The Day the Llamas Came to the Bookstore
A Little Bit of Wildlife at Greensboro's Scuppernong Books
“The llamas are here!” read the post in my Facebook feed. Scroll through social media long enough and you’re bound to run into goats and llamas, perhaps the most beloved Internet fauna this side of cats and dogs. This status was not from a Facebook friend, however, but from Scuppernong Books, Greensboro, North Carolina’s independent bookstore.
The two llamas, Inca and Carlos, stood humming in the spacious, high-ceilinged back room where six days ago I had listened to poets Emma Bolden and Karen Meadows read from their new collections. Wearing holiday hats, the well-behaved llamas greeted dozens of small children for more than an hour. The llamas’ leashes seemed only a precaution. Parents snapped selfies, some with their children and some without. Ten feet away, Katy Torney read from her 2017 children’s book, What Do Llamas Do?
Torney fell in love with llamas 25 years ago. Carlos and Inca live with her, along with a baby llama who didn’t accompany her to the store, on a small farm just outside Greensboro. Pointing to Inca, the taller, 18-year-old female, Torney described the day teaching her preschool class that inspired her book. “I brought Inca into class to help teach the letter L, because llamas are shaped like the letter L.”
The classroom visit went smoothly enough. While Inca was getting back into the llama van, however, she saw her own reflection. Unfortunately, still wearing her festive classroom hat, Inca didn’t recognize what she saw. The high-speed chase that followed, complete with police cars and busy Greensboro intersections, recalls the two runaway llamas in Sun City, Arizona that captured the hearts of the Internet back in 2015.
Strange as it might seem to find llamas in a bookstore, Carlos and Inca have been to Scuppernong before. Last December, snow kept many from attending a similar event. This year’s winter weather wasn’t expected until Sunday, and Scuppernong co-owner Brian Lampkin was glad so many made it downtown to see the llamas. The heavy store traffic was most gratifying because the llamas had not dropped by simply to hand-sell books. A book drive for Piedmont Healthy Start, a local organization promoting literacy, was the day’s higher purpose.
Tables stacked with books occupied the space in the back room where chairs sit during events that don’t involve llamas. The books had been collected for families in need, some of whom came to the store on this day to take a few selections home with them. Most of the books, said Kristy Shoffner, Healthy Start’s program manager, would be delivered directly to families’ homes.
Serving the community is nothing unusual for Scuppernong Books, who sees the independent bookstore as a way to make a positive impact on the city. “Books are what we do,” said Lampkin, “but if you’re going to occupy this large space downtown, I think you have a responsibility to do something more.”
Indeed, Scuppernong’s eclectic events calendar shows an abiding interest in being more than a bookstore. In addition to readings and live music, recent happenings have included Ask a Muslim Anything, Drag Queen Storytime, and a DACA series featuring a variety of immigration experts. In 2014, to raise awareness of North Carolina’s controversial HB2 ordinance, the so-called Bathroom Bill, Scuppernong welcomed acclaimed authors of LGBTQ-themed books Garrard Conley (Boy Erased) and Garth Greenwell (What Belongs to You). This past May, the bookstore hosted a diverse lineup of more than 80 authors to town for its first annual Greensboro Bound literary festival, an inaugural lineup that included Carmen Maria Machado, Nikki Giovanni, Kevin Powers, and Beth Macy.
If Scuppernong is more than a bookstore, it is also very much a thriving bookstore, lending credence to semiannual articles announcing how well local indies are doing in the age of Amazon. Southern Living included Scuppernong on its list of great Southern bookstores, and Lev Grossman singled it out in a Time magazine article titled “The Death of the Bookstore Was Greatly Exaggerated.” Named for the resilient grape that is the state fruit of North Carolina, Scuppernong celebrates its fifth anniversary in two weeks. The 3,000-square-foot store has become a lynchpin of Greensboro’s revitalized downtown. Scuppernong’s focus on inclusivity has proved a perfect fit for a city where, two blocks north on Elm Street, four students from Greensboro’s North Carolina A & T began their sit-in inside Woolworth’s lunch counter in 1960.
“Actually, the llamas aren’t the only wildlife we’ve had in the store,” Lampkin said, suddenly remembering a large beehive that once made an appearance for a book about bees. “The bees were very loud,” he said, “but there were no escapees.”
Bees, wine tastings, and a local chef making Belgian waffles in the window don’t come to mind when most people think of bookstores. But these ingredients have made for a popular recipe. What the community wants and needs, not financial concerns, dictate what we bring into the store, Lampkin and fellow co-owner Steve Mitchell told the Greensboro News & Record in 2016. At the same time, giving the community something it won’t find online seems to be a solid business model. On a Saturday afternoon for two consecutive Decembers, what Scuppernong has offered customers is a pair of llamas named Carlos and Inca. Your move, Amazon.