Writing the Soul of a City, Chronicling a Living History"When you've survived 300 years through war, earthquakes and hurricanes, people tend to have a more relaxed attitude about things. You assume Charleston is a typical fussy Southern town where everything needs to be perfect, but that's not the way Charlestonians are at all."
When visiting writers come to the Charleston bookstore owned by Jonathan Sanchez, he takes them for a walk. "You don't need a car in Charleston, and you see and hear more when you're on foot," he explains. He likes for people to peek into old cemeteries and local cafes so they can feel the history of the place and absorb the local color. He sends visitors to The Citadel military college, where centuries-old traditions are still alive and well, or to the Olmsted-designed urban oasis Hampton Park to see its circa 1901 bandstand and old rose collection.
"It's like Faulkner said: 'The past is never dead.' Whatever forces formed this city and drove its economy 'back then' are still driving it today," Sanchez says.
Sanchez, 38, came to Charleston from Charlotte, North Carolina, 15 years ago. When he bought Blue Bicycle Books he became not only a bookseller, but also the steward of a storied local writing tradition epitomized by regional stars like Pat Conroy and Anne Rivers Siddons. "There are so many local books and so many local topics to cover," he explains. "The store is very writer-centric. I'm a writer, my friends are writers and there's so much local talent to promote."
Sanchez's shelves burst with ghost stories, pirate tales, guides to regional gardens and history, and even how-to books for capitalizing on local hunting and fishing. It's not uncommon for up-and-coming writers to swing by for a book signing, like Beth Webb Hart, who recently released her homage to the historic city, "Love, Charleston," or food authors Matt and Ted Lee, who will soon release "Simple Fresh Southern."
In his own fiction, which recently has tilted to the young-adult genre, Sanchez tries to capture the characters on the fringe of Charleston society: the waitress or the tour guide or the fallen debutante. He explains that despite the historic charm of the city, it defies snobbery in favor of a unique insouciance.
"When you've survived 300 years through war, earthquakes and hurricanes, people tend to have a more relaxed attitude about things," he says. "You assume Charleston is a typical fussy Southern town where everything needs to be perfect, but that's not the way Charlestonians are at all."
Much of Charleston's current personality stems from its mix of old families and a vibrant African-American heritage. Further influence can be traced to the tight-knit urban setting of the city, surrounded by the natural beauty of nearby marshlands and rivers.
"The natural connection, in combination with the history, is almost impossible not to write about," explains Sanchez. However, unlike some places where history is static, a thing to visit in a museum, in Charleston it is a living thing. "It's kind of European in that way," he says of Charleston. "It's a place where people live for their life and family first."
Charleston's deep connection to family and heritage, its slower pace, and the pleasure its citizens find in food, books and culture provide Sanchez with endless characters and inspiration.
Check out Jonathan's Charleston.