When I am lucky enough to travel, I always think about communities, about how each of us is defined by layers of communities. I grew up in Kenly, N.C., a town of 1,400 people in rural North Carolina, and have now lived more than half of my life in NYC where I’ve always known a writing community, first in journalism, now in poetry. The most innovative model I know for non-profits who want to make a difference in their community, literary and otherwise, is in Spartanburg, S.C. Meet Betsy Teter, executive director and editor of the Hub City Writers Project, the only independent press I know that also runs a non-profit book store.
CW: How did Hub City Press get its start?
BT: Basically three writers met each other when a new coffee shop opened in Spartanburg. We certainly had no idea that we ultimately would have seven employees, a press that has sold 100,000 books all over the country, and a non-profit independent bookshop on the town square. Our bookselling operations now help fund a successful summer writers conference, a poetry book prize, residencies, a mentor/critique program, a story-into-film film festival, college scholarships for local teens, donations of thousands of books to local schools, regular creative writing workshops and dozens of readings annually.
All of this started with the idea for one book, an anthology of authors writing personal essays about the experience of living in Spartanburg. In the beginning, back in 1995, we focused on telling the story of Spartanburg, through personal essay, natural history, art, poetry, etc. Readers in town loved that writers cared about what happened here and also that we were interested in preserving through words what was special about our community.
We reflect our community, and that’s what makes us successful. We use the assets that are here, we give back, and we are helping to define what it means to live in Spartanburg, S.C.
CW: Where does the name come from?
BT: We modeled ourselves after the Depression-era Federal Writers Project, because we were writers working to build community. The name Hub City is a throwback to when Spartanburg was a railroad hub in the late 1800s. We are working to create a literary hub now.
CW: How does Hub City work?
BT: We like to say we are a "vertically integrated" literary arts organization—developing new writers from the ground up through workshops and conferences, sometimes publishing them, and then selling their books. Last year, a local writer who we first met at one of our summer writers’ conferences brought us $50,000 from sales of her novel, which we published at Hub City Press and sell in the bookstore. That success is creating opportunities for a lot of other writers.
We are a 501c3 non-profit and we have tremendous financial support from our home community, even now that our publishing focus is more regional and national. A healthy bank account feeds creativity and energy, so we just kept growing and expanding, pulling more writers and readers in.
We also have a great team here and a whole slew of loyal volunteers. They are proofreading, lugging books around, running the cash register, serving wine at events, Christmas wrapping—we couldn’t do it without them.
CW: Aren't you the only independent press in the nation with a bookstore? Since Spartanburg was struggling economically, why did you open the bookshop in 2010?
BT: First of all, we needed a place to sell the books we were publishing. The long-time independent store in the suburbs had closed a few years earlier, and we weren’t going to last long selling books at hardware stores and art galleries. And finally, Spartanburg needed a gathering place like this right downtown. As a non-profit, we were able to raise $300,000 to renovate the street level of the old Masonic Temple for our store and offices, as well for two tenants—Little River Coffee Bar and Cakehead Bakery. We’ve created a remarkably successful gathering place now with literary, art and music events at least 10 times a month.
CW: Not so many people would think piedmont South Carolina as a literary incubator.
BT: Well, this little Southern town has many of the essential ingredients. For instance, we have three colleges with creative writing departments, including an MFA program, so there are a lot of writers here, and a lot passing through. We have a board full of great writers and editors, including C. Michael Curtis, who has been editing fiction for The Atlantic for fifty years.
CW: Surely you are suffering from the wholesale slaughter of the physical book culture by tablets and downloads?
We’ve only been in the bookstore business for two years, so we never knew what it was like in its heyday. All we know is we have a great gathering space for touring authors to come read, for writers to hang out together, and, yes, to be a showroom for great literature. We’re a non-profit organization! If all we do is lead people to wonderful books and build community, we have done our job. I’ve been publishing books for 17 years now, and it doesn’t get any better than coming to work every morning surrounded by 5,000 new and classic works of literature.
On the publishing side, just about everything we release comes out as an e-book now. And seeing those statements from Kindle and BN.com at the end of the month is like looking at magic money to me.
CW: Is poetry as popular as the pimento cheese biscuits in the bakery?
BT: Depends on whom you ask. Our traditional niche has been publishing poetry with a strong sense of place, and most of those poets have been from the Carolinas. But we are finally broadening our scope and have just introduced the New Southern Voices Poetry Book Prize, which is open to poets of all kinds in 13 Southern states and will be judged by D.A. Powell, who is a native of Georgia. It’s a first- or second-book contest, and the deadline is coming up April 1. www.hubcity.org/prize.
CW: What’s next?
BT: A residency program, starting this summer, in a wonderful little bungalow on the edge of downtown called the Writers House. This is a new life for a residency program that had once been run by a sister arts program, HUB-BUB, and which brought us some terrific poets over the years. Two of them are still here in Spartanburg, working for Hub City and teaching adjunct at local colleges. If you’re a poet (or fiction/nonfiction writer) who has had a graduate degree in creative writing in the past five years, apply at www.hubcity.org/residencies.