Spotting Indie bookstores throughout the city gives me pleasure. Whenever I’m just strolling, as much as you can stroll on the streets of Manhattan, I leave the crowds behind and browse the beautifully diverse shelves of these stores. And no matter where I’ve traveled–the south, north, east coast, west coast–the Indie bookstore remains synonymous with intimacy. It’s as close as you can get to curling up with a good book in your favorite comfy chair and a steamy cup of hot chocolate on a cold and rainy night. Indie Owners are the people who get that.
When I heard that my former professor, Crystal Wilkinson would be opening a bookstore, it made sense. I remember the active class discussions regarding the books we were reading and writing about–faded books, forgotten on the shelves. As I dug into the pages of Lee Smith’s Me and My Baby View The Eclipse and John Edgar Wideman’s Damballah, a new world opened and I stepped in. These books I never would have read on my own, but Wilkinson’s class inspired me. The Indie bookstore works much the same way. You have book lovers, literary aficionados, who lead the way and invite you into their humble homes, offering a warm cup of joe, and the opportunity to sit awhile. And maybe they’ll tell you a story, one you’ve never heard, and if you listen really closely you hear it, even feel it as the world opens.
Life of Riley: Was the idea to open the bookstore a whim or something you and your partner Ron put a lot of thought into?
Crystal Wilkinson: We have both always wanted to own a bookstore but this happened very quickly. He worked for Morgan Adams Bookstore and when Mary Morgan announced she was closing the store things fell into place for us to keep it. We were and ARE very excited and feel fortunate to be able to do this work.
LOR: Did you ask other writer friends for advice on this venture? If so, what were some of those responses?
Wilkinson: I didn’t really ask for advice but all of my writer friends know that they are free to tell me what they think so they either weighed in that they thought it was a perfect venture for Ron and I to do or they said how “brave” we were for opening a bookstore when there were so many bookstores closing around us. But many of my writer friends have donated books or offered to come in and help to help build inventory.
It’s been great! One dear friend drove in from Louisville on the second day we were open to give us six boxes of quality books. That is the sweetness of our writer friends. Pure kindness and with the exuberance to want to see us succeed.
LOR: As we see the mega bookstores, like Borders and Barnes and Noble, struggle in this economy, do you think an Indie store can capture the market and community in a different fashion?
Wilkinson: Well I think that we at The Wild Fig and other independent bookstore owners (here in town and across the country) can provide community and warmth to people in ways that the biggies can’t. They have more books of course but we have more spirit. We actually know our customers and often know what they are looking for when they walk in the door.
LOR: Can you explain the importance of an Indie store existence? Its importance to writers, publishers, and consumers?
Wilkinson: Well so many moms and pops in every community have been torn from the communities to make way for some corporate entity with big pockets. When a consumer buys local it keeps the money and the energy in the community. Our store is literally two minutes from where we live. We are vested in our neighborhood, in our city in ways that a corporate entity might not be. The energy is good. The service is good.
And as far as the importance to writers, we have free wi-fi and have eked out some interesting little places in the store for people to sit with their laptops to write. It’s a quiet space and a good place for writers to gather. From the publishing standpoint, we have tried to get copies of as many local and regional writers as we can but we are a quality used bookstore with limited new books so that is a bit difficult. One thing that we are in the process of doing is getting new books from local and regional publishers. For example Charlie Hughes who runs Wind Publications brought us his entire current catalogue (well a large selection from it) and it’s nice to see an entire shelf and a half of new books by Kentucky writers there on the shelf for people to buy. We hope to do this with some of the other KY publishers as well.
LOR: I know you inspiration for the new bookstore is The Wild Fig, inspired by Gayl Jones. Can you explain what that symbol and writer mean to you?
Wilkinson: As an African American writer Gayl Jones means the world to me. I love her writing and her intellect (which are one and the same). She’s a brilliant writer and thinker. One of Kentucky’s treasures. When I travel in African American literary circles and say I am from KY, I always get the response “Gayl Jones is from KY!” and that always makes me happy. So Ron and I both love her writing so we gathered up her books into our laps and began rereading her work searching for a name.
We wanted to name the bookstore Xarque from her book Xarque and Other Poems but when we researched and noted that it was basically jerky (dried meat) we decided against it but we liked the way the word looked and sounded. As we read further we both came up with The Wild Fig. She has a wonderful, thoughtful, poem of great depth called “Wild Figs and Secret Places” and so in addition to the use of wild figs in other poems, this sealed it for us. We then went on to find other symbolic uses of the wild fig throughout the world and were even happier with our choice. People keep telling us new “fig” stories and tales. We love it. One of our dear writer friends said just last night that he didn’t care what the impulse was behind it that he just liked the beauty in the name so that is perfect.
LOR: Share your vision of The Wild Fig. Paint a picture for readers—what can they expect when walking through the doors?
Wilkinson: They can expect a world of books of every type and age. We have an eclectic mix of old and new. They will hear jazz or blues or Bluegrass music depending on our moods or the mood of the day, good organic fair trade coffee and an atmosphere where the book lover can make themselves at home. Those who loved Morgan Adams Books as much as we did will fall in love with us too. Two book lovers to help you find the book you’re looking for or one that suits you fine, a good cup of coffee and a place to sit and muse on it all. What more could anyone want. And soon you will be able to come by and hear live readings or live music coming from our tiny stage. We are looking forward to it all. We are so very happy with all of this.
You can visit The Wild Fig Bookstore at 1439 Leestown Road, Lexington, KY 40511. You can contact the store via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or phone at 859/381-8133. You can also enjoy a Virtual Visit to The Wild Fig Bookstore at their Facebook and Twitter Pages.
CRYSTAL WILKINSON is the author of Blackberries, Blackberries , winner of the 2002 Chaffin Award for Appalachian Literature and Water Street , a finalist for both the UK’s Orange Prize for Fiction and the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award. She is currently seeking a publisher for her third book The Birds of Opulence. You can learn more about Crystal Wilkinson’s writing at Write With Your Spine.