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Charleston to the Flâneur

Charleston Author Margaret Thornton explores a city she loves and the institutions that define it.

In my novel Charleston (Ecco), the main character Eliza Poinsett spends much of her time walking and biking around Charleston, sometimes with her boyfriend Henry Heyward and sometimes alone. She is in some ways aflâneuse” – if I may appropriate and feminize the term most associated with Charles Baudelaire and Walter Benjamin – a passionate spectator who strolls a city landscape. What Eliza reveals to us as she walks around Charleston is that the institutions a community preserves tells you much about who it is.

Charleston is often referred to as the Holy City, and what I didn’t realize, despite having grown up in Charleston, is just how many churches it has. Toward the end of my novel, Eliza who finds comfort in the bells of St. Michael’s, counts, as a way of distracting herself, all of the churches south of Calhoun Street – fifteen – twelve of which are south of George Street – quite a remarkable number compared to a Renaissance Catholic town of similar size. Sometimes you don’t know a place, I suppose, until you leave it.

Like Eliza I’ve spent a good bit of my life depending on libraries, first at Princeton and then later when I edited Tennessee Williams’ Notebooks at Harvard, Yale, Columbia, the University of Texas, as well as the libraries of London, the British Library and most notably the London Library. The London Library at 14 St. James Square is a remarkable place – membership is open to all and membership gives you wonderful privileges. In the pre-email era you could order a book by telephone, it would arrive in the post, and you could keep it as long as you wished. If and when another member requested it, a typed (on a typewriter!) postcard arrived in the mail, asking you politely to return the book. In doing research for a scene in my novel, I was reminded that The Charleston Library Society was founded in 1748 and is the oldest cultural institution in the South and the second oldest circulating library in America. It has played a significant role in the founding of the College of Charleston (1770), the Charleston Museum (1773) and the South Carolina Historical Society (1855). Like the London Library, its membership is open to the public and under the leadership of Anne Cleveland, it has experienced a reinvigoration of both its membership and cultural programs.

The flâneur is an urban explorer, and no urban exploration can be considered complete without interaction with a city’s inhabitants. In London the owner of the local paint shop was an intellectual who had written and lectured extensively on historical paint colors, and the booksellers at the small independent bookshop just off Sloane Square were writers and poets. In Italy the local realtor was a countess who rented villas of impoverished aristocratic families for the summer. Being a flâneur takes you to some of the shops where the owners know the city and its people perhaps even better than their goods. Located on Church Street is Carolina Antique Maps & Prints owned and run by Laura Vardell who grew up a few blocks away. Her love of Charleston is revealed in all the wonderful prints of Charleston and the surrounding areas by a wide range of artists. She has also produced a silk scarf and kitchen apron imprinted with the 1883 Courtenay map of Charleston, which can be found at the Preservation Society Shop on King Street. Across King Street and a few doors north is Andy Golden of Golden Associates who once had a pair of mother of pearl inlay dueling pistols from an old Charleston family that I still long to see again just because I know they have tales to tell. Further north on King Street is Mariana Ramsey Hay who represents the third generation at Croghan’s Jewel Box, and still further north, the writer Jonathan Sanchez owns and runs Blue Bicycle Books, a bookstore once arrived at, you may never wish to leave.

I should amend my earlier statement. Not only do the institutions a community preserves, but also and perhaps even more importantly, the ones it supports tell you much about who it is.

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