This is no exaggeration — one of the best bookstores between Washington, D.C., and Houston, Texas, occupies an unassuming downtown Pensacola storefront. I owe my friend Franklin Daugherty a debt of gratitude for recently introducing me to this slightly scruffy literary haven, packed with more good, serious, used books than any other place I’ve been to in a long time.
The proprietor, Paul Williams, is a widely-read, friendly young man with a passion for what he’s doing. In a recent interview, he was relaxed and attired in jeans and a T-shirt. A native Pensacolan, he grew up with a single mother in a blue-collar neighborhood. Despite the poverty, reading was part of his childhood. He described memories of his mother lying on a bed “heaped with books.”Subterranean Books is located at 9 East Gregory St., just around the corner from several restaurants and bars on North Palafox Street. It consists of a series of shelf-lined rooms running front to rear. The titles are grouped thematically — art, fictioliterature, gardening, history, poetry, philosophy, science fiction, women’s studies, etc. — and are very reasonably priced. At the front of the store are stacks of avant-garde publications (“zines” in popular parlance), unusual cards and a very sophisticated selection of used compact discs.
Williams told me that his path to book selling was anything but direct. Determined to become rich, he took bachelor’s and master’s degrees in accounting and went to work in Atlanta for Pricewaterhouse. “It took me about two months to realize that was a mistake,” he laughed. Thinking a smaller firm on home ground would be better, Williams returned to the coast, but knew his career was on the wrong track.
So while he kept at his ledgers by day, he amassed thousands of used books from estate sales and flea markets, intending to quit his job and open a store. “When I was opening up, I had some models in mind,” he said, referring to the better bookstores in New York and New Orleans that he had scouted. If the fancy shelves, rolling ladders, leather furniture and loft apartment that Williams fantasized about have been slow in coming, the quality of the inventory has not. Over time, he has culled the fluff, giving his collection a distinctly highbrow flavor. Though some of his titles linger on the shelves, Williams is unapologetic. “There’re books that ought to be in a bookstore,” he declared.
Readers have noticed, and Williams boasts customers from all over the country. These include vacationers, “lots of New Orleans poets” and even “some rock stars,” the latter impressed by the extent of the poetry selection. Williams revealed that after visitors sample the store and chat with him a bit, their reactions are almost always the same — an incredulous “You can’t be from here!”
Pensacola isn’t a college community like Oxford, Miss., or Athens, Ga., teeming with students and professors. “People don’t think of Pensacola as a literate town,” Williams mused, “but they’re intellectuals here. They just need something to pull them together.” Williams believes his store can help do just that and takes pride that his efforts are in his native burg. “I can’t imagine doing it anywhere else,” he said.
With six years under his belt as a bookseller, Williams admits that the local customer base is not as strong as it needs to be. “When I began, I thought I could make a living at it,” he reflected. He has managed to keep things going with the support of friends and family. On the afternoon of our interview there were a number of customers, most of whom made purchases.
The difficult economics of culture aside, Williams enjoys meeting his customers and getting to know their reading tastes. He takes special pleasure in watching his younger patrons grow intellectually. And though his own reading suffers because of the store’s demands, he said that he’s grown in ways he hadn’t expected. “A bookstore compels you to expand your interests,” he explained.
No serious reader should miss an opportunity to visit this remarkable shop and meet its affable and casually erudite owner. Subterranean Books and Paul Williams are a bibliophile’s delight.