When I first contacted Tina Tatum on the subject of bookstores in Auburn, I absentmindedly addressed the email: “Dear Ms. Turner.”
I even remember thinking, “what a funny coincidence.” Needless to say, I immediately realized and apologized, for I was not attempting to contact the 11-time Grammy award winner.
Tatum, who graciously laughed off my mistake, ran the Gnu’s Room for 9 years, starting in 2007. It was the last vestige of Auburn’s independent bookstore ‘scene,’ if one can call it that. The used bookstore operated in the space that Mama Mocha’s Gay Street location now fully occupies until 2013 when it relocated to 8th Street on Opelika, finally closing its doors three years later.
The rabbit hole that led me to Tatum arrived not by way of a desire to explore the forces that are pushing out local independent businesses — although that came later — but out of pure personal frustration.
Put simply, I read often, am wary of Kindles and my only options for purchasing books are trekking to the sparsely stocked Book-A-Million or succumbing to our Amazonian overlords. I begrudgingly patron both corporations.
The top ten Yelp results for ‘bookstores’ in Auburn include well-known local names such as J&M, Anders, or Big Blue. All of which deal exclusively in textbooks and don’t sell a mere novel that is not mandated by a syllabus. There is also the University bookstore located in the labyrinth that is the Haley Center that sells textbooks, newer releases and books by alumni.
However, like its peers, the University store deals mostly in merchandise and apparel; there are no more than 5 small shelves for non-textbooks, a large portion of them devoted exclusively to movie-tie-in editions.
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The sad state of literary affairs is puzzling not just because Auburn is a rapidly expanding college town, but because nationally, independent bookstores are having a bit of a renaissance. Print book sales have increased each year since 2013, and the number of indie bookstores grew by 35 percent between 2009 and 2015.
Auburn’s seeming exemption from this encouraging trend is why I turned to Tatum for insight. As a millennial — or unfortunately Gen Z member depending on the criteria, who has witnessed my own decaying attention span and the compulsion to check my phone while reading, I had a few theories on the dissipating demand for paper and ink’s delayed gratification.
I have no scientific data on this, but if I had to guess, the laptop to non-academic book ratio on campus must be around 3,000 to 1.
As an Auburn student I have also borne witness to the astronomical rise in development, construction and number of chain restaurants descending upon our town. After researching rising rent prices and observing the amount of cranes overhead, I became increasingly sure that my frustration belonged to an unnamed group of greedy decision-makers.
Tatum had a clearer understanding.
She painted a picture of her store, the Gnu’s Room, that I was not privy to — I arrived on campus in 2015 after it had moved to Opelika and had never heard of it or sought it out as a freshman. She explained that the store was not just dealing in commodities, it was a place for community and open mic nights and the celebration of art.
Tatum said, “I started inviting authors, both local and touring, to schedule readings at the store to promote and sell their work. I encouraged the creation of a local writers’ group to provide support for new and published authors – The Chewacla Writers’ Guild. I furnished free space for writing workshops and community meetings, and many AU English professors brought their graduate students to the store to do readings.”
When I shared some of my many theories Tatum had a more measured response drawn from her memories of running the store when she said, “In my opinion, a huge challenge came from the continuing increase in popularity of Amazon.com. People like being able to buy books and other things online and have them delivered. There was a book club that met in the store, and I overheard one of the members say that she always bought her books from Amazon – and she was sitting in a local bookstore that needed sales to survive when she said that!”
As for Auburn’s particular case she admitted that she believed "people have become more and more caught up in their electronic devices and less and less interested in reading books or having conversations, but not just in Auburn.”
When it came to my generation’s mosquito attention span Tatum said, “...honestly, what I heard so often from customers was that they just didn’t have time to read for pleasure. I had a lot of customers who wanted to trade books with me, but fewer and fewer who wanted to buy books.”
So it seems, as is the case with most struggling enterprises, the challenges arose because of a confluence of factors. I brought up the total lack of parking in Auburn and rising rent as possible contributors which she agreed were issues, even for prime downtown locations, but not prohibitive.
Tatum’s stories of the earlier Gnu’s Room honestly evoked mostly feelings of envy in me, like when someone told you the party had ended merely minutes before you got there. I wanted someone to blame for the conditions that have left Auburn without the kind of bookstore that was promised by early 00’s college sitcoms.
I got the sense that Tatum felt a similar way, but that the culprit was not a pragmatic city council or another case of millennials ‘ruining’ another industry — it was something much simpler and quietly devastating.
Tatum remarked, “I really wish an independent bookstore could thrive in Auburn, but I am not sure there is an audience for it. I loved having a hand in developing a ‘literary scene’ in Auburn for as long as I could keep it going, and I miss The Gnu’s Room every single day."
The Gnu’s Room by all accounts, seems like it was as generous as its owners. But it also was something else — it was necessary, which is why even if you did not experience it, you can acutely feel its absence.
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