I can honestly say I was there at the beginning.
Several years ago, opening night at Scuppernong Books in downtown Greensboro, NC, featured a warm fellowship of writers and readers, but the space itself was a work in progress. Bare shelves revealed the raddled brick of a succession of businesses. I don’t recall seeing a single fox, the creature that would become the familiar spirit of this place known for “Books Wine Community.”
Today the space is bursting with books, new in the front, used in the back, with overflow onto big library tables in the event space. Staff reviews adorn books at front and center, while art and mottos—and foxes—make it hard to remember back when the walls were bare. But the “old home place” atmosphere remains, in assorted vintage armchairs and kitchen table chairs perfect for coffee and conversation. When authors visit, which is frequently, then folding chairs are brought out to offer seating that may or may not be enough—Scuppernong is on the tour list for popular authors such as North Carolina’s own Wiley Cash and kids’ book author Jeff Kinney (Diary of a Wimpy Kid).
Co-owners Brian Lampkin and Steve Mitchell, both of them authors as well as booksellers, entrepreneurs, and visionaries, could see something special right from the start.
“I was reluctantly getting into this,” said Lampkin, who had previously owned a bookstore in Buffalo, NY. “I walked into this dead, dilapidated, dead-rat space, but I could see the possibilities of a great bookstore.”
“It had been empty for 10 years,” added Mitchell. “The building has been here since 1898. It was a feed and seed store when it started, and then was a bunch of other things. It had been two ‘shotgun’ stores with a wall down the middle.”
If they could see a bright and book-filled future, others were skeptical. The owners admitted that one local funding source, when hearing that they planned to serve wine and beer, thought they were really planning a bar, not opening a bookstore at all.
Greensboro was in a bad place for books when Scuppernong began. Small shops and newsstands had closed, chain outlets had disappeared, leaving only used booksellers to feed the need of local readers downtown. The central business district was just starting the renewal that makes it a lively destination today.
“People were really interested. They came by, looked in the window,” Mitchell said. “Somebody brought us a decorated brick that we still have.”
“And the rock somebody threw through the window a couple of years later,” Lampkin added.
What can you do about bad reviews, right? But truly, Greensboro has taken Scuppernong Books to its heart, and vice versa. “What makes a great bookstore, in part, is that it has a distinct personality. Indie bookstores are always curated to a some degree. There are things we care about, and we are always learning from the community what they need and want. Great bookstores reflect the community,” Mitchell said.
Community engagement has taken many forms. The store works with local schools and has set aside space for voter registration efforts in cooperation with the League of Women Voters. Its ongoing commitment to debate and discussion is evidenced in programs such as the Death Cafe about end-of-life issues, a science forum, Ask a Muslim Anything, and book clubs including “Reading the World” and another for poetry. In addition to a full schedule of readings, Scuppernong hosts writing workshops such as “Looking at Short Fiction” featuring five authors from Press 53. There’s also “ScupTV” on You Tube with book reviews and discussion, sock puppet shows, and short clips from presentations. A weekly online magazine, Renard and Raisin, keeps people up to date.
That brings us to the foxes. Red-furred foxes appear in unexpected places, their canny eyes and bright tail-swirls following you around the space. So what’s the connection? Scuppernongs are native grapes, and grapes then make you think of the Aesop fable about the fox and the grapes. Therefore, drawing on the French names, Renard and Raisin.
The biggest event of the year, however, is the Greensboro Bound book festival, launching in 2018 under the umbrella of Greensboro Literary Organization which the bookstore was instrumental in founding. The name comes from Greensboro’s history as a major railroad hub, and the festival logo features crossed railroad tracks. At venues across town, readers get to meet dozens of writers both national and regional. “After our first Greensboro Bound, people came to us and said this really feels like a festival for writers,” said Lampkin. “As writers ourselves, we knew how to keep writers happy.” I can verify that engaged presenters make for happy audiences!
Readings are a major part of the indie bookstore scene, and Scuppernong is incredibly supportive of authors, but there is a learning curve. “Most authors who’ve done it for a while have modulated their expectations, but new authors may expect big crowds,” said Mitchell. “We tried for a long time to make all authors happy, from self-published to big names, but the realities of the book business make it hard. We’re more empathetic to writers because we both understand what a tough racket this is.”
The store has been getting noticed far and wide. “We were in Time magazine, the centerfold actually,” said Lampkin. “Lev Grossman did an article on independent bookstores for an issue on the best reasons to live in America.” The store has also been recognized by Southern Living as one of the best bookstores in the South, and received awards from the North Carolina Writers Conference, Arts Greensboro, Friends of the UNCG Libraries, and more.
Some controversy has come about as well. When the store hosted Bronwen Dickey for her book Pit Bull: The Battle over an American Icon, anti-pit bull folks were enraged. Hate mail poured in from across the nation. More recently, the store’s adherence to vaccine guidance, including the requirement for a vaccination card if people wish to unmask for eating and drinking, has drawn some hostile responses.
Like most retailers, Scuppernong Books has had to adapt during the COVID-19 pandemic and the slow return to a new sort of normal. “People understand that shopping local nurtures their own environment. They want local business, and COVID really strengthened that. If they wanted restaurants and retailers to still be there, they knew they had to support them,” said Mitchell.
When the shutdowns hit early in 2020, the store was closed to foot traffic, and for several months, Scuppernong survived on mail orders and curbside delivery. The coffee, wine, and small plates service at the cafe was shuttered. But the lights are coming on again, and book lovers are again gathering at the bar for coffee or a glass of wine or local beer to warm their conversations.
Like other businesses, Scuppernong has experienced “the well-documented supply chain issues with printing, and shipping—COVID makes it difficult,” said Mitchell. Lampkin noted that opposition to Amazon has helped indie bookshops, however, because they offer atmosphere and human contact as a counter to “price-matching.”
So what’s next for Scuppernong Books? When the store opened in 2013, each of the owners brought special knowledge and love to make it a success—Mitchell had been a chef for a number of years (and worked in mental health), while Lampkin was an experienced bookseller.
“Steve and I are no longer young. Ferlinghetti (founder of City Lights Books in San Francisco) made it to 101—I don’t know if that’s in our plan. We do put a lot into this,” said Lampkin. Bringing renewed energy to the business is Shannon Jones, a longtime employee who recently joined the ownership. “She’s as committed as we are, and will bring new ideas and new thinking. We’ll continue Greensboro Bound, and now we are publishing books,” said Lampkin. “We don’t have grand visions of change. Maybe we have an archaic myth of the idea of bookstores.”
Michell added, “The idea is that a bookstore will be an energetic space, not a quiet, dusty place.”
304 South Elm Street
Greensboro NC 27401
Valerie Nieman, author of In the Lonely Backwater (coming from Fitzroy Books in the summer of 2022), To the Bones, and three earlier novels, a short fiction collection, and three poetry books. Her award-winning poetry and short prose have been published here and abroad. She has held state and NEA creative writing fellowships.