On November 3, 2020, in the middle of a worldwide pandemic, while most of the nation nervously watched the election returns, in Concord, NC, I and a group of my closest friends were eagerly putting the final touches on a wooden countertop meant to cover up the paint-splattered remnants of a decades-old checkout counter. Roughly eight feet long and waist-high, these shelves and drawers had served many small businesses in our town. We were preparing it for its next use: bookshop point-of-sale.
My wife Bethany and I were embarking on a new journey, one we had dreamed of since before we were married, when we would drive to visit each other in our separate cities and spend the day in bookshops, imagining what it would be like to live surrounded by so many books. We’ve always loved the experience of reading books, but we’re both also lovers of the unique organism that is a book. We are fascinated by book layout and cover design and the art of preparing a book for press, by the way books smell, both new and old, and by how people respond when they flip through a book they are interested in. It’s trite to say so, but we have always been enamored with the magic of books. That Tuesday we were two weeks from opening. Our bookstore was going to be called Goldberry Books and we were going to fill it with as many beautiful things as we could.
You might remember that Goldberry is a character from The Lord of the Rings. She’s called the River-daughter, with a voice “as ancient as Spring, like the song of a glad water flowing down into the night from a bright morning in the hills,” and she is Tom Bombadil’s beloved, enchanting wife. Bombadil, of course, is legendary for his weirdness and his songs, but most importantly he and Goldberry have made a place in the wilderness where peace reigns. I have always believed that their steadfast commitment to the peace of their place was crucial to the success of Frodo’s quest and the ultimate destruction of Sauron’s forces.
As we worked, I remember thinking of that famous C. S. Lewis quote where he says that friendship “is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art…. It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival.” And I remember being consumed by the sense that no matter how much longer I survived I couldn’t experience much more value than that. And I prayed then and there that the shop we were about to open would bring similar value to my neighbors.
In truth, from the beginning this endeavor was community-made. Our friends and family helped to clean and paint the space, build and install extensive floor-to-ceiling shelves, add titles to our inventory system, and peel stickers off used books. Soon, what we had originally conceived of as a side project became our life’s work, and thanks to those same friends and a myriad of loyal new ones, here we are, little more than a year later, confident in the work we’ve been led to.
My friend Tim talks a lot about third places: places that are neither home nor work, but are where community is made, shared, and preserved. He talks of coffee houses and art studios and parks and, yes, bookshops. He believes that no community can thrive without a thriving third place scene. We hope Goldberry Books will be a third place for all sorts of people.
We hope our shop can be like the barbershop owned by the eponymous character of Wendell Berry’s novel, Jayber Crow: a place where people can buy books, yes, but also a place where people can gather and be community surrounded by beauty. We hope it can become a third place that serves as guardian of Concord’s stories, a place where our neighbors can discover new stories while at the same time sharing and passing on the stories that define the legacy and possibility of our place. It is with this vision in mind that we choose which books to stock.
That we live in an age of distraction has been well-documented. Ours is an epoch of trends and fads and whims, and the world of publishing is not immune to the symptoms of that disease any more than film, fashion, or food. But the history of literature is one that is, mercifully, defined by things that last. So at Goldberry Books we try to focus on books that resist the momentary gratification of being popular. We are looking for books for all times, not just this time.
This does not mean that we avoid crime fiction or sci-fi or beach reads. On the contrary: Genre fiction is often more prone to last because it is defined by certain particulars of the form. Nor does it mean we entirely avoid books that are popular. But it does mean we are conscientious about what books we promote and what each choice means. In building a store on a foundation of books for all times, we are more likely to build a third place for more years than just this first one.
Not long before Christmas of 2020, a few weeks after we opened, we received an email from a local woman who needed our help. She needed some books on grief, she said. She was suffering from terminal cancer and she didn’t know how much longer she had left and wanted to leave her husband and young children with some books to help them grieve after she died. So, with the help of some counselor friends, we curated a box for her. Then she began to ask about children’s books and spiritual books. She would come by and pick them up and chat and tell me about her little ones.
This happened several times over our first months of being open. She would request books, we would find them, and she would come pick them up. She knew she didn’t have many days left, but she was committed to leaving true, good, and beautiful things behind to fill her home. Each time I talked with her I was struck by how much gratitude was in her eyes, even as she was fading day by day. She believed in a future she would never see.
She died last spring, leaving behind three little boys and a husband. But she left them a profound legacy, and we will remember her mission as long as our doors remain open. She loved Frank Asch’s children’s books, and every time we shelve one we think of her.
People sometimes comment about how brave we were to open a bookstore during a pandemic, or how it must be hard to face down Amazon as it continues to expand its footprint on everyday life. But we don’t think of it that way. We’re not here to fight or struggle or take business from someone else. We’re here to foster relationships, to provide joy and inspiration and conviction. Our doors are open only with the dream that the future is made good by the men and women who walk through them because they believe that the stories we tell about ourselves, the stories we pass on, will determine the kind of culture our grandchildren live in. Goldberry Books is here because we believe that each community’s future depends on its commitment to things that are True, Good, and Beautiful, and because every day we meet people who believe in making something worth preserving. These are our neighbors, our patrons, our friends. Our shelves are stocked for them.