Literary City Guide | BIRMINGHAM, AL
Tour Guide: Denise K. James
Denise is a writer and editor who relocated from Charleston, South Carolina. She loves books, magazines, and media—her coffee table has a stack of periodicals a foot high. From July 2018 until April 2019, she supported herself as a freelance writer and editor in Birmingham while discovering the deep South. Her poetry and prose has been published in The Rumpus, The Grief Diaries, Heartwood, Unsweetened Magazine and a few other places. Find her on Instagram at @denise_k._ and read a few of her recent articles at denisekjames.contently.com.
Relationship to Birmingham: I moved to Birmingham on Memorial Day Weekend 2018. I’m a self employed writer and editor, and I wanted to explore a new city.
Writer you'd like to invite to dinner: If we’re talking dead writers, E.B. White, so I could ask his advice on essay writing and gush about my favorite book ever, Charlotte’s Web. If we’re talking about living writers, I’d ask all my friends who are poets so we could have a proper catch-up dinner party.
Chef you'd like to prepare the meal: Katrina Murphy, my friend, fellow poet, and a fantastic cook. She lives in South Carolina, but I’d buy her gas.
Writing soundtrack: I can listen to music when I’m brainstorming, but not once I start actually writing.
Pen or Pencil: Black ink, please.
Coffee or Tea: Coffee with cream and NO sugar! AND NO DECAF, EVER!
Paperback or Hardback: I love vintage paperbacks, especially Signets from the 1950s and 60s.
Reed Books. Owned by Jim Reed, a member of the local literati and a great person to ask for book advice, this is where I bought a vintage book about famous ships for my uncle’s Christmas gift—one of the most on-point items I’ve given him in recent years.
Church Street Coffee and Books. If you’re around Mountain Brook looking for a place to shop for local finds or national bestsellers, I suggest Church Street Coffee and Books. When we didn’t meet at the library, I worked with my elementary school “tutee” at this spot, sipping shots of espresso while he put together paragraphs about his family vacation.
The Alabama Booksmith. For a great assortment of literature and perhaps that elusive signed copy of your favorite book—thanks to their Signed First Editions Club, one of the “fastest growing in America” according to the website—try this bookshop. You might even find something worth serious cash. But we keep the books we love, don’t we?
Emmett O’Neal Public Library. I spent plenty of afternoons here with my aforementioned tutee, perusing their collection of new and classic tomes while he worked diligently. I finally had to become a member of the Jefferson County Library System, despite already being a Shelby County Library member, just because I loved this spot so much!
The North Shelby Library. This was probably the first place I could get to without the aid of my GPS, and I have to give a shout-out to one of my favorite librarians ever, Dee Green. Not only is she a fantastic resource for finding the right novel for when—ahem—you’re a lonely newcomer to town with no friends and plenty of reading time, she’s also fun to discuss your most recent read with. Plus, this branch has a room with books for sale that is absolutely brimming with cheaply-priced treasures. Well worth the drive out of the city.
Linn-Henley Research Library. Make sure to visit this library in downtown Birmingham, attached to the main branch It is a must-see, stately building brimming with that quiet, intellectual atmosphere for getting your best work done.
READINGS & CONFERENCES
Desert Island Supply Company. My friend Emma Bolden is a poet local to the area, and one night she gave a reading along with two other writers at DISCO. Well-known around town for fostering literacy in area schools and contributing to the general literary landscape, it’s a fine place to discover new writers, volunteer for the cause, or find one-of-a-kind gifts for the bookworms in your life. In particular, I enjoyed delving into “Young Goodman Brown,” for the first time in who knows how long, during their 24 hour Read-A-Thon fundraiser last year.
Spark Writing Festival at UAB. It hasn’t happened yet, but the word on the street is that this new writing conference in August will present writers of all stripes the chance to workshop their poetry, fiction and nonfiction with award-winning faculty from the region, including a fiction writer named Kwoya Fagin Maples from my adopted home of Charleston. Here’s hoping the inaugural year is a success.
S-Town. As soon as I moved to Bham, locals started urging me to check out the podcast known as S-Town, about a troubled clockmaker and the small Alabama town that eventually ruined him. Beautifully narrated by Brian Reed, it was the first podcast I ever really loved from start to finish.
Lou’s Pub and Package Store. Hands-down my favorite bar in the city, and one any writer could appreciate. Whether you’re in the mood to grab a bottle off the shelf and take it home to write alone or belly up with other locals at the bar, Lou’s has you covered. And they make a fantastic tequila, soda and lime, just sayin’.
The Alabama Theatre. I could hardly write a Literary City Guide for Birmingham and not talk about this historic theatre, probably the most beautiful building I’ve ever been inside, and with an iconic, sparkly sign that makes an ordinary night downtown look like Instagram fodder right away. I caught the classic flick It’s a Wonderful Life here during the holiday season— talk about the perfect spot for my first time seeing it—while sipping a generous serving of red wine and admiring the decorations.
Revelator. Whenever I got bored with writing from my apartment, this coffee shop in Mountain Brook was my go-to for their delicious cold brew and energizing atmosphere. One day I made friends with a woman who’d recently finished graduate school and agreed to trade writing with me. You just never know who’s going to be there, in other words.
The Red Cat Coffee House at Railroad Park. I can’t come up with creative ideas when I’m hungry, and a pastry rarely does the trick. That said, this spot has both a great cup of coffee as well as a hearty, full menu. Plus, it’s near Railroad Park, so you can walk around with your beverage if the weather’s nice.
Caveat Coffee. I once had a meeting with a local magazine editor at this intimate coffee bar, and, the next time I ventured back there with a friend, that same editor was there. I then concluded that magazine writers, both new and seasoned, should frequent the place for a cup of joe and elbow rubbing.
A PROPER MEAL
Roots & Revelry. If you’re a foodie, or you love historic hotels, or you appreciate a bartender who knows how to serve a proper cocktail, you have to check out this gorgeous restaurant inside the Thomas Jefferson Tower. I suggest you order the PB&J to start with—it’s both amazing and unexpected—and take a moment to check out the fantastic mural on the back wall of the restaurant, painted by local artist Claire Godbee.
The Pizitz Food Hall. We writers and bookish types are often unsure of what we’re craving, and for those days, The Pizitz is the place to be. Offering a wide assortment of local fare, from pressed juices to cheeseburgers to pho, it’s another iconic spot in the ‘Ham’s historic district. And did I mention there’s a bar right in the middle of it?!
Carrigan’s Public House. When my other poet pal, Bryan Penberthy, visited me last summer, I immediately decided I would take him to Carrigan’s. It’s got an intimate rooftop patio to catch summer breezes, an awesome drink selection, and an eclectic menu. I can personally recommend the Kung Fu wings, the corndog, the loaded fries, and the steak and potatoes. I didn’t eat all of that all in one sitting, but I probably could have.
The Garage. Who doesn’t appreciate a place with an intimate setting, where you kinda feel like you’re in someone’s private backyard? And when you can sit in that backyard with a top-notch bloody mary and a deli sandwich that makes other sandwiches look like child’s play, that’s even better. But don’t forget your cash—The Garage doesn’t take cards, y’all. It’s worth the ATM run.
Eugene’s Hot Chicken. I’ve been to Nashville before, and I adored the hot chicken there, but Eugene’s in Birmingham continues to hold a special place in my heart. Could it be the house made ranch dressing? That slice of bread at the bottom soaking up the last bit of spicy goodness? Or the ceremony of scarfing it all down with my best friend Anna, who loves it as much as I do? Who knows. It’s just good.
Big Spoon Creamery. So many food-related experiences are about more than the food. I ducked into Big Spoon by accident one afternoon to escape a downpour and soon found myself bonding with the girl behind the counter with a waffle cone full of Goat Cheese Blueberry Pie ice cream. Flavors change seasonally, so go see what it’s in store for you.
The Paramount. Okay, so technically this is a cocktail and not really a dessert, but I will forever love the frozen Paloma at The Paramount. The right balance of sweet and tart, it makes any hot day bearable. I dare you to drink one and walk out on the sidewalk without a big smile on your face.
DENISE's 5 Favorites
2. Favorite place to write. I did a lot of writing in my apartment because it had so much natural light with the big bay windows. But I also wrote one of my favorite poems to this day at The Paramount, sipping one of those frozen Palomas and munching an onion ring. It really depends. That’s why I suggest carrying a notebook at all times. Writing on a phone app is decidedly less glam.
3. Favorite museum. The Birmingham Museum of Art hosts fantastic events (I suggest Art on the Rocks for a jam good time) plus offers complimentary admission and a reprieve from that hot Southern sunshine.
4. Favorite coffee shop. If I’m going to be honest, there’s nothing like that first cup that I make in my kitchen every morning when I first roll out of bed.
5. Favorite thing about Birmingham. Birmingham is a well-kept secret. You have to actually come here to know exactly how cool it is. After living in an overrated city, (no names!) I find this to be quite refreshing and inspiring.