Inner City Sanctums

South Congress Books: A new shop specializing in creativity (and actual books)

South Congress Books: A new shop specializing in creativity (and actual books)

Austin Photo Set: News_Ramona Flume_South Congress Books_October 2011_exterior
Photo by Ramona Flume
Austin Photo Set: News_Ramona Flume_South Congress Books_October 2011_book case
Photo by Ramona Flume
Austin Photo Set: News_Ramona Flume_South Congress Books_October 2011_book case detail
Photo by Ramona Flume
Austin Photo Set: News_Ramona Flume_South Congress Books_October 2011_desk
Photo by Ramona Flume
Austin Photo Set: News_Ramona Flume_South Congress Books_October 2011_exterior
Austin Photo Set: News_Ramona Flume_South Congress Books_October 2011_book case
Austin Photo Set: News_Ramona Flume_South Congress Books_October 2011_book case detail
Austin Photo Set: News_Ramona Flume_South Congress Books_October 2011_desk

The Texas Book Festival is right around the corner. But if you’re looking to skip out on long lines and crowds, head to another place in town that’s dedicated to keeping the book culture alive: South Congress Books, a literary sanctuary located in the midst of one of the city’s busiest neighborhoods.

The small used bookstore has only been open since June, but it already feels like a South Austin landmark. It was even awarded a Critic’s Pick in the latest Austin Chronicle Readers Poll for “Best Nerd Sanctuary.” 

The charming bookstore, specializing in art, photography, fiction, music, pop culture and rare collectibles, is a perfect fit for the vibrant arts culture of the South Congress neighborhood where co-owner Sheri Tornatore says, “People here are looking for more creativity. And that’s really what we specialize in: Creativity.”

 Their combined efforts and dedication to creativity has created an inner-city environment that doesn't resist modernity or change; it just prefers authenticity. 

And there is inspiration on every shelf. Whether you cook, write, take photos or make art, the inventory at South Congress Books--consisting of 15 percent new and 85 percent used books—is apt to fan flames from any creative ember: From the wonderful selection of photography books, like Two Times Into: On the Road with Patti Smith by Michael Stipe and illustrated Charles Bukowski stories (yes, they’re grotesque and badass) to antique Julia Childs cookbooks and vintage natural history prints.

The store also offers rare first editions and collectible gems, like special WWII releases of Jane Eyre and Six Spanish Missions in Texas—a beautiful portfolio of historical watercolor paintings by E.M. Schiwetz.

Co-owners Sheri Tornatore and Luke Bilberry—who have been friends, colleagues and business parters for years—made this creative common place by combining decades of experience in the book collecting industry, with a laundry list of contacts throughout Austin’s art and music communities.

Luke owns 12th Street Books, the high-end bookstore focusing on rare first editions and collectibles. Sheri is an accomplished artist, with work showcased in several galleries, including Women and Their Work, and she also owns Tornbooks, the book-selling site featuring more than 12,000 titles. Luke and Sheri also co-op with the University of Texas press, which allows them to feature a majority of their new releases, including those featured in this year’s Texas Book Festival, including Uchi: The Cookbook by Tyson Cole and Jessica Dupuy, and Crazy from the Heat: A Chronicle of Twenty Years in the Big Bend by James Evans.

Their combined efforts and dedication to creativity has created an inner-city environment that doesn't resist modernity or change; it just prefers authenticity. 

“I think people still really love the ‘culture of the book,’” Sheri says. “There’s something about it that appeals to all senses. People love thumbing through the pages. They love the smell.”

In the digital age, when news of another bookstore closing is no news at all, it’s refreshing to hear Sheri talk about catching people sniffing books in the aisles on a regular basis.

“The number one thing that people say when they walk in the store is how much they love the smell,” she says. “It’s almost like people are getting nostalgic already. Computers don’t smell unless they’re burning up.”