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Behind the Bookshelf: South Congress Books

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Sheri Tornatore, owner of South Congress Books, shares the history of her iconic Austin store.

By Abigail Rosenthal, Photos by Kaila Wyllys

Among the many restaurants, boutiques and occasional oddities that line South Congress Avenue, some rare printed artifacts rest inside the glass cases of South Congress Books. Signed works from John Steinbeck, Jane Goodall and Bob Dylan are just a couple of the remarkable treasures that can be found inside.

South Congress Books has become a book lover’s paradise in the six years since it opened. It’s not the place to find glossy best-sellers; it’s a place to find something unexpected, whether that is a collectible or a high-quality used book.

“The way I look at it is if you come into this store and you’re looking for a book, nine out of 10 times, you’re not going to find it, especially if it’s a best-seller,” Owner Sheri Tornatore says. “So, what I say is let us help you find something like it, like Amazon does. But the real thing about this job is that I try to have it as a bookstore where you’re looking for what you didn’t know you’re looking for.”

Tornatore is no stranger to selling used and collectible books. She spent 16 years at the now-relocated Half Price Books on Guadalupe Street, starting the first rare-book room the company ever had, according to her. Once Half Price Books moved to its North Lamar Boulevard location, Tornatore began selling books online under the name Tornbooks until the spot that now houses her store opened.

Tornatore opened South Congress Books in 2011 as many other bookstores were closing, due to lower sales because of the growing popularity of e-readers and online book sales. But Tornatore has faith that even with the technological advancements that have occurred in the book world, the printed page will always hold a unique place in readers’ hearts.

“I think books are one of the objects that make us most human,” she says. “The invention of the printing press basically is what allowed us to disseminate and communicate and know all about humanity. I think it’s really important to go back to that printed page, and it connects you to history.”

Tornatore can speak to the historical significance of books through the past and present. Her store once housed a signed Harry Houdini book that she and her staff opened “hundreds of times” to show anyone who asked, until the book was sold to Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers when he visited the store during an Austin City Limits Music Festival weekend.

“That’s another thing I think we are to people, which is a little bit of a museum in that way,” Tornatore says.

Outside of acting as a museum for fellow bibliophiles, South Congress Books offers a unique experience of being able to purchase a previously owned book, perhaps an out-of-print edition or a copy from another country. To Tornatore, as someone who grew up checking out the used bookstores of Rochester, N.Y., this is the appeal of any used bookstore.

“I think there’s nostalgia around used books that touches people,” Tornatore says. “Having this store, I think it’s a chance for me to give back to people who are younger, to give back to the Austin community something that is kind of precious now.”

Even without the nostalgia, any used bookstore allows readers to pick up as many books as they like, with the opportunity of learning something new each time. Just as favorite stories can stick with readers for years to come, so can lessons learned within five minutes in a used bookstore.

“Ultimately, it comes down to you can discover something or someone in a used bookstore I think a little more authentically than you can when you look at it online,” Tornatore says. “You can open it up and read something, [and]you might take that with you forever.”

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