Mary Camilla Judson is the patron saint of M.Judson Booksellers. When searching for a name for the store, we first looked at the building, the old family courthouse, and knew that the name had to be something with a strong tie to Greenville’s past, but also a sense of who we are as people now, and especially as women now. Pretty quickly, out of the research pages at Greenville County Library, Mary Camilla rose to the surface.
Born in Clinton, Connecticut on June 27, 1828, Mary Camilla grew up getting an incredible education. She absolutely loved learning, read in French and English and Greek, and yet, when it came time, she wasn’t allowed to enroll at Yale because she was a woman.
But she was a renaissance woman of extraordinary gifts, so she did everything she could in the academic world, and by all accounts had beautiful relationships with her students at the Female College in Greenville where she was the first Lady Principal (still one of our very favorite phrases.) She led her female students in learning to speak and argue well, sponsoring what was basically a debate club for women. She introduced calisthenics, encouraging the women to exercise, which was probably a first in southern women’s colleges. And she donated from her personal savings to start a library at the Female College. When you think of the turn of the last century, she was incredibly forward thinking, a champion for those who wanted to learn and read and participate, all things which were key in making her so important to our legacy, and to Greenville’s.
M. Judson Booksellers was born of women who hailed from different parts of the book world, but who also recognized a need in downtown Greenville for an independent bookstore.
M. Judson Booksellers started when book-loving people needed a place, and it’s still that place today
We first started to grow beyond the original bookstore in October of 2019 when we needed more retail space and knew we wanted to branch into stationery, a natural extension of the book world. Soon after that, we took over the 4th floor of our building. At the time, it was where trash and recycling were stored, but with a good bit of cleaning, polishing, and sealant, we were able to restore the room to its original natural-light beauty. Just like that, we had a new space for people to gather. Our book clubs grew, our meetings were better, and ideas came even faster.
We discovered we couldn’t find a bookmark that we liked, so we made our own. June and Ashley talked about the boarding passes they used to use, which were thick and really marked your spot, and Camilla Goods was born: a business for making bookish things for bookstores, starting with really great, boarding pass-inspired bookmarks.
From there came the idea of actual literary travel, birthing TripLit, our travel programs completely inspired by the places books make us want to go.
And then we decided to open a whole new store. Did you know M. Judson had a sister? Down in the college town of Auburn, AL, you’ll find Auburn Oil Co. Booksellers. With all the same heart and a lot of the same stuff, Auburn Oil is a smaller scale bookstore that’s just as rooted in its local community as M. Judson is.
Then at the start of 2020, we began to more fully develop the idea of Letterbox, our book subscription service. As it grew in need and demand, we divided packages up into genres, streamlined the process, and ended up creating a service that people really needed during the pandemic.
Once the pandemic was upon us, our ideas had to get even more creative. Book sales were good, but our other items were struggling in over-the-phone sales. We needed less expensive items that fit what people were looking for: cozy, comforting, safe. So Camilla Goods expanded into the realm of mugs and candles.
The idea of staying home and being cozy sparked M.Judson Home. People had always asked if our furniture and fixtures were for sale. We started saying, “Sure!” and that led to a whole new business, and also meant our store would feel fresh and new all the time.
Obviously, not every idea we’ve ever had has stuck it out for the long term. Especially post-pandemic, there are many things we’ve kept, many we haven’t. That’s simply the nature of creating: you prune.
The biggest change that came from 2020 was the addition of Camilla Kitchen! When The Chocolate Moose retired their cupcake trays mid-pandemic, we knew it was the perfect opportunity to go back to our original vision of a Kitchen rooted in the store. Between our love for cookbooks, food writing, eating, and wine, food stories have always been an essential component at M.Judson.
This may seem like a long list, but this is just the beginning. We don’t think we’ll ever stop creating new literary goodness, and we just hope you keep joining us on the journey. It’s a fun one.
We’ll never forget the week everything shut down. June, Ashley, and a few additional staff members were in the store, trying to figure out what to do. Together we consolidated the store, moving everything to the front so it was easily accessible, and began making phone sales. The phone rang all day long as customers called to purchase book after book, some simply giving a budget and a genre then waiting to be surprised. We read blurbs, gave suggestions, shared reviews, and helped people to fill their time at home with wonderful adventures in books. We put pictures of our shelves online, started shipping for free, offered curbside pickup and even free local delivery. We got creative. And because of people like you, we were able to stay open.
We want to take this opportunity to say we could not be more grateful for the support and care of this community throughout the pandemic. What a strange and wild ride. What an interesting set of challenges. What a time to learn from, and love from, it was and still is. As ever, books made it better for us. You made it better for us. One of the most valuable lessons we learned from 2020 was that we can count on our people, and in turn, they can count on us. That feels pretty great. Thank you.
We believe that stories, now more than ever, create connection and empathy, joy and inspiration. We believe that good stuff happens around an intentional table. We believe that communities are better and stronger when we nurture small, local businesses. Therefore, it’s our mission to continue to provide quirky, literary, community-focused spaces, programs, products, and experiences for our neighbors near and far away.
In the short term, that looks like enhancing the experience in Camilla Kitchen: adding more seating inside and out, and updating our patio. We’re excited to grow and invest in Camilla Kitchen, Letterbox, Camilla Goods, and M.Judson Home, all the things that we created in 2020 in order to survive, but that now exist as things we love. We’re excited to continue adding events back on the calendar, getting our readers in community with each other and the authors they read. We can’t wait to scale TripLit, creating both bigger, farther-away trips and smaller, doable-for-every-reader trips. And of course, to read really great books throughout it all.
Our long term dream is that our bookstore and all its many branches would one day grow to the size that it can provide dream jobs for people. We envision jobs where all people do all day is imagine what reader would like this book, what place this reader would like to go, and what they should read when they get there. We’re already living our dream jobs, showing up to work saying “I can’t believe I get to do this!” We dream of giving that to as many people as possible..