I think it was around 1995 when I first met Flossie McNabb, currently owner of Union Avenue Books. I’d wandered into Davis-Kidd Bookstore after seeing a notice there would be a discussion there of Faulkner’s Sound and the Fury. I’d recently decided that if I intended to be a southern author, I should probably read some southern authors. Despite a minor in English Literature, I could only name two: William Faulkner and Eudora Welty. I picked up Sound and Fury and had my mind blown.
Not long after I joined the group, our leader moved away and another person took her place. I hated to lose the leader of the group, but I had no way of knowing I had just gained a life-long friend. For the next five years we talked about authors, books and our lives. The group became a family, of sorts, giving rides to those in need, encouraging each other through low points in our lives, reading and then meeting authors such as Dorothy Allison. It was my introduction to southern literature and my introduction to a very special lady.
I asked Flossie to talk about her family background. Her roots go very deep in east Tennessee and in downtown Knoxville. Here’s what she had to say (lightly edited):
“My mothers’ family, the Fowlers, were from Sevierville. My grandparents met at Maryville College in the early 1900s. They married and lived on Kingston Pike and eventually started Fowler Brothers Furniture at 418 S. Gay St. in 1932. My mother sold the business in 1985. (the current Fowler’s Furniture is no connection whatsoever). My father’s family, the McNabbs and McTeers, lived in Knoxville since the Civil War and my grandmother and her future husband grew up in downtown Knoxville. My sister and I grew up in the 50s at 418 S. Gay bouncing on mattresses, banging on pianos, and exploring the 6 floors of furniture and appliances at Fowler Brothers.”
She recalled how her sister, Mellie,”was very influential in making me a reader. . . Our parents had walls full of books, mostly hardcover classics and we would play bookstore and “find the title.” One would say a title and the other would have to find it. . . Mellie was a voracious reader from a very early age and being my older sister by 11 months I wanted to do everything she did including reading. She died in 2006 but I feel she is part of this bookstore in many ways.”
She never left Knoxville, attended UT where she received a B.A. and M.A. in English, but after college she continued to work at the family’s furniture business until it was sold in 1985. After ward she worked as an adjunct English instructor at Pellissippi and Roane State before beginning work as a book seller at Davis-Kidd in 1993 where she stayed until it closed, in 2000.
While she dreamed of opening another book store, it would be five years before that dream became a reality. In the interim she worked as an administrative secretary at Old Gray Cemetery. Finally, with the help of her friend Jeannette Brown, she “found a spot in Bearden and three partners and Carpe Librum Booksellers was born in 2005.” She says it was, “the answer to a dream for six good years but two partners wanted to retire and we felt the timing was right to close at year’s end 2010.”
But, as she put it, “the dream apparently was not finished. Jack Neely visited us as Carpe Librum was closing and kept telling me a bookstore would do well downtown. Then, Nancy Solomon and Judy Loest showed me The Daylight Building one night after dinner in January of 2011 and the rest is history. I was drawn to the feel and history of the old building.” It reminded me of the creaky floors and large windows of the furniture store and of being in a place where people window shopped as they strolled by. I miss the Bearden area and people but think if we are to survive as a bookstore we need to be downtown.”
“We opened in June of 2011, with the help of Melinda Meador, who remained as partner for one year, followed by my long-time friend Carey Christian who got us through the second year as my partner and continues helping with our website and weekly newsletter . Now my daughter Bunnie Presswood and I are partners. Bunnie worked at Carpe Librum for six years and now, in addition to the children’s and sidelines buyer, does displays and inventory and the bookkeeping! It’s amazing that in 8 1/2 years working together we have had very few disagreements. I feel so lucky to have her as a partner and could not do it without her. We have a great staff of booksellers: Shiela, Dick, Charlie, John, Bryan, Hannah, and Chelsea who all make this store unique, personal, and eccentric!”
You’ll often find Flossie working with her daughter Bunnie while granddaughter Allie Dell runs about the store. It’s a poignant echo from the 1950’s when Flossie and her sister ran about in their parent’s store just a few blocks away. Sometimes the repetition of history resonates in a most satisfying manner.
It’s not a surprise that Flossie would attempt to mention everyone who’s had a hand in her success. She’s a quiet, good soul, more comfortable praising others than being praised. Content to take a backseat when she deserves to be at the head of the table. Her quiet support is what made tackling difficult literary works by Flanery O’Conner, Cormac McCarthy, William Faulkner and many others both possible and a pleasure for me in those early days. Quite simply, she shaped much of my taste in reading and my understanding of what it means to call literature “great.” I’m sure many people would say something similar.
I asked her who she’s reading and who she counts as her favorite authors. She said, “I’ve always loved the southern writers, Flannery O’Connor, Faulkner, Lee Smith, Tom Franklin, Wiley Cash and so many others. Anne Tyler is a long time favorite as well as Donna Tartt, who I’m now reading. I’m fairly new to mysteries and loving them, historical(Charles Finch, Susan MacNeil, Jacqueline Winspeare), cozy (M.C. Beaton), literary(Kate Atkinson), psychological thrillers (Gillian Flynn, Nicci French). Reading Crime and Punishment in high school was the reason I majored in English.”
She isn’t finished spreading the love around, however. She told me, “Partnering with the Friends of the Library for author events has been so important to us and we lug hundreds of advanced readers to the library on a regular basis that can be sold in The Rothrock room to benefit the library. I love Mary Pom (Claiborne) and all the Friends. Working with people who love books is the best life ever.
“There’s not a day that goes by that someone doesn’t thank us for being here. And, I immediately thank them for supporting an independent bookstore. We’re all in this together, doing something so important in the community and for ourselves. One of the biggest rewards is watching children run in the store and head to their favorite section with such glee on their faces. I hope Union Ave Books and all independents can survive this technological age. From the responses and support of children and adults, I believe we and they will!”
I really do believe it is people like Flossie McNabb and comfortable, stimulating spaces like Union Avenue Books that give downtown its heart. It’s a great example of a very local business, run by people with deep roots in our soil. People who care about this community because it’s a part of who they are. I also find it hard to imagine a great city that doesn’t have a great book store. Whether it’s Malaprop’s in Asheville, City Lights in San Francisco or Shakespeare and Company in Paris (Here’s a great recent story of how the French government is protecting the city’s 300 independent bookstores), a city often is, to my way of thinking, best measured by its best book store. If you value local business, if you value great literature, if you want to have a literary heart to the city, please support Union Avenue Books.
If you haven’t made it to the bookstore, or it has been a while, tonight offers a great chance to do so. Tonight is the Third Thursday Daylight Nights, the block party on the 500 Block of Union Avenue hosted by John Black Photography, Just Ripe, Union Avenue Books and Reruns. Come by and have some great food from the Tootsie Truck, Good Golly Tamale, Hoof Knoxville, and Dale’s Fried Pies, as well as coffee from Three Bears Coffee Co. It starts at 5:00 and runs until 8:00. Come by and thank small business owners for doing what they do to make your city a better place.