Hub City Writers Project celebrates 20 years of shaping a Southern literary community
From the Spartanburg Herald-Journal
Story by Laura J. Perricone, photo by Tim Kimzey
Spartanburg was on the threshold of an artistic renaissance when a small group of writers launched a plan for a literary awakening that would preserve the essence of a town poised for creative growth. The year was 1995, and the movement was so successful that eventually anything involving homespun writers, artists and even musicians became synonymous with a single brand name — The Hub City Writers Project.
Now celebrating its 20th anniversary, the three friends who had a hand in the inception of Hub City Writers Project said they never imagined the independent publisher would grow into a nationally recognized literary enterprise. But with 70 books and 700 writers published under its name (a few having cut their teeth on its label), even bestselling authors are lining up to share in the success of this former dream-child of visionaries.
Betsy Teter, executive director of Hub City Writers Project, and her husband John Lane, Wofford poet and author of a dozen books, are two of the early founders of the nonprofit group located in the historic Masonic Temple building in downtown Spartanburg. For them, the 20-year mark is a huge accomplishment given that few organizations of this type exist in the country.
The literary model they adopted has three components: Publishing, programs and an independent bookstore, with proceeds going right back into the organization. As simple as it seems, Teter said the only way it works is with the backing of the community.
“Literary groups in other places have tried to follow our model, but they don’t have the community support,” Teter said. “I’m very proud this happened in Spartanburg. I tell people this is a very unlikely story in a very unlikely place.”
The early days
The idea for Hub City was conceived in a coffee shop just a stone’s throw away from the organization’s current downtown site. It was there Lane met up with Teter, a former business writer for the Herald-Journal, and journalist Gary Henderson to discuss ways of turning Spartanburg into a center for literary arts while preserving the town’s rich history through “place-based” writing. Lane, himself, had recently moved back to the area to teach at Wofford, but his travels made him yearn for a literary community, a stomping ground where like-minded people could exchange ideas. Back then, that stomping ground was this coffee shop where all three writers laid out their ideas on a single napkin.
“We were sitting there talking and Betsy reached over and picked up a napkin and wrote down how to structure Hub City and what to call it,” Henderson said from his home in Costa Rica. “It’s really a legend how it started.”
The brainstorming resulted in what Lane called the “first wave of public creativity,” which resulted in the publication of Hub City Anthology in April 1996. The book was a resounding success not just for its literary content, but for the foresight the group had to resurrect the town’s old nickname. Back then, the Hub City moniker that once alluded to Spartanburg’s history as a crossroad for trains, was nearly extinct. Lane’s vision for a literary arts community enticed the group to join the name with the Depression era Federal Writers Project. Thus, Hub City Writers Project was born as a nod to both historic references.
On the day of the book release, which was held at the train depot, more than 600 books were sold. Henderson said people were lined up to get their copy and meet the band of authors that contributed to the book.
“There were people everywhere. There must have been 1,500 people there. It was just amazing,” Henderson said.
Initially, there was never a discussion of putting out another book after Hub City Anthology, but the swell of public interest changed all that. Soon more place-based books were being pumped out by Hub City and met with as much fanfare as the first. There were books written on peaches, textiles, music and military training camps, and the pool seemed endless.
“In the early days, we didn’t know how many books (we would publish),” Lane said. “We were working in a literary vacuum and had a complete history to draw from.”
It became obvious at the train station that the small independent publisher was headed for more than a single book release.
No place like home
Teter’s house was where much of Hub City’s business took place initially. Her dining room table was a makeshift desk and the fax machine, which ran day and night, sat beside her bed. Five years later, Hub City Writers Project moved into a single room in a slowly deteriorating Montgomery Building and then into a former car dealership on South Daniel Morgan Avenue, now known as the Hub Bub Showroom.
In 2006, the City of Spartanburg allocated $500,000 to open The Showroom Gallery and Performance Hall, where musicians, artists and writers shared a single venue. Teter suddenly found herself at the center of the arts and entertainment business. Through her efforts, Hub Bub was pushed into the limelight, generating another creative movement in the community. With two successful entities vying for her attention, Teter longed to concentrate on developing the literary community she, Lane and Henderson had hoped for. At this point, Teter said, Hub City was still in want of an independent bookstore, which was vital to the organization’s survival. The sale of books was the only way Hub City could continue offering creative writing programs and place-based publications.
That would happen in 2010, when Hub City received enough donations and financial assistance to renovate the ground floor of the historic Masonic Temple for The Hub City Bookshop. The store is now the face of Hub City and is stocked with more than 5,000 titles that Teter said appeal to serious readers. Little River Coffee Shop and Cakehead Bakeshop are located in the same space, increasing the foot traffic for both locations.
Hub City has moved beyond concentrating on local writers, though that is still the heart and soul of the organization. Anne Waters, manager of the Hub City Bookshop, said the store attracts authors of national appeal like Dorothea Benton Frank and Ron Rash, who are frequent visitors to the area. Often, she said, visiting authors end up participating in future programs. And in recent years, Hub City has published top writers from Richmond and Charlottesville in Virginia, Greensboro and Wilmington in North Carolina, Atlanta, and Montgomery, Alabama.
“Each thing builds upon the other,” she said. “The momentum is so strong and the notoriety keeps increasing.”
Planting the seed
One of Hub City’s biggest success stories took place in 2012 with the publication of Michel Stone’s debut book, “The Iguana Tree.” Today, Stone is a nationally acclaimed novelist who credits Teter for helping the novel sell all over the United States and become Hub City’s best-seller.
“I could not have had a better experience. Betsy is so unique and wonderful, and she is so good about supporting her authors,” Stone said. “Hub City Press publishes six books a year and because of that they are so invested in each book. I’m sure the great reviews “The Iguana Tree” got was in part because Betsy was so good in pounding the pavement in getting the book out there.”
Stone, a Spartanburg resident, said it was actually Hub City who inspired her to write a novel in the first place. Her introduction to Hub City began years ago when she entered the group’s annual short story competition and won. Her prize was a free admission to the Hub City’s Writing In Place workshop held at Wofford College. While there, the instructor asked participants to think of an object and describe it. Stone said she immediately thought about a rocking chair in her daughter’s room, and she started writing about it. As the lessons continued and the subject matter grew more intense, Stone ended up describing a scene that she would later use in “The Iguana Tree.”
“So, Hub City was instrumental in the very first sentence of my novel,” she said.
Having received excellent reviews for her book, Stone found herself traveling across the country to give talks and sign books. Stone said “The Iguana Tree” was selected to be used by four colleges in their curriculum and as a community read in a small town called Hermiston, Oregon.
“They flew me out there and treated me so kindly. All the kids in the high school … all read the book and they had my name on the marquee welcoming me to Oregon. It was the most incredible experience in my life.”
Now, Stone, who has completed a second novel, serves as chairperson on Hub City’s 15-member board. She has also taught youth writing groups for the organization and is hands-on with other Hub City writing programs.
“Hub City is very important to Spartanburg,” she said. “It’s my favorite thing about Spartanburg.”
The small publisher/bookstore is also catching the attention of other nationally recognized names. Just recently, the prolific bestseller James Patterson gave Hub City Bookshop a $6,000 grant in his efforts to support independent bookstores. It was just another shot in the arm for Hub City and another example of how authors have become the organization’s advocate.
Programs for writers
Hub City also prides itself on introducing young writers to the area. Meg Reid, assistant director of Hub City, said the organization receives 100 applications from across the nation each year for its writers-in-residency program, which is housed in a bungalow on Spring Street in Hampton Heights. Only three candidates are selected for the year.
Reid, who moved from Wilmington, N.C. to work for Hub City, said she is amazed at how the community has rallied around the Hub City Writers Project and is in awe of the continued growth of a program that focuses on authors, writers and readers.
“People here care and are working hard (to keep it going),” she said. “This shouldn’t work but it does … it’s difficult to say how because nothing like this ever existed before.”
Teter agreed, saying no one could have predicted Hub City would have grown from an idea on a napkin to a nationally recognized literary center.
“If someone told me 10 years ago that we would have a storefront on Main Street, I’d say they were insane. But now people say they move here because of Hub City Writers Project.”
To celebrate the 20th anniversary, Hub City is planning a street party for the public and a weekend of literary activities May 8-10. For Spartanburg natives and friends Teter, Lane and Henderson, it seemed like a good way to honor their Southern roots, even if one of them moved on.
“I have left Spartanburg but part of me is still there,” said Henderson. “Hub City was the best thing that happened to me. If nothing else, Hub City Writers Project gave Spartanburg a new identity and put back energy into the town.”
Friday, May 8
Lit Crawl, 5–7 p.m. (Growler Haus, Delaneys, and Hub City Bookshop)
Book release event for “Minnow” by James McTeer, 7:30 p.m., Hub City Bookshop
Saturday, May 9
Anniversary Street Party 5–8 p.m., West Main Street in front of Hub City Bookshop
Music, Kids events (free books for children), Author signing tent, silent auction
Sunday, May 10
Benefit Brunch for The Writers House Residency Program, 10:30 a.m. Indigo Hall