The women who founded M. Judson Booksellers in Greenville, SC, were not deterred by the economic reality in 2015. At a time when many indie bookstores were closing across the US, and amid the rise of a certain-unnamed-profit-gobbling-ecommerce-giant trying to force customers to buy and read books on screens, they accomplished an incredible feat: bringing the experience of books and stories back to downtown.
In a ‘go big or go home’ move, M. Judson Booksellers opened its doors in the historic courthouse building in the center of Greenville. The store’s exterior is impressive, with brick pavers, antique street lamps, grand stairs, and 1918 architecture with its ivory-colored façade and terra cotta ornamental trim in the Beaux Arts style. Once inside, the landmark experience of M. Judson continues to inspire not only readers of all ages, but lovers of food and drinks, and anyone looking for the perfect South Carolina gift.
“You’ll find our shelves bursting with books we can’t wait to tell you about, bestsellers and new releases, everything from poetry to Southern Lit to cookbooks, as well as gift items gathered from all over the Upstate. We’re proud to be more than just a bookstore; we’re a home for stories,” says Ashley Warlick, an M. Judson founder, novelist, and creative writing professor.
The store is named after Mary Camilla Judson, a historic Greenville feminist and the first Lady Principal (they really called her that!) at the Female College of Greenville. Camilla Kitchen is the café inside M. Judson serving up delicious treats and drinks with stories of their own.
M. Judson is a general interest bookstore with selections in every genre. The children’s section is huge, with areas to read and play at a 14-foot community table. It is built around themes children love, such as cooking, STEM, art, trucks, and animals.
Literary-themed events are an important aspect of the M. Judson experience, with most events requiring tickets, including a book, and selling out. These are not your traditional bookstore events with an author behind a table signing books. Most are interactive, such as the Sunday Sit-Down Supper series where a chef prepares a meal inspired by a novel and attendees gather around a beautifully set table to dine and discuss. Camilla Kitchen offers book-themed cooking classes or demonstrations. The events calendar is packed with experiences, like an evening with symphony music, open-mic nights for writers, book and wine pairing events, and more.
“I think we have found the way to connect with our community and our readership here in Greenville and show them how to better support the literary world. Our goal is success for the people who are making and telling these stories. I do feel committed to that mission,” Ashley says.
The community component of bookselling has surprised her the most, with deepened ties as the store pivoted during the pandemic to meet its customers’ reading needs. Some patrons have continued having M. Judson staff read, select, and recommend books for them long after shutdown ended. Greenville is also a popular tourist destination, with M. Judson a must-visit destination for travelers. Ashley describes a beloved customer, who actually lives in California and saw on social media that the store offers book recommendations. Three years later, M. Judson still sends her books.
Nine years after opening an independent bookstore at a seemingly impossible time in history, M. Judson and Camilla Kitchen are thriving businesses in downtown Greenville. Firmly rooted in books and storytelling, often centered around food and drink, and providing a breathtaking experience both inside and outside the store, it is woven into the fabric of the city.
“We believe that stories don’t just come wrapped in book jackets. Sometimes they’re bottled in a wine, roasted in a bean, baked in a bread, woven into a tea towel, or created in a moment,” Ashley says.
Learn more about M. Judson Booksellers, upcoming events, or contact them to send you one of their famous “blind date” book selections to change things up in your reading life. You won’t be disappointed.
Beth Uznis Johnson’s fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Massachusetts Review, Broad Street, Mississippi Review, Cincinnati Review, Story Quarterly, Gargoyle, Southwest Review and elsewhere. Her essay, “Your Friend/My Friend, Ted,” was included in The Best American Essays 2018, edited by Hilton Als. Beth is the author of Coming Clean, released by Regal House Publishing on January 9, 2024.