Magic City Books brings a third place to downtown
“It’s not that I’m obsessed with books,” said Jeff Martin, founder of Booksmart Tulsa and president of Tulsa Literary Coalition. “I’m obsessed with ideas and stories. As far as I know, the best place to get these is books.”
In the intimate bays of Magic City Books on the corner of East Archer Street and North Detroit Avenue, a simple “Did you ever read that one?” starts a thread of memories and opinions, pleasures and ideas among the patrons packed almost as close as the volumes on the no-fuss wooden shelves.
Folks encounter their neighbors here, comparing finds as light streams through the floor-to-ceiling windows. A few sit with coffee, brewed in-house, in the shop’s Wes Anderson-esque Algonquin Room, backed by a green velvet curtain and surrounded by whimsical wallpaper and dark wood paneling. Some clutch an unpurchased book close to their chest—perhaps “the one.”
Magic City opened just days before Thanksgiving on November 20. In the days following—during the most consumerist weekend of the year—hundreds of Tulsans visited and engaged in something that looked more like discovering than shopping.
“I think people have this craving for interpersonal dialogue, getting off their phone and meeting face to face, talking about something that matters,” said Jeff Martin, founder of Booksmart Tulsa and president of the Tulsa Literary Coalition (TLC), the non-profit umbrella under which Magic City Books operates.
Martin has been running Booksmart since 2009, putting on more than 400 author events in partnership with local venues and businesses. In 2015, he found himself in a serendipitous collective of people, places, and visions, taking new steps for the community of readers he’d helped cultivate.
“Steve’s Sundry closed in 2013. That was the last independent bookstore in Tulsa that sold new books,” Martin said. “That was where the idea was born, but I didn’t know what to do with it. In early 2015 I had the idea to do a bookstore, and I asked Cindy Hulsey, who had been at the Tulsa City-County Library for nearly 20 years, to come run this thing. I’ll give her all the credit in the world for saying yes. We met in a bookstore years ago, and I knew that a dream of hers was to have one.
“We put together the TLC, and around then the George Kaiser Family Foundation said, ‘We have this building, the Archer Building—would you ever want to do something here?’ Those two things colliding seemed too perfect.”
The name of the shop is a nod to Tulsa’s boomtown years, when oil barons supercharged the city’s cultural life. But the model is very 2017. Magic City Books blends retail with a non-profit community-building mission.
“The bookstore is the retail arm of the nonprofit, like how a gift shop works at a museum,” Martin said. “If we have a revenue stream, it’s not that we won’t have to fundraise, but it gives us a base. I think that’s a model we’ll be seeing more of. Using retail to help push your mission.”
And the mission? Martin calls it “intellectual fellowship.”
“Books create conversations,” said LeeAnna Weaver, the store’s buyer and TLC’s program director, who hand-picked nearly every book on the shelves, taking into consideration thoughts from the staff and the community. “They’re a way to find a bridge with someone that you might not otherwise relate to.
Patrons shouldn’t expect a Barnes & Noble. The shop is small, the selections diverse and surprising. In one fiction aisle, a Sam Shephard novel sits alongside Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” and a book by Sri Lankan-American author SJ Sindu. There’s nature writing and history, memoirs and graphic novels.
“If you’re looking for a book about how to put a new roof on your house, this is not the place,” Martin said. “This is a place for books you read, not for books you look at. We’re not going to have tons of $80 coffee table books about Robert Rauschenberg.”
For Hulsey, now TLC’s executive director, moving from the wide array of library activities to a narrower focus on books and literature has been exciting.
“There’s no better way to achieve our mission of using books and reading as a catalyst for reflection, exploration, and connection than with an independent bookstore,” she said.
Several people involved with Magic City describe it as a “third place,” a term coined by sociologist Ray Oldenburg to describe a place you go that’s not your house and not your office—an important anchor in a healthy community. Think barber shops and diners, accessible places where there are regulars and new faces, encouraging loose, creative, unpretentious interaction.
“Next to home and the workplace,” Hulsey said, “the store functions as a safe haven that contains the entire world of ideas and experiences between the pages of books.”
Part of intellectual fellowship, Martin explained, is simply bringing people together.
“If you can’t afford a new hardcover book, this place is still your place. Come to an event. Come talk. We’ve got Wi-Fi. Be part of the culture here. I want this place to be fun and for everybody.”
Magic City Books will continue to put on author events at the shop and other venues through Booksmart Tulsa, now also under TLC, as well as help organize book clubs.
“One of our first initiatives,” Hulsey said, “is to offer five monthly book groups and to provide a meeting place, as well as services, for book clubs that already exist in Tulsa. We also plan to provide books and facilitate discussions with groups that may not have had the opportunity to participate in a book club before.”
Martin is tossing around other ideas, like a subscription service—someone at the shop would pick a book and send it to the recipient once a month (perfect for a gift or for surprising yourself with new reads).
There are longer-term dreams, too.
“Around 2020-ish I want to have a book festival in the Tulsa Arts District, modeled after ones in Austin and Nashville. Say Guthrie Green is our hub, and we utilize these great venues for headliners and local authors. Maybe 50 authors over a weekend, set up like a music festival.”
It’s a vision of a city where literary culture is just another part of daily life.
“The story of Magic City is representative of what is happening in Tulsa now: people with a dream of making this city better finding the way to realize that dream,” said Mayor G. T. Bynum, who cut the ribbon on the store’s opening day. “It comes down to people who could live and work anywhere in the world realizing Tulsa is the place where they can make their dream a reality.”
“I don’t think a bookstore is any more important than art, music, or film, but I think it’s equally important,” Martin said. “I think you have to have all those things to have 360 degrees of cultural life. I want to check that box for the city a little bit.”
The store will celebrate its opening with a series of author events around the city Dec. 6–10, including an exploration of “Why Bob Dylan Matters,” a discussion with Smitten Kitchen’s Deb Perelman, a MUSED. poetry night, a chat with Michael Wallis on the Donner Party, and a presentation by children’s author Jeff Ruby. For information on upcoming events, visit magiccitybooks.com