride in hailing from Franklin and the metropolitan Nashville area.
The store’s location at the east end of downtown gives the Tomlins a front-row seat to the next stages of Franklin’s city planning efforts. Developers and city officials have expressed interest in a hotel above a floor of shops; the exact footprint remains to be seen. Whatever comes of the plans, Franklin is determined to capitalize on the steady influx of tourism and talent to the city’s environs.
The intersection of past and present is palpable inside the shop. After making your way past the outdoor carrels presenting bargain books under the shade of a nearby tree and umbrella, you will be greeted on your left by either Joel or Carol behind a glass case laden with signed first editions and topped by a tastefully limited supply of the latest in print. Turn right and you will find welcoming nooks of books on Franklin, Southern writers, and history.
The ground floor is also home to a comfortable reading area. From a leather couch beneath photographs of twenty-two Southern writers, Tomlin holds court in jolly fashion. As we speak, he reviews the contents of several bags—brought by a customer interested in trading—which yield dozens of lovely, gilt-edged volumes. When he grasps a recognizable work, he examines it with one of two pairs of glasses hanging from his neck. He particularly fancies the inscriptions and produces a wonderful anecdote about a Civil-War-era surgeon’s manual.
For the ten years they have been in business, Joel and Carol have issued welcoming smiles to all visitors, asking in pleasantly varying ways their points of origin, reasons for visiting Franklin, and treasures they were seeking. Their marriage of more than twenty years blesses the shop with a peace and consistency that permeates the over-stacked coffee tables and corner hutches. You easily forget the original function of the building as you wander in and out of rooms in its two stories. Tomlin manages to avoid officiousness but appears at just the time you need him, asking about your search and volunteering suggestions from his vast knowledge of both stock and literary history. He seems less a proprietor and more a congenial host at the quietest of dinner parties among his antiquarian volumes.
Tomlin reveals a keen business sense as he surveys the state of publishing in the last decade. The Internet has made the new, used, and antiquarian book readily available in such a way that even previously hard-to-acquire volumes can be found in several places. Rather than present this fact among others in a dirge for bookshops, Tomlin focuses on offering an incomparable experience and selection to the discerning bibliophile.
At a time when digital music is beginning its return to personally-selected playlist suggestions over algorithms, Tomlin continues to entice and educate customers with enriching anecdotes and recommendations on the spot. He kindly hid his reaction when I confessed to having never read Peter Taylor’s work. Gently walking me through Taylor’s pedigree, Agrarian friendships, and outstanding body of work, Tomlin drifts to his shelves and picks up a biography as he references it from memory. In this simple act I see the hospitality that won me over my first week in the South fifteen years ago. In it I also discern the soul of a kindred reader: one who continually introduces new friends to old.
I’m reluctant to leave my seat among the well-worn volumes in a cascade near the sofa. “Every book has a story,” Tomlin says quietly, as he looks at the inscription in one of the volumes he has been reviewing. Every book has a story. If you believe that to be true, you’ll want to explore the anthology in stone that is Landmark Booksellers in Franklin, Tennessee.
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