At any given meeting of the Clara Craven Book Club in Garner, a member might speak up and say, “I have a word!” It could be a new or unusual term in the latest book that the group has been reading. It might be an unfamiliar word that someone spotted on the side of a truck or heard on the radio.
At a recent gathering, the word offered by former second-grade teacher Jean Tunstall was tsundoku, a Japanese term that means “to stack up lots of books that you are going to read in the future.” The group howled. The word was perfect.
This distinguished book club, which has been meeting monthly since 1945, has always been an assembly of very bright women who are fiercely dedicated to literacy, literature, and lifelong learning. The 12 current members — like their mothers and grandmothers before them — are always finding new books to share. Their tastes range from historical novels to memoirs to science fiction. Caring for one another and seeing each other through the challenges of aging, accidents, and loss have become the bedrock of their long and sturdy friendships.
Club Historian Kathy Blue holds some of her favorite books that the group has read since it was founded by her grandmother Katie Corbett in 1945. photograph by Anna Routh Barzin
Kathy Blue’s grandma, Katie Corbett. Photography courtesy of Kathy Blue
The late Katie Corbett — a brilliant woman who confidently tackled the New York Times crossword puzzle with a pen every Sunday — founded the group just as World War II was coming to an end. Now, her granddaughter Kathy Blue, a retired biostatistician, is the club historian. Blue has attended meetings since she was a grade-school interloper in knee socks. “Back at the beginning,” she says, “Garner was still a small farming and railroad town, and women were hungry for more cultural activities.”
The club’s namesake, Clara Craven, the beloved widow of a local Methodist pastor, served as the glue in the early years. The group’s reading and book-swapping were shaped around such broad themes as current events, gardening, and North Carolina authors. The discussion topics deepened as their curiosity grew, and the women tackled modern art, foreign travel, contemporary architecture, and classics like Wuthering Heights.
Jane Sullivan, who once had Blue as her algebra student, now handles the book choices and encourages each member to lead one discussion per year.
Limiting the group to a dozen members enhances the intimacy. “With too many people, you can’t really sit down and hash out a book,” Blue says. “We tend to be quite verbal.”
“With our club being made up of so many former teachers, I was nervous at first,” says Martha Tippett, the current president and a relative newcomer, “but it’s a no-judgment zone. If you don’t finish the book, that’s OK. You won’t get demerits.”
Jean Tunstall, who retired from the second-grade classroom and now volunteers in a literacy program for adults, affirms the power of the club. “We have seen a whole lot of life together over the years,” she says. “The club has been important enough that we make it work, no matter what.” — Georgann Eubanks
The Mitford Museum, housed in the historic Hudson school building, gives visitors a personal look at the life of author Jan Karon, from childhood through the creation of her 14-novel Mitford series. photograph by Revival Creatives
The Mitford Museum — Hudson
The hallway outside Jan Karon’s first-grade classroom tells the story — in her own words and pictures — of how a little girl who loved drawing and writing became one of the best-selling novelists in the world.
The Mitford Museum — housed in the historic Hudson school building, where Karon attended elementary school while living with her grandparents from 1941 to 1949 — weaves its tales with the same homespun tone that’s made her 14-novel Mitford series enduringly popular.
Author Jan Karon lived with her grandparents in Hudson in the ’40s. photograph by CANDACE FREELAND
Take the family’s battle with a giant chicken hawk, recalled with startling detail in Karon’s grandmother Fannie Cloer’s handwriting. With true mountain fortitude, Cloer fought and defeated the creature, posing for a photo (taken by 8-year-old Karon after she helped wire the bird’s head back on) to show the predator’s wingspan. Cloer’s well-loved biscuit pan in a frame nearby is yet another nod to a pivotal figure in the author’s life.
Writers seeking inspiration don’t have to look far in this homage to the written word. A peek inside Karon’s open desk drawer reveals a bow-tied manuscript of These High, Green Hills (1996), the desktop littered with hand-corrected pages.
After leaving a successful career in advertising, Karon moved to Blowing Rock at age 50 to write. In her first novel, At Home in Mitford (1994), she brought to life an unlikely set of characters: middle-aged bachelor and Episcopal priest Father Tim, his overexuberant dog Barnabas, a mountain boy named Dooley, and an entire cast of locals. “She creates a community that the reader feels pulled into,” says museum director Sarah Thomas.
As Karon, now 85, puts it, “The museum is my book without covers.” — Amy Bonesteel
Locals and Mars Hill University students flock to Camden’s Coffee House to read and chat over inventive coffee drinks like the Log Cabin Latte. photograph by Tim Robison
Camden’s Coffee House — Mars Hill
A regular walks into Camden’s Coffee House, greeted by the smell of coffee grounds and the sight of familiar faces. He digs into his wallet for his “library card” — the shop’s rewards card — to get credit for his drink, and heads straight to his usual spot to grab his treasure, a copy of The Scarlet Pimpernel, from a hiding place near the shop’s bookshelves. Owner Dave Bohager’s wife, Shari, is an avid reader who lent her book collection to fill the walls of the shop when it opened in 2018. Camden’s nearly 500-title collection has grown through local donations and includes a kids’ section with tales once adored by Dave and Shari’s children, now grown. “I was finding little drawings that I made [as a child] when I was going through them a couple of weeks ago,” says co-owner Alex Bohager, Dave and Shari’s daughter. Originally called The Library Coffee House, the shop was renamed in honor of its former manager and owner Camden, the Bohagers’ son, who died in 2020. Now it’s a cozy spot for anyone passing through town to stop for a hot drink and warm welcome. — Katie Kane
Crouching to a low shelf, Leigh Thomas pulls out a canvas bag and unzips it, revealing a sewing machine and bobbins. Along with books and games, this “Lifelong Learning Kit” is available for checkout as part of the Library of Things at the New Hanover County Public Library.
“People want to learn a skill, but they may not have all the money up front to invest in something — sewing machines get pretty pricey,” says Thomas, who manages the library’s Northeast Branch. “This gives people a chance to try out things.”
The kits help patrons explore activities from music to science to business. A scan of their library card loans them an item they can learn by doing: a ukulele, a telescope, a weaving loom, binoculars. There are kits to learn CPR, play bocce ball, start a business, and help provide children with social and emotional support amid grief, poverty, or homelessness.
As any resourceful librarian would do, Thomas borrowed the idea. For years, libraries have been expanding the scope of their services beyond lending books, and she saw an opportunity for hands-on learning in easy-to-carry bags and boxes. As soon as the first kits showed up on the shelves, other county departments jumped in with materials for conserving soil and water, exploring the area’s parks, and learning about pollinators. The library’s four branches now have more than 20 kits, with new ones on the way.
“Libraries are ever-evolving,” Thomas says. “A lot of people still think of us as repositories for books, and that is a huge part of what we do. But we’re really more community learning hubs.” — Tim Bass
Diarra Leggett, aka Crckt, sells used books from his mobile shop during special events at Revolution Mill and at farmers markets around Greensboro. photograph by Joey Seawell
Boomerang Bookshop — Greensboro
Abus, light gray with bold black lettering and a painting of a nomadic child holding a boomerang, brings a trove of literature to shoppers at Deep Roots Market and The Corner Farmers Market in Greensboro. Owner Diarra Leggett, known as Crckt (pronounced Cricket) explains that the shop’s name refers to the fact that most of Boomerang’s books are used, so “they’re coming back around.”
Diarra Leggett, aka Crckt. photograph by Joey Seawell
On pleasant days, Leggett showcases paperbacks on a table outside the bus. Inside, decoupaged pages of old books line the walls, and floor-to-ceiling shelves contain a wide array of genres, including anthologies, North Carolina histories, and musicians’ memoirs.
Leggett started Boomerang in 2017 after finding the bus online. He dreams of owning a brick-and-mortar bookstore one day, but for now, he says, “it’s fun to tool around in this thing.” Until then, the bus and its warm, eclectic atmosphere make bibliophiles feel right at home. — Tracie Fellers
When Gilly Lodge of Roanoke Island shows up unannounced on elderly Blythe Harding Lodge’s doorstep in Cape Cod, several tales unfold, not only of the blooming relationship between the two women, but also of Blythe’s painful memories of Gil Lodge, the man who binds them — the man with two families.
Author Angel Khoury draws on her intimate knowledge of the Outer Banks in her novel Between Tides (Dzanc Books, 2021), based on a true story. photograph by Matt Hulsman
Between Tides is a work of historical fiction loosely based on the story of a real U.S. Life-Saving Service station keeper who drifted away from one wife in Cape Cod to a much younger second wife on the Outer Banks. Roanoke Island author Angel Khoury came upon the true story while researching her book Manteo: A Roanoke Island Town more than 20 years ago. She befriended the man’s daughter, who gave Khoury permission to write her family’s story and even gave her the title, based on a 1930s newspaper article about the man who “disappeared between tides.”
Flowing between the late 1800s and the 1940s, the book’s nonlinear timeline and dual settings allow the reader to piece together, through Blythe’s perspective, why Gil Lodge left Cape Cod. As intriguing as this story is, it overlays something just as compelling: Khoury’s singularly poetic prose, which lends a dreamlike quality and enveloping lyrical rhythm, combined with her spectacular attention to detail and gift for description and metaphor. She depicts the Outer Banks and Cape Cod as only a deeply observant insider can, viscerally immersing readers in the feeling of life in, on, and around the sea. — Molly Harrison
Artist Leslie Marsh creates handmade metal books that can be worn as a necklace. photograph by Leslie Marsh
Leslie Marsh, Book Artist — Topsail Beach
With a torch and solder in hand, Leslie Marsh suits up in an army green apron and starts melting metal. Like a blacksmith, she turns ordinary sheets of brass into functional art — in this case, wearable books, some no larger than a penny. “I’ve always loved to read,” she says. “Books spark my imagination, and there’s nothing I like more than making something that is beautiful and functional.”
Marsh started creating book necklaces as a hobby in 2009. In her home studio in Topsail Beach, tiny books hang on leather laces and vintage metal chains, the covers decorated with antique photographs, postcards, and vintage finds that she’s been collecting for more than 15 years. The self-taught artist uses Coptic stitching, a centuries-old bookbinding technique that makes the pages open fully and lie flat. In her wearable book workshops online, Marsh teaches students the same attention to detail that makes her creations stand out. While the customizable covers are often embellished with vintage settings, she says, “some of the pages are left blank for the owner to fill with their story.” — Tamiya Anderson
Don’t you love the excitement of getting a new book? This year, Charlotte-based nonprofit North Carolina Humanities shared that sense of anticipation when it sent more than 3,200 books to groups and individuals as part of a new statewide book club, North Carolina Reads. Along with the book kits, which include discussion questions, bookmarks, and other goodies, the program hosts monthly panel events, open to the public, that feature the book’s author and an expert on the subject matter. In conjunction with this month’s book, Wiley Cash’s historical-fiction novel The Last Ballad, North Carolina Reads will host a virtual panel on March 30 about the labor movement in early 20th-century America. — Anna Grace Thrailkill
OS: What was the inspiration behind starting a statewide book club?
Sherry Paula: Our main goal is to connect people — and I deeply believe in the power of books, so that is in the heart and soul of what we do: helping people build a bridge to see different perspectives. We need books to do this! We need to explore new aspects of our communities; and once you read a book, a whole new world presents itself, and then others can share their discoveries, as well. I love the mutual sharing that book clubs inspire.
Melissa: In addition to connecting readers with one another, we wanted to connect them with writers and experts who are knowledgeable about the books we’re reading. For instance, our March discussion is all about The Last Ballad and will feature author Wiley Cash and Dr. David Zonderman, a history professor at NC State University. Our discussion in April is about Even As We Breathe, and will feature the author of that book, Annette Saunooke Clapsaddle, and Dr. Trey Adcock, a professor at UNC Asheville.
OS: What else are y’all reading?
Melissa: We specifically focused our book selections on North Carolina stories where the place or setting of the state is featured, as well as North Carolina authors. The books go back through multiple eras — from the prohibition era with Driving with the Devil, to the tie-in of North Carolina’s labor movement in The Last Ballad, to the time of World War II in Even As We Breathe, and to the civil rights era with Pauli Murray: A Personal and Political Life.
OS: Can you speak to the power of empathy and how books cultivate that feeling?
Sherry Paula: The power of books is that they are such an integral resource to get into another pair of shoes. It’s what stops us from chasing an argument and leads us into a conduit to a conversation — to understand and to know a different perspective.
Melanie: Reading has played such a huge role in how I view being a good neighbor, friend, and citizen. It not only improves us individually, but also as a whole. Especially after these past two years of being isolated, it’s important to think about how vital connection is — just being able to relate to another person and have some kindness can make such a difference. That’s really at the heart of everything we do at North Carolina Humanities.
OS: Which book are you most excited to read?
Sherry Paula: I’m excited to explore all of these books and topics, but I’m very interested in The Last Ballad because it’s about labor rights, and my family is from a mill town; the book reminds me of the hard work of my grandfather. The other one that I’m really excited about is Driving with the Devil — again, for a very personal reason: I’m from Darlington County where NASCAR started, and there were a lot of stock car races where I grew up!
Melanie: I’m looking forward to reading Pauli Murray: A Personal and Political Life. I really like biographies, so I’m interested to learn about her story. She did so much for North Carolinians, so for her to have more of a spotlight in our program is wonderful.
Melissa: I really like Even as We Breathe. It’s set in World War II and takes place around the Grove Park Inn. It contains an important story, and the characters seem so real. I’m also excited about Driving with the Devil! I learned so much from that book — my father loves NASCAR and my husband does, too, so I had a special connection to that one.
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