by Francie Klopotic
It’s a hot summer night in 1993, and it’s one o’clock in the morning. I am a 27 year old in Decatur, a suburb on the eastern edge of Atlanta, and I need a reading fix.
Keys in hand, I jump in the car and drive to Buckhead. The radio is tuned to 99X. The station feeds me “How Soon Is Now?” from The Smiths.
Interstate traffic is light on this Saturday night as I wind my way up I-85 and take the Piedmont exit. My destination? That miraculous and awe-inspiring spaceship-shaped bookstore, a beacon of intellectual light perched on the edge of Pharr Road.
She is my favorite professor, my companion in the darkest of times, my trusted confidante. As long as I can make it there by closing time at 2:00 AM, I’ll be fine.
Parking is scarce, even at this hour. I pull into the driveway and find a space behind the building. I kill the engine. Music pours from a building nearby. I walk around to the main entrance, my feet keeping time with the beat.
The glass door opens with a gentle tug, and I make my way past rows of bookshelves that greet me in the entryway. Folks lean in to browse new titles. A soft scent of paper and bookbinding fills the air. The interior lighting is just right, not too dim and not too bright. The sound of pages turning under a blanket of soft jazz lulls me into a meditative state.
I have entered the temple of Oxford Books, Atlanta’s sanctuary of the written word. There is no store in the whole of the city more sacred to me than this. Like others who are drawn into her literary cathedral, I find myself a devotee.
High ceilings in this former car dealership give the building a church-like feel. The cashier counter sits in the middle of the store like an oversized pulpit. Employees in blue vests engage a throng of shoppers in light banter. The soft sound of happy voices makes sweet music. It is the Oxford choir.
I look at the customers. A greasy-haired teen in flannel shirt sits on the floor reading Kerouac. There are others like us in this congregation of book lovers, young GenXers in ripped jeans and combat boots scattered amidst the throngs of beatniks and hippies, academics and scholars. We have come together to worship at the altar of knowledge and inspiration housed within the southeast’s largest indie bookstore.
The massive staircase to the round-as-a-doughnut top floor tempts me with its vast selection of metaphysics, philosophy, and mythology books. Normally I’d hit the upstairs first to scour the titles for a Nietzsche or a Campbell, but my holy place on this pilgrimage is the newsstand on the ground floor. This is my Mecca and it holds a huge variety of publications. Glossy covers draw me in as I approach the rows of magazine racks that seem a mile long. One section of publications flows seamlessly into the next. From poetry chapbooks to soft-core porn, there is something for every taste and predilection. Anything and everything a person can imagine sits waiting to be discovered in these tightly packed racks.
Arts, literature, and poetry draw me in like a siren’s call, and right here on the bottom rack of the shelf nearest the window is where I first met Utne Reader.
It’s a new month, which means there’s a new issue. Dressed in cover art worthy of the Utne name, this “best of the alternative press” has become something akin to forbidden fruit, opening both my eyes and my mind to thoughts, philosophies, and politics that lie to the left of age-old Southern traditions.
They are the same age-old traditions in which I was raised.
Here in these pages I learn what people in New York are thinking, what people in Los Angeles are doing, and what people in Chicago are making.
Every new issue excites me to the core and stretches my imagination. I envision what it must be like to live, work, and play in such a huge city. These thoughts, however, draw me back to the city in which I find myself.
Atlanta, “a city too busy to hate,” a city on the brink of greatness, is adjusting well to her status as the Big Apple of the New South. She is growing up, expanding, welcoming. She knows all too well her complicated past and has chosen to set her sights toward a future filled with hope.
Each and every month, Utne Reader helps me do the same. The magazine is there as a comforting ally, taking me by the hand and easing my innocent-to-the-ways-of-the-world mind into a wider and all-encompassing perspective.
Letters to the editor are always the first bits I consume. The letters remind me that I’m not the only one in the world with an insatiable appetite for culture. I feel less alone. The letters provide something of a subversive edge to the magazine and this excites me. Utne is also my go-to for book reviews. It is within these pages that I first discovered “Pigs in Heaven” by my new favorite writer, Barbara Kingsolver.
I grab an unread issue from the back of the stack and head to the register.
The cashier takes my copy of Utne and smiles. She offers me a knowing grin and rings up my purchase. Under the soulful sounds of John Coltrane that emanate from unseen speakers, she slips the magazine into a bag and hands it to me.
I take my treasure and exit the assembly. The door opens to oppressive heat. The humidity hasn’t let up since I entered the store. I walk into a wall of wet air and plow through it toward the parking lot.
Once seated in my car, I set my Utne on the passenger seat and turn the key in my old Chevy. The stereo awakens in time for Robert Smith of The Cure to ask his fervent question: “Why can’t I be you?”
Francie Klopotic is a visual artist and a writer. A native of Atlanta, Georgia, she lives with one foot in the mundane and the other in the mystical. Francie has been creating stories for most of her life, weaving tales that blend aspects of the arcane with personal experience and dreamy flights of fancy. She currently lives in Augusta and spends her time between Atlanta and Savannah, sharing her life with her husband and their two cats.