A lot has changed since Frank Reiss opened A Cappella Books in 1989. The shop’s first location on Euclid Avenue in Little Five Points was alarmingly small—it was more of a narrow hallway, lined with shelves of used and out of print books. In fact, it’s now the entryway to Thai 5 & Sushi Bar.
While so many other local institutions have faced the chopping block, Atlanta’s only in-town, full-service bookstore—which has survived both the internet and several moves—happily celebrates 30 years with a benefit concert starring Cabbagetown native Cat Power on Dec. 16. Additionally, a curated a list of 30 essential reads that have shaped the store, its employees, or just have that “A Cappella feeling” is now available.
“When we first opened there was no internet, Amazon, or Barnes & Noble in Atlanta,” Reiss says. “The Atlanta book world was dominated by Oxford Books in Buckhead. Our store was very much a part of the Little Five Points culture, which has changed.”
The once elusive used and out of print books are now able to be ordered with the click of a button. And the neighborhood that once was ruled by a Bohemian and alternative aesthetic became more saturated.
“I don’t know that Little Five Points stands out in Atlanta as much as it used to,” he says. “When we first opened, we mostly carried books that reflected the alternative nature of the neighborhood. It wasn’t a quick or smooth transition, but that was the big change—the internet forcing us to move in a new direction to serve Atlanta book lovers in a way that we could serve.”
A Cappella moved around Little Five Points a handful of times, slowly establishing itself as the go-to shop of the neighborhood throughout the ‘90s and early 2000’s before moving to Inman Park in 2012. Originally inhabited by local record label Dust-to-Digital, Reiss rented the space for a few years before inking the papers to call it his own last year.
Reiss says A Cappella is in a good place now, partly because the tight-knit staff has always remained small—people who prefer the feel of crisp pages and the smell of old book spines in the morning over corporate life. But beyond the loyal staff, the bookshop offers local events for the community.
“When we started in the direction of doing more events, which was 15 or more years ago, they weren’t immediately successful,” Reiss says. “But I could see that occasionally some of them would be successful. I thought if we could match this success and keep going for these types of partnerships in the community, then we could keep it together.”
Cementing high-profile events at places like the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library helped create relationships with publishers. This allowed A Cappella to host additional book and author events for Atlanta, like Rachel Maddow, in which more than 3,600 people showed up to hear her speak on her book Blowout at Fox Theatre in October.
“[Publishers] knew they had someone in Atlanta that could put on major events with authors successfully,” Reiss says. “It was taking the time to establish ourselves with the [Atlanta] community and the publishing industry.”
Although the digital era changed the way neighborhood bookstores operate, the end of brick-and-mortar shops is far from near. In Reiss’ opinion, bookshops are making a comeback and Atlanta could actually use more of them.
“There used to be room for a lot of neighborhood bookstores, then things changed, but I think they are changing back and there is plenty of room for bookstores all over Atlanta,” he says. “A lot of bookstores are more cooperative, not competitive.”
Over the years, Reiss has witnessed the ebb and flow of Atlanta, the book industry, and his own store. He still remembers the first three customers that stepped foot in his shop—one of which is still a customer today—and the way each novel he’s read has shaped his life.
“I would say the book that speaks to what excites me is The Nashville Sound by Paul Hemphill (1970),” he says. “His book has probably had the biggest impact on me as a lover of books and as an Atlanta bookseller.”
A Cappella Books is at 208 Haralson Avenue NE (corner of DeKalb Avenue) in Inman Park. For more information, visit acappellabooks.com.