INtown at 20: Remembering Oxford Books

Gabrielle Smith's collection of Oxford Books mugs.

Gabrielle Smith’s collection of Oxford Books mugs.

By Collin Kelley and Annie Kinnett Nichols

Atlanta natives and longtime residents still mourn the loss of their favorite retail spots: great department stores like Rich’s and Davison’s, buying vinyl records at Peaches or finding a great old film at Movies Worth Seeing. But for literature lovers, the one that truly got away is Oxford Books.

Opened in 1970 by Rupert LeCraw in Peachtree Battle Shopping Center, Oxford instantly became a mecca for readers. Upstairs was the city’s first real coffee house – The Cup and Chaucer – where you could have a pastry with your cup of joe while reading a book or newspaper.

Oxford would expand to include a massive second location on Pharr Road, a used bookstore called Oxford, Too, Oxford Comics and short-lived locations on West Paces Ferry and in Sandy Springs.

The Pharr Road store in Buckhead (where Allure apartments are now located) became the flagship Oxford in 1992. Housed in a former Mercedes Benz dealership built in 1966 by Bruce Goff, the modern, space-agey feel of the two-story circular buildings was like no other  in the city. Along with the miles of books, the Oxford on Pharr also had one of the largest magazine selections – from UK music monthlies, to underground literary zines to international newspapers. The store’s video rental section was a go-to for foreign film fans.

The Pharr Road location of Oxford was a former Mercedes dealership. The site is now the Allure apartment complex.

The Pharr Road location of Oxford was a former Mercedes dealership. The site is now the Allure apartment complex.

For many years, Oxford had the distinction of being the largest independent bookstore in the southeast. The stores attracted some of the biggest authors of the time for book signings. Since it was open 365 days a year, you could wander in after Thanksgiving dinner or spend your holiday cash on Christmas day.

Oxford closed its doors in 1997, killed by a combination of a poorly set up loan, unsuccessful expansions and the onslaught of chain bookstores. Seventeen years later, bookstores in general teeter on the brink because of the rise of Amazon, big box retailers slashing prices and the popularity of eBooks.

Former employee Gabrielle Smith has set up a Facebook page for Oxford, which contains pages of memories from former employees and shoppers as well as photos.

Chris Morris and Gabrielle Smith at the Pharr Road location.

Chris Morris and Gabrielle Smith at the Pharr Road location.

Jennifer Eve Bonder worked at the Peachtree Battle store and recalls chasing actor Kevin Kline around the store and bumping into Elton John, who was wearing a trench coat in July.

Oxford was a favorite stop for novelist Anne Rice, who would arrive for signings in a hearse or dressed as Cleopatra. INtown’s historian Ann Boutwell remembers meeting late Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist Lewis Grizzard at the Peachtree Battle store when he was signing Don’t Bend Over in the Garden, Granny, You Know Them Taters Got Eyes.

Dan Goldgeir, a writer at AdPulp.com, said he spent hours in The Cup and Chaucer working on ads and doing research, while insurance underwriter Jack Hammond misses “the different levels on Pharr and the groovy ‘60s architecture vibe.”

Donna Bowling, COO at MindPower, said each store had its own special characteristics. “At Peachtree Battle, there was the aroma of coffee brewing, spiral staircases and library ladders. At Pharr, there was the octagonal-shaped buildings and the dueling smells of old, musty books versus freshly printed publications. Ahhh…the memories!”

Writer and artist Alicia Griswold worked at Oxford, Too, which had used books and magazines from floor to ceiling. “I worked in Oxford, Too from its opening and for a bout a year after saving for grad school,” Griswold said. “I remember the long literature test we had to take to get hired. It made the GRE look like a Cosmo quiz.” The Oxford, Too building is now home to Peachtree Battle Antiques and Interiors.

Oxford also employed some notable folks you might have heard of, including radio deejay Melissa Carter, noted artist Kara Walker and Bobby Mort, who recently won an Emmy for his writing on The Colbert Report. Many future Atlanta authors visited Oxford and dreamed of writing their own books

David Johnson checks out the stock at the Pharr Road location of Oxford Books.

David Johnson checks out the stock at the Pharr Road location of Oxford Books.

Crime author Grant Jerkins (A Very Simple Crime and the forthcoming Done in One with Jan Thomas) vividly remembers Thom Wolfe’s singing for A Man In Full at the Pharr store. “Not only was that his follow-up to Bonfire of the Vanities, but it was also set in Atlanta—so there was a massive crowd,” he said. “They had him up on this makeshift elevated stage, complete in his sparkling white ice cream suit. When you finally got to the head of the line, there was no interaction with Mr. Wolfe. He was several yards away, just sort of looking down at you, and an intermediary would take your book up to him to have it signed.”

Jerkins said Oxford, Too was his favorite store. “I would spend the entire day rambling around that place. It was rickety and creaky and sprawling. They also had a store-within-the-store just for book collectors. It was run by a guy named Grover and his assistant, Alek. That was my first exposure to the world of signed copies, Brodart dust jacket protectors, ephemera, first editions, and limited editions. I’ve been a collector ever since.”

Jerkins also met legendary sci-fi author Ray Bradbury at Oxford, Too in 1996. “Not only did I shake his hand and chat with him, I went through the signing line three times (at his suggestion), and got my entire Bradbury collection autographed.”

And while Oxford is no more, one vestige survives: Oxford Comics at 2855 Piedmont Road. Originally part of the Pharr Road store, the comics and games purveyor continues to carry on the legacy and stir up fond memories of what many Atlantans remember as the best book store ever.

For more memories and photos, check out the facebook.com/groups/OxfordBooksAtlanta.

One Response to INtown at 20: Remembering Oxford Books

  1. Gabrielle Smith

    November 1, 2014 at 10:31 am

    Thanks for the nice writeup, Collin and Annie! I meant to write to you and tell you my favorite memory, but I kept forgetting. I managed the cookbook section (amongst others) at Pharr, have a huge collection myself, many of which I purchased there with my employee discount, and one day Julia Child dropped by to sign our stock of her books! I had watched her on public television growing up in the ’60s and was a huge fan, so to have her in MY section, wandering through the shelves and talking with me about new cookbooks and fancy chefs who create unappetizing food was like a crazy dream! I made sure I bought every one of her books we had in stock, and she signed them all for me. Best day ever for a foodie.

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