In January I was lucky enough to win a scholarship to attend Winter Institute, which is a conference for authors, publishers, and independent booksellers. This year, Winter Institute was held in Memphis. Having never visited the South, I was excited to explore a new part of the country and also to experience the legendary Southern hospitality for myself. And I have to say, the city did not disappoint.
It seemed that everyone I encountered was infected with the same sort of casual enthusiasm, and it proved to be contagious. I stayed at hotel in the downtown area, with a room that overlooked a park. Close to legendary Beale Street, I decided that it should be my first destination. So shortly after arriving and checking in to my hotel, I made my way out onto the streets to Memphis, in search of some live music. And it didn’t take long to find it. I was drawn to the patio of a bar where a blues musician was playing his heart out. I ordered a cider, soaking in the music while I looked around at my fellow bar patrons, all of them as enraptured with his playing as I was.
Another highlight of my time in Memphis was a visit to the National Civil Rights Museum. It is located on the site of the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot from a boarding house across the street. I had heard many glowing reviews of the museum from others who had visited, but didn’t expect what I encountered. The outside of the building is almost deceptive, as I couldn’t have imagined that it would be able to fit so many exhibits inside. Beginning with slavery and continuing through the decades up to the present, it was a powerfully moving experience. I also checked out the museum across the street, which is filled with exhibits that illustrate other potential theories for MLK’s death. It was quite an interesting supplement, and one that left me thinking about his death long after having visited it.
One of the exhibits that I was drawn to was about James Meredith, who was the first African American to desegregate Ole Miss, in Oxford, Mississippi. The next day, when I went with my fellow booksellers on a day trip to Oxford, we visited the statue that commemorates him. Also while in Oxford we visited William Faulkner’s estate, on beautiful acres of land. And a trip to Oxford would not have been complete without a visit to the local independent bookstore, Square Books. They have quite an impressive selection of stock and it was a treat to browse there for a while.
Another activity that I enjoyed while in Memphis was the Big River Crossing, a pedestrian bridge that spans over the Mississippi River and connects Tennessee and Arkansas. I’m not sure why, but there was something so exciting to me to have one foot in one state and one foot in another when I discovered the state line on the bridge. After my crossing I walked along the river back to my hotel, soaking up the sunshine and breathing in the fresh air.
On my last night in Memphis I decided to locate the Peabody Hotel, an elegant, upscale hotel that is famous for a family of ducks who reside in a penthouse and every day make their march to the lobby’s fountain, where they swim there all day and then make their way back home in the evening. Unfortunately, I missed the duck march but I did look for them in their penthouse. While up there I met a delightful couple who had just arrived in Memphis, so we took turns taking photos of each other and trading stories about our travels as we enjoyed the beautiful sunset. I almost wish I had met them sooner as I would have loved to spend more time with them.
As much as I enjoyed my time in Memphis, the thing that struck me the most was how friendly people were. At first I was a little caught off guard by people’s unsolicited greetings— anyone from the policeman to the random stranger, to the man who served me my coffee every day. It was something that I quickly got used to, and definitely something that I will miss the most.