During the hour I spent visiting East Side Story, the inviting new bookstore in East Nashville which specializes in works written by Middle Tennessee authors, four other people dropped in—all authors whose books are for sale there. Asked how many writers his store represents, owner Chuck Beard scratched his head. “The number grows by the day,” he said. In fact, virtually every book in East Side Story is by a local author. Part of the 5 Points Collaborative, the shop—all 256 square feet of it—is a tiny treasure trove of tales written almost exclusively by Nashville residents. They include books published by large traditional publishers as well by as self-published works whose writers have dedicated years and resources to their publication. “It’s great that people come in and see their books on the shelves,” Beard said. “Unless you’re Stephen King or J.T. Ellison, there’s not a guarantee that your book’s going to make it to a shelf” in a more conventional bookstore.
Originally from Bowling Green, Beard works weekday mornings from eight to twelve at the Oasis Center, where he helps teens in the residential program’s learning center adopt coping skills and complete their homework. Five afternoons a week, in his free time, he stocks shelves, oversees the cash register, and waters colorful plants in book-shaped ceramic pots outside his one-man bookstore. He also writes fiction and arts-related articles. (In 2007, he self-published Adventures Inside a Bright-Eyed Sky; profits from copies sold at his store go to the local chapter of Gilda’s Club, a nonprofit cancer support group.) Beard and his wife, Emily Harper Beard, have a close circle of friends with creative passions. One impetus for the store, Beard said, was his desire to “give them another outlet to promote their art.”
Last summer, Beard drew up an initial plan for the bookstore and entered it in a national contest, Launch, sponsored by Nashville’s Proof Branding Solutions. The contest’s entry form required applicants to explain how the proposed business would have a positive effect on its community. Beard’s entry won, beating out more than 100 other contestants. As a result, Proof Branding Solutions helped him get the business off the ground. By August, within weeks of winning the contest, Beard had signed a one-year lease, and the store, replete with shelves bearing books by the likes of Alice Randall and Brenda Rickman Vantrease, was open for business. Along with hard- and paperback titles for adults as well as children, the store carries jewelry made of Scrabble letters, wine-bottle charms, word games, stationery, postcards, paintings, ornaments, sculptures made out of books, and t-shirts bearing messages like “Atticus Finch for Chief Justice.”
On the day I stopped in, Roschelle Ridenhour was there on her lunch break checking on the store’s stock of her Cottage Porch Stories, a collection to which she dedicated eight years. She works full-time as a children’s worship director and does all her writing in her time off. She’d “gotten discouraged” by the number of creative people who told her it was almost impossible to get published the traditional way: “Lawyers of thirty years would say it was harder to get published than to win any case they’d ever had,” she said. Ultimately opting to bypass the quest for an agent, Ridenhour paid to publish the book herself, and she’s now at work on a new, related collection.
Music journalist Craig Havighurst also came by to pick up a check; the store had sold out of his Air Castle of the South: WSM and the Making of Music City, which was published in 2007 by the University of Illinois Press. The paperback will be released next year and the hardback version, he said, has sold close to 5,000 copies, which are respectable sales figures, particularly for a debut book published by an academic press, but it doesn’t exactly represent a financial windfall. “I’ll never write another book without an advance,” he said. “It was like going to grad school with no money. It’s a slog.” The upside is that the book eventually led to his job as senior producer for Music City Roots, a two-hour live television/radio broadcast that airs weekly from the Loveless Café.
“All connections matter,” interjected Barry Mazor, author of the biography Meeting Jimmie Rodgers: How America’s Original Roots Music Hero Changed the Pop Sounds of a Century. A full-time freelancer for national publications like The Wall Street Journal, Mazor’s book was published by Oxford University Press. He’s now at work on a second nonfiction book.
Last month, continuing its mission to serve as a gathering place for Nashville’s readers and writers, East Side Story launched a twice-monthly performance called East Side Storytellin’. Staged at the cozy restaurant and bar Rumours East, also in East Nashville, this free evening of literary readings, concerts, and author-musician interviews takes places the first and third Tuesday of every month. Hosted by Beard, each event features one author and one musician and is recorded by WAMB 1200 AM/99.3 FM, which airs the show at a later date. Recent participants included David Mead and Bill Friskics-Warren, and tonight’s show will feature a reading from bestselling mystery writer J.T. Ellison as well as musical guest Crackerboots.
The fourth author to swing by the store that afternoon was Ellison herself, dropping off copies of her ninth novel. “I moved here in ’98 from D.C.,” she said, explaining what led her to writing after working as a White House staffer. “I couldn’t find a job [here], so I went to work at my cat’s vet and on the third day there I blew out my back. During my recovery I found John Sanford and said, ‘I want to try this, with a female protagonist who’s half-cop and half-rock-star.” She called the local police precinct and ended up doing twelve ride-alongs with Nashville’s boys in blue as preparation for what turned out to be her new career.
Overhearing our conversation, Beard asked, “Will they do that for everyone?” Ellison laughed: “No, I think I’m special.” She did all her research hands-on, signed a three-book deal, and hasn’t looked back. Her first book also debuted in 2007, and her titles are sold in, at last count, twenty-four countries.
“Some days people buy nothing, and other days it’s jam-packed,” Beard said, before he and Ellison finalized plans for Tuesday’s event. “When people walk in, they’re not lost.”
East Side Story is located at 1108 Woodland St., Unit B, in Nashville. The next East Side Storytellin’, featuring a reading by author J.T. Ellison and a musical performance by Crackerboots, will be held tonight, December 18, at 7 p.m. at Rumours East. The event is free but reservations are required; call 615-262-5346 for details.