For a guy who owns a bookshop, you’d think his home would be crammed with books.
Not for Jonathan Sanchez, owner of Blue Bicycle Books on King Street. Rather, his family’s 105-year-old, two-story Hampton Park home is sleek and bright, upfitted in a comfortable, minimalist decor where light bounces on white walls to highlight a huge kitchen island and tall ceilings to die for.
Of course, there are books in the 3,000-square-foot house. A couple of hundred line two small bookshelves — one narrow and tall, one wide and squat — on the first floor of the home outfitted by wife and interior designer Lauren Sanchez. And then there are some book knick-knacks, such as a neat birdhouse made from an old book.
But the home is more about family than books. If Sanchez needs a book, he’s got more than 30,000 of them at the narrow King Street storefront that’s been around for a generation.
“I love my job,” he said one January morning. “I get to be around books. … I love my staff. I get to meet interesting people every day. And people like coming in there.”
Stumbled into the profession
Sanchez says he stumbled into being a bookseller, although the path got a good start thanks to a bachelor’s degree in English in 1995 from Yale University. (So if you want to know what someone does with an English degree, perhaps they own an independent bookshop?)
After college, the Florida native who went to high school in Charlotte got some advice from an editor at The Charlotte Observer: Start pitching his resume to some newspapers. Soon, he landed a job in 1996 as an obituary clerk at The Post and Courier. It didn’t take long before he moved to being a local reporter covering interesting stuff downtown. But after a two-week trip to Italy in late 1997, he decided to move on.
Within a year, he landed at Boomer’s Books and supplemented his income by teaching creative writing to kids. Ten years later, he bought the bookstore from the owners and renamed it. About that time, he launched YALLFest, a young adult bookfest every November that’s become a smash regional hit. In 2021, for example, it attracted more than five dozen authors and thousands of customers in the three-state area who were eager to meet writers and buy their thoughts in print.
“My whole life — the (writing) camps, the teaching, the store, the aesthetic of it — is very local to Charleston,” he said. “For me, it is very personal. I’m also interested in what makes a place unique.”
What he loves about Charleston is how the old is respected amidst the new. There are the old houses and buildings, as well as the old influences of Gullah on the local language that he has to explain to people who are new to the store. There is Charleston’s maritime and military history, both of which have a tremendous impact on what the Holy City is today.
But Charleston is changing. “The city isn’t as weird as it used to be,” Sanchez noted, pointing to the institutional loss of the Read Brothers’ store up King Street. (For newbies, one side of the store featured fabrics, buttons and just about anything to do with cloth. The other side was a polar opposite containing high-end electronic audio components, some of which were extremely hard to find anywhere in the South.)
Among the unique things in the area he recommends to people are to walk the streets south of Broad, including lower Legare Street, to see the homes and gardens. “Magnolia Cemetery is pretty awesome,” he said. “Folly Beach is still pretty cool. The people of Folly pride themselves on idiosyncrasies.”
Home is for family
While working and managing the bookstore is challenging and fun, Sanchez generally puts it aside when at home. It’s where he and his wife spend time with their children, a daughter who is 13 and a son who is 10.
In summers, they enjoy their new screened-in porch, added during the pandemic, while winters bring watching TV and eating in a huge, remodeled kitchen-den at the back of the home. Sanchez is quick to steer credit for the way the house looks and lives to his wife, who designs spaces professionally at Lauren Sanchez Designs Ltd.
“I’m very lucky to have someone who knows how to do this stuff — all of the construction, the decoration,” he said. “I’m almost just along for the ride. (But) I do the finances.”
On weekends, the family comes together to do several activities from a big breakfast followed by a bike ride to Magnolia Cemetery or across the Ravenel Bridge or along the West Ashley Greenway. Or they might take a quick trip out of town for a hike or other exploration.
But when night falls, there’s always a little time for reading. It’s probably not the latest book being touted in the store, but something that’s been around for awhile, something that piqued Sanchez’s interest awhile back but needed to marinate. For example, he’s now reading Wolf Hall, an award-winning historical novel from 2009 by English author Hilary Mantel that won all kinds of awards.
But with 30,000 books at the store, there’s always something to recommend. For 2022, he recommends two books:
“Why We Drive, by Matthew B. Crawford, a polemic against self-driving cars by the philosopher-mechanic; and Where Men Win Glory, by Jon Krakauer, which is about Pat Tillman, the NFL player who enlisted after 9/11 and was killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan. I just reread it after the pullout last summer. Krakauer does a great job of summing up the last few decades of Afghan history, although he’s a little too hagiographic* — could be more critical of the milieu of violence Tillman lived and played in. Nonetheless I really recommend it.
“I recommend a lot of flawed books. There’s a lot of pressure on people and art to be perfect now, but I think you might get more out of a book with some flaws than one that manages not to make any mistakes.”
*Editor’s note: (This is the word we learned from talking with Sanchez. “Hagiographic” is obviously either a word taught at Yale or in magazines for booksellers. It essentially means an account that’s a little too saintly.)
The Lowdown on Jonathan Sanchez
Birthplace: Gainesville, Fla.
Education: Yale University (B.A., English).
Current profession: Owner, Blue Bicycle Books; executive director, YALLFest Charleston; creative writing teacher
Family: Wife, Lauren; daughter, Evelyn; son, Xander.
Pets: Toby (schnauzer); Elia (cat); Clarabell (rabbit).
Something people would be surprised to learn about you: “Usually listen to country radio in the car.”
Your passion: “Whenever people compliment the bookstore, I explain that all it takes is total obsession.”
Books on bedside table: Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel; A Game of Thrones, by George R.R. Martin; War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy; Raising Arizona screenplay, by Joel and Ethan Coen; Seculosity. by David Zahl; All the Colors Came Out, by Kate Fagan.
Favorite novel: Chronicle of a Death Foretold,
by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
Favorite book as a child: The Martian Chronicles, by Ray Bradbury.
Something that you have too much of at home: Pilot G2 Pens. “I put them in my pocket at work and bring them home by accident.”
Hobbies: The New York Times crossword puzzle.
Favorite musicians: R.E.M., Steely Dan, Renee Fleming,
Miles Davis, Indigo Girls.
Favorite food: Gazpacho.
Three people (alive or dead) you’d like to dine with:
Larry David, Gary Gulman, Jerry Garcia.
Describe your best day in 50 words or less: “Open water swim at Folly, preferably in the fall when it’s smooth and flat. A bike ride with my family around downtown. Some used book shopping. Hello, Dolly! at the Gaillard. I guess I have to fit some writing time in there?”
Charitable causes: Reading Partners S.C., Lowcountry Local First, One80 Place, Friends of James Simons School.
Pet peeves: “1. The ‘Education’ Lottery. 2. Restaurants that make you peel your own shrimp. (Although I respect the
Tom Sawyer hustle).”
Your advice for someone new to Charleston: “I think in general complaining about how things aren’t like they are up North is a bad policy, but there’s nothing new about that notion. On a more positive note — for our transplants from Ohio — I’d just like to apologize for the rude folks with the inhospitable bumper stickers. They don’t speak for me!”
Your advice for better living: “Drink a lot of water.”