Literary City Guide | Charleston, South Carolina
Tour Guide: Annie Durkin
Annie has served as the editor of Museumist.com since 2007, but when she isn't covering the world of cultural institutions, she enjoys traveling, losing hours in bookstores, following obscure sports, and training her brain for a future Jeopardy appearance.
Relationship to Charleston: I’m a bit of a wanderer—15 moves since high school and counting—but this is my second effort at being a Charlestonian.
Writer you'd like to invite to dinner: Do screenwriters count? Because I would love to have dinner with Richard Curtis (Love Actually, Black Adder, About Time, etc.) and talk about movies, bad pop music, and finding happiness in the everyday. And laughter, at this fictional dinner party there would be laughter.
Chef you'd like to prepare the meal: There are amazing chefs in this world, but I would probably just have pizza.
Writing soundtrack: A little bit of everything. One day it could be Irish bluegrass, or a Jimmy Buffett story song. The next day, maybe old-school soul or Kate Nash. It’s always changing.
Pen or Pencil: Pen.
Coffee or Tea: Wine. I mean, tea.
Paperback or Hardback? Paperback. Hardcovers make traveling heavy.
Blue Bicycle Books. Though it appears tiny from the outside, inside this King Street institution lies a long stretch of 50,000 used books, including a selection of dollar reads, a kids room, and an extensive Charleston collection. They also host author readings, book signings, and other literary events.
Heirloom Bookshop. Tucked away in a small alley of Broad Street, Heirloom specializes in vintage and rare cookbooks. They even have a small courtyard where they host food themed events.
Preservation Society of Charleston Book and Gift Shop. While this bookstore doesn’t carry the latest bestsellers, it does have titles for all of your etiquette and gardening needs, and encourages you to get to know all of Charleston’s notables, from ghosts, to pirates, to society belles, and plantation patriarchs.
Charleston Public Library. An air-conditioned place, with books on every subject, where you can stay for hours without having to buy anything…libraries are the best.
Charleston Library Society. Founded in 1748, this is the third oldest subscription library in the United States. Non-members can still enjoy all that the library has to offer, including events like lectures, bookbinding workshops, and musical performances, and research privileges in the Main Reading Room for a fee.
Karpeles Manuscript Library Museum. One of twelve Karpeles Manuscript Museums across the country, which together form the world’s largest private collection of original manuscripts and documents, the Charleston branch stages rotating exhibits, including a recently-closed look at Mark Twain.
READINGS & CONFERENCES
Piccolo Spoleto Festival: Occurring at the same time as the world-renowned Spoleto Festival USA that descends on Charleston every late-May and early-June, the PiccoloSpoleto Festival has a more local focus and includes literary events like author readings, a fiction open, and nightly Sundown Poetry sessions.
YALL Fest: This November, 60 of the nation’s top Young Adult authors will descend on Charleston for YALL Fest. There will be signings, panel discussions, and even something called the YA Smackdown.
Garden & Gun: Some critics say Garden & Gun magazine takes a somewhat idealized view of the “New South,” but what isn’t up for debate are this Charleston-based magazine’s beautiful photography and well-written articles. Founded by the first female publisher of The New Yorker, regular contributors include Roy Blount Jr., Pat Conroy, Julia Reed, and even Tom Brokaw has graced its pages.
Crazy Horse Literary Journal: Though founded in L.A. in 1960, Crazyhorse has been assembled at the College of Charleston since 2001 and continues to publish exceptional new writing.
LILA: The Lowcountry Initiative for the Literary Arts strives to be a resource for the greater Charleston area by hosting monthly writers’ groups, putting together the Write Charleston series of readings and workshops, and even sponsoring a Poets in the Schools program.
Sullivan’s Island: Though he spent just over a year at Fort Moultrie, Edgar Allan Poe found endless inspiration in the marshy atmosphere of Sullivan’s Island, eventually using the barrier island as the backdrop for at least three of his stories: “The Gold Bug,” “The Balloon Hoax,” and “The Oblong Box.” Poe’s Tavern, just a few blocks from the beach, even features several Poe-inspired menu items.
Black Tap. In addition to their coffee offerings, they have teas, tasty treats from WildFlour Pastry, and even the occasional Affogato Afternoon. This a small, but welcoming caffeine stop, but if you can’t stay, there’s always the option of a growler of their cold brew to go.
Kudu Coffee & Craft Beer. With good lineups of both coffee and craft beer, not to mention live music in the courtyard, it’s easy to forget that this is actually a good place to get some work done.
Caviar & Bananas. Dean & Deluca-esque, this gourmet market and café has a full-service coffee shop. I’ve been drawn inside for a butterscotch blondie or a B.E.L.T. sandwich, but they also have a wide selection of pre-made food to choose from.
A PROPER MEAL
Upper King. The development of Upper King Street as a food and drink mecca is a signifier of Charleston’s growth over the past few years. I like popping into The Belmont for a beautifully crafted cocktail and an old black-and-white film playing on the wall, or the nearby Rarebit, which takes its design inspiration from a 1960’s greyhound racetrack. Monza offers up Neapolitan-style pizza, while The Ordinary focuses on all things seafood.
East Bay. Many of the city’s more well-known restaurants line East Bay Street, but I prefer slightly smaller venues like Craftsmen, which is especially nice during happy hour when I get one of their many craft beers for $3 and a spicy, roasted tomato flatbread for $5. Newcomer 167 Raw serves up lobster rolls, ceviche, fresh oysters and more in their tiny, seven-seat place. Bay Street Biergarten is anything but small. Head there for an extensive beer list, to watch a sporting event, or play some games of your own. And, if you find yourself in need of some breakfast, a takeaway biscuit breakfast sandwich from Dixie Supply usually does the trick.
Cannonborough/Elliotborough. Another rapidly developing part of town, you can get a little bit of everything in this section of the peninsula. XiaoBao Biscuit, which turned an old gas station into its new home, is a place where Asian comfort food meets southern cooking. And, speaking of southern cooking, Hominy Grill should be your go-to choice for a classic southern breakfast or brunch. Less traditional, but every bit as good, is Two BoroughsLarder. And for an intimate drinking option, check out the Elliotborough Mini Bar tucked away on a quiet residential street.
Lower King/Broad. Broad Street, the gateway to Charleston’s grand historic homes, is lined with law firms, art galleries, and towering church steeples. It also has some great eating and drinking options in its vicinity. Like Gaulart & Maliclet (aka Fast & French), whose $9.25 lunch specials include a glass of wine. Nationally-recognized Husk is turning out innovative takes on traditional southern dishes. If you can’t get a reservation, try grabbing a seat at its cozy bar next door. No reservations are needed at the quaint Queen Street Grocery, which, in addition to crepes, smoothies, and sandwiches, serves breakfast all day. And, for a low key evening of wine and cheese, I like Bin 152.
Other. Some of my favorite places that don’t fit neatly into the categories above are Taco Boy, where sidling up to the bar for some delicious tacos al pastor is a lovely way to spend an afternoon. At the Saturday morning farmer’s market in Marion Square, the Roti Rolls Asian fusion food truck is one of many delicious take away items available to shoppers. If by some chance you need to do laundry and enjoy a tasty panini at the same time, Persimmon Café is your place. And finally, Bowen’s Island, because nothing is better than a waterfront seafood restaurant serving up the day’s fresh catch.
Bakehouse Bakery Café. Located right in the middle of the historic district, this place still maintains a low-key atmosphere. Plenty of comfy seating to settle into to enjoy fresh baked quiche, whoopie pies, and—my personal favorite—peanut butter and M&M’s cookies. Free wifi and a small craft beer selection make it even easier to spend the day here.
WildFlour Pastry. CIA grad Lauren Mittener really knows how to bake a cake, and double chocolate cookies, and pumpkin pecan cream cheese muffins, and savory scones, and so much more. Did I mention the Sticky Bun Sundays?
Brown’s Court Bakery. Housed in the former Hope & Union coffee space, Brown’s Court maintains the minimal design aesthetic while turning out some decadent baked goods. They even have a daily happy hour for you to enjoy some bread and sweets at a discounted cost.
Annie's 5 Favorites
1. Favorite view: The Rooftop Bar at the Vendue Inn for a panoramic view of Charleston.
2. Favorite place to write: Battery Park. Shaded, with breeze coming off the river, it’s quieter than other outdoor spaces along the water.
4. Favorite coffee shop: As someone who really dislikes the smell of coffee, I try not to spend too much time in coffee shops, but Kudu Coffee & Craft Beer is so much more than just a coffee shop.
5. Favorite thing about your town: It’s walkability. Especially once the heat of the day wears off, I take meandering walks down small streets with beautiful houses, stopping for a drink and a sunset.