“A town isn’t a town without a bookstore,” Neil Gaiman wrote in his novel American Gods. With many bookstores within its city limits, from national chains to locally owned independent shops, Lexington most definitely qualifies as a town. Each bookstore in the city has its own charm and personality, and these three offer a representation of the literary community in Lexington.
BLACK SWAN BOOKS | 505 E Maxwell St., Lexington, KY 40502
Mike Courtney wanted his business to be the first listed under “Used Books” in the yellow pages. He also wanted to have a good logo.
This is how he landed on the name “Black Swan Books.”
Or at least that’s one origin story— he said there are several.
“I should’ve gone with The Angry Aardvark, if I had thought about it,” Courtney said.
Courtney started and incorporated Black Swan Books in 1984.
“I went out and bought a book, and then more books,” Courtney said.
Courtney, who attended graduate school at UK, had worked at UK in Special Collections before “the money ran out” and he needed a new path.
“I decided I better go find another way to have fun,” he said.
Black Swan has a huge inventory— Courtney said he has no idea just how many books he has in his shop, plus more he has stored away. But he said he probably carries more inventory “by single title” than anybody else in town.
He said the store has a lot of subject matter that others don’t, such as a whole section on philosophy and large sections on military history and horses. Courtney described the inventory as more academic, but not textbooks. And the store does have a large literary section, including rare books.
“We’ve got some awfully good rare books right now,” he said.
While Courtney’s used book inventory is huge, he doesn’t carry many new books. The few new books he carries are typically written by his friends— which include many of Kentucky’s literary giants, such as Wendell Berry.
He described those friends as “the established Kentucky writers.”
He said he can’t compete with Amazon and other bookstores in the city on most new books, though he does carry new Larkspur Press books.
Larkspur Press, owned by Gray Zeitz, is approaching its 45th anniversary, so it’s older than Black Swan Books. Courtney said he’s been carrying Larkspur-printed books since the beginning of his shop.
“Either he called on me, or I called him,” Courtney said of the partnership between him and Zeitz.
Courtney said he thinks Kentucky’s literary community seems very strong, though his lack of new books in the store keeps him out of the loop a little bit, he said.
He said he doesn’t know if it’s as strong as some of those established writers he was talking about, such as Berry, Ed McClanahan, Gurney Norman, James Baker Hall and Bobbie Ann Mason— who studied at UK together and have the nickname “the Fab Five.”
But he said there seem to be more people involved now in the Kentucky literary circle, and they seem like a tight group.
“But I’m not as close them, simply because I am just not out as much as I used to,” he said. “You know, I don’t go out and party after I close.”
One recent Larkspur book that Courtney would recommend to readers is The Essential Essays of Wendell Berry. Another book he has in stock that he said would be especially good for college kids is Hiking the Bluegrass and Beyond by Valerie Askren.
Courtney said making recommendations is hard because it depends on what a reader’s area of interest is; for example, he personally reads mostly 19th and early 20th century books. Courtney said he thinks it harms a community to not have any physical bookstores, though things like Amazon make things more difficult for bookstores in today’s world.
He said he knows a lot of bookstores are closing, but the thought hasn’t crossed his mind yet— even though his wife asks him every day.
He said he’ll work at Black Swan Books until he feels like he can’t work anymore— or until he runs out of books.
That won’t happen, he insists.
WILD FIG BOOKS & COFFEE | 726 N Limestone, Lexington, KY 40508
In the year 2018, for the first time in the 21st century, the number of black-owned bookstores in the United States increased instead of decreased.
Thanks to the community of Lexington, Wild Fig Coffee & Books helped that statistic by staying open.
Back when Crystal Wilkinson and Ron Davis owned Wild Fig, community organizer April Taylor was a frequent customer. Now, Taylor is the co-founder of the Wild Fig worker-cooperative. Wild Fig opened in its current location on North Limestone in 2015; before that, it was located in Meadowthorpe.
The pair announced the store would be closing in August 2018, but quick action from the community allowed it to reopen under new management just a few months later.
Taylor was one of the first people to call for the community to try to purchase the shop. Some individuals were interested in purchasing Wild Fig, so Taylor and other members of the community had less than 30 days to come up with the $25,000 needed.
“A lot of people who are paid to do that kind of work aren’t able to do that,” Taylor said. “So we kind of went into it thinking that we would at least be able to raise some money and that we would be able to give that to Crystal and Ron as a love offering for having provided this space to the community for so many years.”
But what they were trying to do gained more and more attention, even on a national scale. Dozens of people from all over the country donated, Taylor said.
A generous community member made it possible, Taylor said. Not everyone who pledged money was able to pay it all up front, so a community member loaned the future worker-cooperative the money at no interest.
If the Wild Fig had closed permanently, Taylor said, Lexington would have lost an important organizing place. Black bookstores have historically been a place where communities organize, she said, and this made black bookstores a target of COINTELPRO, the counterintelligence program, in the 1960s.
According to a February 2018 article in The Atlantic, then FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover was worried about the rise of the Black Power movement. He wrote a memo instructing Bureau offices to beware of black independent booksellers because “black extremist bookstores… represent propaganda outlets for revolutionary and hate publications and culture centers for extremism.”
Taylor said this targeting is one of the reasons that so few black-owned bookstores could be found across the U.S. Just a few years ago, the number was around 50 in the nation. Before she became involved with management of Wild Fig, Taylor said she was a frequent customer because it was a “really safe, affirming space” to do community work.
“It would mean that I could spend time in a place where I know that I wouldn’t be subjected to microaggressions, or weird looks from people,” she said. “And it’s not really that Wild Fig is all black at any given time; it’s just that the people that you know are in the space are people who will affirm other people’s humanity.”
That is partly why Taylor and others describe Wild Fig with two adjectives: safe and sacred. It’s sacred, Taylor said, because Wild Fig is “a way for us to put a stake down” in an area that is rapidly gentrifying.
“Gentrification is going to happen, and we may not be able to completely stop it, but we can protect these spaces where all of us are welcome,” Taylor said.
Taylor said Wild Fig’s food is very affordable— so that it’s “accessible to everybody in the neighborhood.”
She said many people in the neighborhood are in active addiction or are newly sober, or are sex workers. People who may have seen as a nuisance by others in the neighborhood can find a welcoming space at Wild Fig, she said.
“I’m a lifelong Lexingtonian, and I’ve not found any other space like that where everybody, no matter what their ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, or income, can walk in and feel just as valid as anybody else.”
Taylor said that Wild Fig has a limited retail space for books, and they focus on a few important things when filling that space.
First, Wild Fig aims to publish things published by local authors.
Secondly, Wild Fig has an emphasis on books for kids. Taylor said they “make sure that there are books on the shelf that kids are able to see themselves reflected in.”
Lastly, Wild Fig sports an activism section, which Taylor said is popular, that includes material on self-help and healing as well.
Taylor said there have been many really cool moments since Wild Fig reopened, such as the addition of drumming circles, which she said is a great point of connection.
“Also, too, these really simple moments…” she said. “That’s the thing that I think means the most to me, whether it’s drumming or just a regular Sunday afternoon. It’s the moments you step back and you see how much joy resonates for people in this space.”
UNIQUE BOOKS | 227 Woodland Ave, Lexington, KY 40502
In 1998, Kathy Rather’s family was downsizing.
This meant Rather had boxes of books— “cheap, trashy novels,” in her words.
“And my kids were yelling at me and said, ‘What are you going to do with these books?’ and I said, ‘Oh, I’m going to open a bookstore,’” she said. “And I did.”
That bookstore is Unique Books, located in the Woodland Triangle area. The cozy shop boasts shelf after shelf of general used books— from history to philosophy to mysteries to science fiction and more.
Unique Books has been in its current location on Woodland Avenue, just a few blocks from UK’s campus, for 16 years. Before that, it was located on Buckhorn Drive, in a shop about a third of the size.
“We reached the point either we needed to close or expand,” Rather said.
Rather’s husband found the new location, and they sublet for six months to see if they could “make a go of it,” Rather said.
Obviously they could, and Unique Books remains.
The inventory has changed, though: Rather said that in their old location, they sold mostly mysteries and romance, while those genres aren’t big sellers on Woodland.
“We’ve kind of had to change out our inventory to suit the neighborhood,” Rather said.
Rather said most customers come to a used bookstore when looking for older books. She said sometimes customers come in looking for a specific book, though they often call ahead of time— “letting their fingers do the walking.”
Others do come in just to peruse the store, she said.
She said that business has been “up and down” as things like e-readers and ordering books via Amazon have become more popular. But she said there is still value in printed books, both for authors looking to get published and for customers looking for a good read.
“People that are true readers— I’m not going to say bibliophiles because that implies elitism— but if they’re true readers, they want to hold that book,” she said.
And the benefit of coming to a bookstore for your reading needs means you can get the book immediately, she said.
“You can come in and you can walk out the door with it and go home and read it,” she said. Rather said that instead of recommending specific titles, she likes to recommend authors or genres “based on what people come in asking for.”
She gave several examples: A “little old lady” might walk in the door looking for cozy mysteries, while college students are less likely to be looking for those. A 60-year-old gentleman, she said, may be looking for westerns.
In fact, a man walked into the store on this Friday afternoon looking for exactly that— when asked if he needed any help, he said he wanted “paperback westerns” and was pointed toward a section in the front corner of the store.
Rather said that independent bookstores provide a service of supplying books to a community; additionally, they offer part-time employment for students.
“I think also, it kind of goes into the shop local mentality,” she said, meaning shopping at locally owned businesses rather than big chains.
Unique Books is nestled among other local businesses— like Shop Local Kentucky across the street and fellow independent bookstore Black Swan Books just around the corner. Rather said that Woodland Triangle is the oldest continuous shopping area in Lexington, with most of the buildings being more than 100 years old.
Rather, a Chicago native, has lived in Kentucky for almost 40 years. She said she believes she moved to an area that appreciates literature.
“I really and truly think it does,” she said.
Photos by Michael Clubb
Story Written by Bailey Vandiver