In 1996, my family began visiting the Florida Panhandle—specifically a new urban development called Seaside. There we found a charming independent bookstore, the heart of this community, called Sundog Books. It was just over 10 years old at that time, and the proprietors were a couple named Bob and Linda White who moved to Florida from Mississippi. Their bookstore first opened at the edge of the dunes in a little shack with a tin roof and sand-covered floors, but it had since moved into a larger space as the crowds grew, the vacation season lengthened, and Bob and Linda and Sundog Books became beloved Seaside fixtures.
First, let me say that spaces with books—libraries and bookstores—have always been my happy place. Throughout my adult years, I made a point to seek out the local bookstore in every city I visited. From Seattle to New York, from London to Paris. And on a return to Seaside, a visit to Sundog Books welcomed my husband and me in two important ways. First, we immediately faced an abundance of books displayed face up on several entry tables. Then, we would find Bob rearranging book stacks, eager to share his latest book recommendations, a twinkle in his eye and his arm around our shoulders as he spun the plot of a book, in his Southern drawl, “that will knock your socks off!”
Bob and Linda were the first people I reached out to when the opportunity to build a bookstore in my hometown of Bexley, Ohio, presented itself in 2014. (It was another two years before Gramercy Books opened on Dec. 12, 2016.) I had already spent nearly 20 years visiting their bookstore at that point, all those years carrying a dream of owning one myself. The right set of circumstances created my moment: a small condominium being constructed on East Main Street in the heart of my community with a first floor designated for retail. All I saw for this space was a curated independent bookstore: one that would be unique to central Ohio; one that would eventually take its name from the French words grand merci.
At that point, I began to do serious research. I wanted to know the risks involved and what drove success for stores across the country. For that I contacted fellow booksellers, and Bob and Linda topped my list. They shared their journey and encouraged mine. They were more than just bookshop owners or booksellers; they were a rich part of their community. Sundog Books expressed their personality—their warmth and welcome, their spirit and passion for books. Over the nearly seven years of operation of my bookstore, Bob and Linda did what booksellers often do for each other: they support and inspire.
During my recent visit to Seaside and Sundog Books, I got my needed dose of inspiration, but Bob was not there to greet me—he died this past January. Bob was a big fan of Jim Harrison, and some think he named the store after Harrison’s eponymous 1984 novel concerned with life’s meaningfulness. (“He did love Jim Harrison’s book, but actually named the store after seeing the movie The Deer Hunter,” Linda notes. “It was from a scene where they look up at the winter sky and point out the sundogs.”) As part of the celebration of Bob’s life, an excerpt of an interview Harrison did with the Paris Review was read: “In a life properly lived, you’re a river. You touch things lightly or deeply; you move along because life herself moves, and you can’t stop it; you can’t figure out a banal game plan applicable to all situations; you just have to go with the ‘beingness’ of life, as Rilke would have it. In Sundog, Strang says a dam doesn’t stop a river, it just controls the flow. Technically speaking, you can’t stop one at all.”
Like Harrison, Bob was a man of great spirit and generosity, lightness and humor. Many recalled his voice as one of intelligence and rebelliousness. He and Linda—and their vibrant Sundog Books booksellers, like family to them—have earned a place in the hearts of those who live and visit Seaside.
Community bookselling is an art. All of us independent booksellers have a love of books and serve as central hubs and gathering places in our communities. Bookstores are spaces where a diversity of voices can be read or heard, on our shelves or through the authors we bring to our neighborhoods and cities. At Gramercy Books, we say we “live community and face ongoing societal issues through education and dialogue.” We are grateful that our businesses are safe spaces, engaging spaces, interactive spaces, inspiring spaces.
Bob White will be missed but never forgotten. As Sundog Books continues to thrive, it also keeps inspiring all booksellers to create those special places of joy within our communities.
Linda Kass is the founder and owner of Gramercy Books in Columbus, Ohio. Her historical novel Bessie is due in September from She Writes Press.