Star Line Books, Chattanooga’s only independent resource for new, general-interest titles, opened last August in a downtown business center just across Market Street from the famed Chattanooga Choo-Choo. Owner Star Lowe is an energetic blonde with a warm smile and an easy way with people. “We’ve been open for twenty weeks,” she says. “I’m still keeping up with it like a newborn.”
Like all parents of newborns, this new bookseller has learned a lot in a short time. “There’s so much I don’t know that I don’t know what I don’t know,” jokes the former journalist and educator originally from Middle Tennessee. Lowe began this literary journey three years ago when she first moved to Chattanooga. Aware of the Buy Local movement, she went searching for an independent bookstore to patronize.
Finding no such thing, she determined to remedy the situation but understood she would need to do a lot of research and lay some solid groundwork first. Lowe realized early on that “there’s no room for error if you’re going to try to get from red to black,” so she reached out to her fellow Southeastern independent booksellers and found them incredibly helpful. “They embraced me,” she says, singling out Karen Hayes of Parnassus Books in Nashville, Flossie McNabb at Union Ave. Books in Knoxville, and Janet Geddis of Avid Books in Athens, Georgia, as generous sources of information on everything from inventory tips to author-event planning. Even the store’s name came from the bookstore community: noting the shop’s famous neighbor, Laura Hill and Amy Jernigan, owners of Reading Rock Books in Dickson, suggested the railroad-inspired name “Star Line Books.” (Lowe’s husband, Shawn, took it one step further when he suggested patrons could take the Star Line to “Come and be Literated,” now the store’s official motto.)
The response of the Chattanooga community has also been heartening. “I’ve got a nice little customer base already,” Lowe says. “I have regulars.” Those regulars no doubt respond to the personal touch Lowe insists upon. Because of her small space (1,300 square feet), much of her business consists of special orders. She describes a recent customer with a Christmas wish list from his wife: when Lowe realized that one of the requested books was out of print, she found an online source and gave the husband the information he needed to complete his wife’s gift. She has also sent customers to other local bookstores for specialty items or books she couldn’t source quickly enough.
Lowe hand-selects everything in the shop—from books and journals to t-shirts and tote bags—but she is quick to add to her inventory with items that customers request. Legal pads and pens placed throughout the store encourage patrons to suggest titles they’d like to see on the shelves, and she constantly tweaks her stock to reflect the customer base: “Nobody can have everything, so there’s that little dance, that little shelf dance, that I have to do when I’m choosing inventory.”
Star Line’s shelves feature books by local authors as frequently as possible, and quite a few have already come by to check out the store and sign copies of their own titles. Susan Gregg Gilmore, author most recently of The Funeral Dress, observes, “Star Line brings Chattanooga’s readers and writers together in the heart of the city, fostering the community we crave and spreading the beauty of the written word.” Confederate Streets author Erin Tocknell calls Star Line “a blessing.” She appreciates that Lowe gives “time and attention to books that get lost in the shuffle at the larger bookstores,” and she believes “the community is better for it.”
The store’s impact on the community is of vital interest to Lowe. When people ask why she doesn’t serve coffee, she responds with typical enthusiasm: “I’m like, ‘Are you crazy? I’m in the center of the coffee Bermuda Triangle here. There’s Niedlov’s, there’s Mean Mug, there’s The Hot Chocolatier. Go get something and bring it in.’ I’m here to complement and not to compete. We’ve got to work together.”
It’s a philosophy with an even broader application. Lowe’s belief that Chattanooga needed an independent bookstore has been borne out by the number of schools and community organizations that have reached out in hopes of partnering with her to bring marquee literary events to Chattanooga. The city’s location makes it an ideal stop for author tours, but Lowe believes it will take a city effort to provide an audience large enough to draw the bigger names. And she hopes Star Line Books will be an integral part of this literary resurgence.
For now, what Star Lowe is most passionate about is the books themselves and the way they draw all kinds of people together within a shared experience. “My customer base is NPR listeners and PBS viewers,” she says, and when NPR’s Terry Gross interviews an author or Maureen Corrigan reviews a book, Lowe has found that customer requests are likely to follow. But as she stocks the latest hot titles, her heart is with the backlist—“those books that affected me and other readers five, ten, fifteen, twenty years ago,” she says. “There are so many beautiful things that get forgotten. I want to bring those jewels to the attention of new readers.”
When asked about the downside of starting an independent bookstore, Lowe admits the hours are tough. With only a handful of employees, she’s onsite most days herself. The store is closed on Sunday, but she often finds herself poring over inventory lists on her day off. The biggest drawback, though, is that she struggles to find time to read: “So many people want to know what I think about these books,” she laments.
Despite the difficulties, Lowe has no regrets: “It’s totally what I thought it would be. I did not get into this thinking it would be a cash cow; this was completely born out of a passion for books and wanting to have a place like Laura and Janet and Karen and Flossie have created—a place where you can be comfortable talking books. It just seemed such a shame that there wasn’t one here in Chattanooga.”
At the end of the day, it’s her customers who make it all worthwhile. Star says, “Patrons come in and say ‘I’m so glad you’re here. How are you doing? I hope you make a go of this. I wish you well.’ And then they come back and buy my books.”
A graduate of Auburn University, Tina Chambers has worked as a technical editor at an engineering firm and as an editorial assistant at Peachtree Publishers, where she worked on books by Erskine Caldwell, Will Campbell, and Ferrol Sams, to name a few. She lives in Chattanooga.