By Nickolaus Hines
A maze of book shelves is tucked cozily behind Heritage Gifts & Gourmet on Eighth Street. It would take days to browse through the titles on spines and dust jackets, each one trying to catch the eye of a passerby, but in the heart of independent used bookstore The Gnu’s Room, owner Tina Tatum can guide you in the right direction.
Bookstores themselves are a dying breed. Large chains are shutting their doors and the reading public has more options than ever with e–books and online ordering. What is lost is the human connection with a person who has read the book, a copy hand–signed by the author shaking hands after a reading, and a focus on the local community. What The Gnu’s Room offers is all of the above.
“Bookstores are an important community resource because typically they’re places where people with open minds that are interested in learning come to share ideas,” Tatum said. “It tends to draw people who are creative.”
Tatum was forced to box her books and close shop when the rent near downtown Auburn became too high. Through friends and networking, Tatum found Barbara Patton and Heritage Gifts & Gourmet.
The back room was being used as storage and lacked lighting.
“I came by and said, ‘Yeah, I feel like we can make it work,’” Tatum recalled about the move nearly two years ago.
The Gnu’s Room is part of Gnu Arts Inc., a 501(c)(3) non–profit organization. In addition to the book store, Tatum also runs Solomon & George Publishers through Gnu Arts Inc.
“The idea of getting people’s writing in front of people is what spurred me to want to start a press,” Tatum said. “There are so many talented people just in Lee County, not even counting the state, that I think it’s important that people just get to know who they are. Will they ever become New York Times bestselling authors? Probably not. But is their writing good enough that it could be? Absolutely.”
The printing press started with an anthology called Chinaberries and Crows, which included work from more than 40 local writers. Solomon & George has since published work by local authors, poets and columnists, and more is planned for the fall.
Peter Huggins, poet, author and Auburn University professor, published a collection of poems under the title “South,” with the help of Tatum. Through his publishing experience he became familiar with Gnu Arts Inc., and saw the importance of an independent bookstore that can cater to local customers better than chain bookstores concerned primarily with the bottom line.
Tatum knows the classics, she knows the locals and she knows what a person may like best after a short conversation. But the yellow walls peeking above the top bookshelf can only house The Gnu’s Room if the rent is paid.
“We haven’t done very well in terms of selling books, and it’s caused some financial hardship for me,” Tatum said. “I’m trying to run it now with volunteers as much as possible just to keep it going until some things may turn around.”
Tatum is hopeful about the list of events and new book releases in the fall. Upcoming is a novel by Marian Carcache, whose collection of short stories published in 2013 belongs on the shelves of every reader whose interests range from Harper Lee and Jane Austen to “Orange is the New Black.” Also coming up is Huggins’ fifth poetry book and his, and Solomon & George’s, first children’s book.
Mary Adams Belk, whose columns for the Opelika–Auburn News were collected in the Solomon & George Publishers book “Second Cup,” wrote, “…I believe there will always be enough ‘hard copy’ book lovers left to keep out–of–the–way used–book stores around.”
Tatum believes in that thought as well, and that Opelika is on its way to becoming a truly artsy downtown.
“(Opelika) is just not there yet, and unfortunately for the book store, I just don’t know if we can survive until that happens,” Tatum said. “But I would love to think that we’d still be here and will be a part of a thriving downtown Opelika and people will come in and be excited we are here.”