In October 2016, a new independent bookstore opened in Tallahassee, Fla., offering readers a space to enjoy literature and civil conversation just weeks before an acrimonious election put Donald Trump in the White House. Whether customers at the opening of Midtown Reader knew it or not, national politics was the reason they had a new bookstore at all.
Earlier that year, Sally Bradshaw, a veteran Tallahassee political operative, was working in Nashua, N.H. Her candidate and longtime friend, Jeb Bush, was preparing to exit the race, and she had decided that her own 30-year career in politics needed to come to an end as well.
“It was, quite frankly, the most frustrating campaign experience I’ve ever had,” Bradshaw said. “Not because of Jeb’s loss in the primaries, but because of the lack of civil discourse.”
While working in New Hampshire, Bradshaw came across an article that named Tallahassee the smartest city in Florida. At first, she was surprised. “We’re a very small Southern capital, and I just expected a vibrant urban area to get that designation,” she said. But Florida A&M—the nation’s largest historically Black university—and Florida State University are both located in Tallahassee, and she began to see her city in a different light. When she returned home, her husband said out loud what had been on her mind: “You should open a bookstore.”
Bradshaw, a lifelong reader, grew up in Greenville, Miss., a community that celebrated books. There, McCormick’s Book Inn was a draw for local writers and political figures like Ellen Douglas, Shelby Foote, Walker Percy, and former assistant secretary of state Hodding Carter III. Though Bradshaw ended up in politics, she always harbored the dream of stepping away and opening a bookstore.
In the spring and summer of 2016, Bradshaw began laying the groundwork for what became Midtown Reader, Tallahassee’s first indie bookstore with new titles to open in a generation. Years of work on the campaign trail—conducting focus groups, listening to people—prepared her to learn a difficult trade. She enrolled in the Workshop Retreat offered by Paz & Associates in Jacksonville and began cold-calling indie bookstores asking for advice. For her vacation that summer, she traveled to nearly a dozen independent bookstores, and she got a boost when her former boss, Jeb Bush, became something of an adviser.
“Jeb is a huge reader, and he said, ‘You need to meet Mitchell Kaplan,’ ” Bradshaw recalled. Within 10 minutes, she was on the phone with Kaplan, owner of Books & Books in Coral Gables and cofounder of the Miami Book Fair.
Coming from the cutthroat world of politics, Bradshaw was surprised by the welcoming spirit of indie booksellers. “It was just such a breath of fresh air to be around people in the same industry who really wanted us to succeed,” she said.
Most importantly, Bradshaw realized she needed to reach out to local literary leaders and creative arts organizations. She contacted Tallahassee writers, asking them what they wanted to see in a neighborhood independent bookstore. At the end of one conversation, she remembered, a professor said, “Well, I’m completely surprised, because this was a delightful conversation.” Taken aback, Bradshaw asked why he was surprised, to which he responded, “Because you worked as a Republican all your life.”
But for Bradshaw—who said she is now registered as an independent—the whole point of opening Midtown Reader was to create a space for respectful discussion and a celebration of books, putting community first. The store is staffed by one full-time bookseller and four part-timers who live in the immediate area. The children’s section is a destination for families, while the store’s events have become a regional draw for nationally renowned authors.
With the fifth anniversary of Midtown Reader approaching, Bradshaw said each day still presents new things to learn. But every year, the store has been on firmer footing. Despite being closed to in-store traffic for eight weeks in 2020, sales for the year were up 21% over 2019 due to higher online sales, and local support, including support from local authors. Among them were celebrated speculative fiction writers and editors Jeff and Ann VanderMeer, who began driving readers of Jeff’s new titles to Midtown Reader for signed copies. Bradshaw used some of the sales gains to deepen her connections with the community, partnering with nonprofits to increase childhood literacy and collecting books for mothers living in shelters.
It is because of these connections that Bradshaw said her second career has provided a sense of fulfillment that can’t be found in politics. “When you’re in that world, one minute there’s a hurricane and the next minute there’s a prison riot and the next minute you’re dealing with a budget issue,” she said. “It all seems very important. But when you look back over that period of time, you think, What did I really do? How did I contribute in any way? I know that I can look at this bookstore and see how we have made a difference to Tallahassee. It just seems more rewarding. It’s much more tangible.”