Books on the Bluff: The Dominion of a Bookselling Legend

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Books on the Bluff
in Eulonia, Georgia

Books on the Bluff in Eulonia, Georgia, is not just a charming four-year-old bookstore overlooking the Georgia coast, but a command center for the vast network of book-related activities under the dominion of Southern bookselling legend "Miss Virginia" Calvin Hobson Hicks. Virginia Hicks -- who has spent virtually all of her eight decades deeply involved with books and bookstores -- and her husband Harold Hicks run the store at the front of their sprawling house in a lush, gated community on Sutherland Bluff.

The Hicks do sell plenty of books from their shop: they stock about 50,000, and the warehouse at the back of the house holds many more. "The store is open 24 hours a day. People call late and ask if they can come over, and we say sure. It's relaxed, and I can run around in my pajamas if need be," she told BTW. Time for relaxing is brief. The Hicks distribute books to outlets in several local tourist spots and ship many books all over the world. But Virginia Hicks provides books on an as-needed basis anywhere in the coastal region, which includes a host of small islands including Jekyll, St. Simons, and Sea Island. "I'll get you any book you'd like and bring it over to you," Hicks said, "Customers tell us what time they will be home, and we arrange our courier service to meet them there. I'll also ask people if they're going to be in Eulonia during the day so we can leave the books at the lovely English tearoom that's opened there. If I get a call that the local ladies have had luncheon and tea there and read all the books and want such and such, I'll get in the car and bring five copies of whatever they wanted." She continued, "Harold and I go everywhere -- if you're having a convention, we'll put you up a bookstore."

Harold and Virginia Hicks

Hicks coordinates Books on the Bluff's delivery service to homebound readers and hospital patients. She is most enthusiastic about the annual festival held in November in nearby Darien, Georgia, which features reenactments from Fort King George, shrimp boat rides, local delicacies, arts and crafts, and Hicks' "Authors of the Round Table." Book signings and informal panel discussions with well-known authors are coordinated and emceed by Hicks who noted proudly that "in 2002 we had 29 authors reading, discussing their books, and signing copies; this year we had 23 authors. We fill the autograph table with authors' back stock books and hold raffles for books. We've been able to support local charities and civic associations with these benefits." She mentioned several, including a library for the Sapelo Island community and a proposed shelter for abandoned animals in McIntosh County.

Also offered for sale at all events, and everywhere Hicks supplies the books, are four local-interest books that have been republished by the Hicks' The Book Shop Press, Inc. "I republish out-of-print books that need to be republished," Hicks explained. Each one comes with a compelling historical provenance that can take listeners through tales of local historic inaccuracies and an author's attempt to leave only one, hand-corrected copy behind; treasures in an old trunk from an estate sale in Buffalo, New York; and a cookbook based on recipes from a family home in Mobile, Alabama, affectionately called "Termite Hall."

"Everybody in Mobile lives in a Hall," Hicks told BTW. "Eugene Walter, the writer who founded the Paris Review with George Plimpton, was always broke and stayed with my family at Termite Hall." Walter wrote a bestselling cookbook in 1969 for the Time-Life Food of the World series, American Cooking: Southern Style. But it was his humorous compendium of rich recipes and luscious Southern storytelling, Delectable Dishes From Termite Hall, that Hicks promised the late author she would "keep alive." She kept her promise, and the book remains a hot seller, perhaps due in part to its forward by one of the book's biggest fans, Pat Conroy. Hicks and Conroy go way back to 1972 and the first book signing the then-unknown writer ever had. Hicks, who, at the time, owned her first bookstore, The Lee Street Book and Art Shop in Brunswick, Georgia, hosted the store's first book signing with the nascent author. (For more about The Book Shop Press Inc., click here.)

Hicks' career path is long and winding, as one might expect from a woman whose first job was predicated on the introduction of the 1941 Lend-Lease Act. Teacher, headmistress, children's librarian, among other things -- but her love of books has been a constant theme. Reared in a family full of booksellers -- a cousin owned The Haunted Book Shop in Mobile, Alabama; her aunt operated The Hill Top Shop in Spring Hill, Georgia; and yet another family member sold books in someplace that sounded to Northern ears like Belt Buckle, Tennessee, Hicks is still thrilled that in 1996, she and Harold won the Charles. S. Haslam Award for Excellence in Bookselling for their previous store, The Book Shop Inc., in downtown Brunswick, Georgia.

Through her decades of bookselling experience, Hicks sees the Book Sense program as one of the great advances in the industry. "The Book Sense books just sell themselves. You really don't even need a store. Maybe I shouldn't say that," she laughed. This year Hicks told the committee planning the 2004 "Day in Darien" not to schedule the beloved "Authors of the Round Table."

"I told them I just can't do it this year " she recalled. "I said, 'Look people, I've got to take some time to die.' No one paid any attention to me and scheduled me as always." --Nomi Schwartz