Bookstores of the Big Middle

by Jeff Martin


I take vacations based around bookstores. Other attractions (museums, concerts, culinary destinations) certainly factor into the overall decision, but bookstores seal the deal. My wife and I recently celebrated our 10-year wedding anniversary. Just over 13 years ago, we met at the bookstore where we both worked at the time. While most of the literary prestige still goes to the legendary stores on the coasts (Powell’s, City Lights, The Strand), we’ve got a wide variety of amazing shops here in the big middle. Here are some of my favorites:

Watermark Books in Wichita, Kansas

Several years back, I had the opportunity to sign books at this great little spot. I have no friends or family in Wichita, and I didn’t think anyone would show up to see my talk. Turns out, I was exactly right. There were maybe five people if I count the coffee shop barista. No big deal. It happens. But I didn’t regret a single minute of the three-hour drive because I had some wonderful book conversations with the store manager and several of the employees. I left with a bag full of books and two unused pens. If you find yourself in Wichita, I hope you find yourself at Watermark.

Full Circle Books in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma

With the recent loss of Tulsa’s beloved Steve’s Sundry Books & Magazines, Oklahoma City’s Full Circle Bookstore is the reigning king of Oklahoma indies (though the case could be made for Edmond’s Best of Books). With a classic dark wood atmosphere that feels Dickensian in the best sense of the word, the store boasts more than 60,000 titles. Located in the aging 50 Penn Place, the store feels somewhat like a remnant of a long gone era, the era when people gathered in rooms filled with books to talk about ideas, have coffee, and engage in the underappreciated art of meaningless conversation.

Book People in Austin, Texas

You would think that Texas, from its sheer size alone, would have a never-ending list of essential bookstores. But Austin’s Book People is the undisputed heavyweight champion in this arena. In a hipster mecca like Austin, one might assume that aesthetic and attitude would seep into the store. I’m happy to report that Book People is one of the most refreshingly un-ironic parts of Austin’s cultural scene. Just a damn good store. That’s cool enough.

Parnassus Books in Nashville, Tennessee

Parnassus Books is a beacon of hope for those of us who occasionally feel uncertain about the future of brick-and-mortar stores. Bestselling author Ann Patchett (Bel Canto) put her money and her advocacy where her mouth is when she opened the store in 2011. This is not a vanity project. Does Patchett’s literary stardom attract bigger names for book tours? Yes. But anyone who enters the store will instantly see and feel the love and passion pulsing through the veins and stacks.

Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi

If you consider yourself a “book person” you have to visit Oxford, Mississippi. It’s just that simple. In arguably the most literary town in America, Square Books sits right in the middle of, you guessed it, Oxford’s classic picturesque town square, not far from William Faulkner’s home, Rowan Oak. Owned and operated by Lisa and Richard Howorth since 1979, the store has secured a well-deserved spot as the intellectual nerve center for the entire town. That’s no small feat considering that Oxford is also home to a major university (Ole Miss). For an ever broader experience, head down in the spring for the annual Oxford Conference for the Book.

Prairie Lights in Iowa City, Iowa

A few years ago, while on assignment for Poets & Writers magazine, I visited Iowa City for the first time to cover the 75th anniversary of the University of Iowa’s legendary Iowa Writer’s Workshop, the leading and most coveted graduate writing program in the nation (if not the world). Serving almost like an unofficial outpost to the Workshop since 1978, Prairie Lights sits in a spot that was once home to a Depression-era literary society, hosting literary luminaries like Langston Hughes, e.e. cummings, Carl Sandburg, and others. Remember that line in Field of Dreams when the ball player (ghost?) asks Kevin Costner, “Hey, is this Heaven?” “No,” Costner replies, “it’s Iowa.” When I’m inside Prairie Lights, I know exactly how he feels.

Rainy Day Books in Fairway, Kansas

Kansas City had no place in my life as a kid. It wasn’t until after I was married that I began to explore what’s become one of my favorite cities. Right outside of Kansas City proper, Rainy Day Books is the living manifestation of a single person’s will and vision. There are few true rock stars in today’s bookstore world, but Vivien Jennings is certainly one of them. Boasting one of the busiest event calendars in the country, in any given week the store hosts debut novelists, politicians, chefs, and everyone in between. The selection, though not encyclopedic, is expertly curated.


Originally published in This Land: Fall 2015.