Sanctuary of Southern Lit

This story appears in the Spring 2015 issue of Eidé Magazine. Read it here, or click to read it in the issue below. 

Story and photography by JR SULLIVAN 

When I was 16, I stumbled into Landmark Booksellers in Franklin, Tenn., hunting a Kurt Vonnegut paperback about aliens and time travel. An hour later, I emerged instead with an armful of William Gay novels, unsure of exactly what I’d purchased. Nothing against Vonnegut, proprietor Joel Tomlin had assured me, but he said that I — as a good, young Southerner — shouldn’t waste my time with space-aged romps until I first appreciated my native land and its writings.

Tomlin had sized me up, my naivety palpable. Though reared in the region, I knew nothing about Southern literature — much less Gay, Middle Tennessee’s most heralded (and hermetic) author of the past 20 years. Later, I’d learn the writer himself favored Landmark as a hangout, appearing at the store, by Tomlin’s count, more than at any other literary establishment. When picking through the stacks of Dixie’s finest, both the beloved and the seldom brought up, it becomes apparent why: Landmark stands not only as a sanctuary for paper and ink, but also as a crossroads where the South’s established and emerging voices converge, weighing equally on one another. 

Tomlin, quick to grin, a heavy mustache over his jowl, bears responsibility for Landmark’s timelessness. He helms the store with fervor for the South’s narrative traditions, lining the walls with classic tomes, yet he champions upcoming authors as much as the canonized. He pushed Gay, Ron Rash and George Singleton to customers when few outside the lit-rag sect would have recognized the authors — years before each inspired devout followings. Though Gay passed in 2012, Tomlin still praises his work, as well as new releases by the likes of Tom Franklin, Mark Richard and Jamie Quatro.

Tomlin does this in hopes that customers will pick up books that illuminate truths of Southern life, now or 100 years ago — books that, when read in conversation with one another, form a comprehensive view of the region as it once was and still exists. Though he has favorites, more than anything he wants customers to leave with works that matter, ones they’ll struggle putting down. For instance, I once overheard him convince a woman to purchase Gay’s Southern Gothic opus “Twilight” instead of the fang-toothed romance that shares the title, promising that she would glean more about love and loss from the Southerner’s version. 

Aligned with Tomlin’s ethos, Landmark occupies one of the most significant buildings in the history of the region. Built around the turn of the 19th century, the Greek Revival storefront originally operated as the market for a nearby cotton and grist mill — Davy Crockett and Andrew Jackson, who each penned some of the area’s first literature, among its patrons. At the onset of the Civil War, Union troops seized the store, but let it stand in exchange for five wagonloads of flour and whiskey, rather than burn it. When Confederate forces later tried to reclaim Middle Tennessee, the store served as a hospital during the Battle of Franklin, one of the state’s bloodiest conflicts. During Reconstruction and years following, an array of businesses, from a bank to a hardware supplier, occupied the building, which remained a fixture of Franklin two blocks from the city’s downtown square.

A native of Middle Tennessee, Tomlin first visited the store in the mid-1970s when Dotson’s, a meat and three now across the street, still claimed the space. Fortunately, by the time I was a teenager in the early aughts, Tomlin and his wife, Carol, had transformed the building into a haven for the literati and legacy-minded Southerners. First edition James Agee, Larry Brown and Carson McCullers novels crowd the shelves. Copies signed by Cormac McCarthy and Truman Capote lie in the display case next to the register. Where soldiers and statesmen once congregated, a new generation gathers for book releases, writers’ nights and readings. In the midst of the store’s 60,000-title collection, one can easily imagine how the South’s history and narratives shaped the present, but also appreciate how the region has changed and fluxed, ripening it for further exploration.

Despite the store’s literary allure, Tomlin recognizes that not everyone who strolls through the front door wants to burrow into “Absalom, Absalom!” or “Look Homeward, Angel,” so he will happily direct folks to material that better suits their persuasions. In my early 20s, I had an interview for an editorial job at a hunting and fishing magazine. By that time, Tomlin had directed my reading habits for nearly a decade. As a friend (and a good salesman), to prepare me, he dug up classic sporting collections from the store- room and guaranteed he’d buy back the books I disliked, knowing, of course, I could never part with Gene Hill’s “A Hunter’s Fireside Book” or Robert Ruark’s “The Old Man and the Boy.”

In an age when online retailers use algorithms to make safe, easy-sell reading suggestions, Tomlin promotes books — new or old, favorites or those nearly forgotten — that teem with life, rich with what Faulkner called, “the old verities and truths of the heart.” Because of this, Landmark is a rarity: a place that savors the past while recognizing the importance of the present. That day when I was 16, Tomlin ensured that I, a shaggy-haired high school kid, didn’t leave with novels he could effortlessly coax me to purchase, but ones that illuminated Southern heritage and would push me to discover new voices yet to arise from it.