Book Bans Are Surging in Florida. So Lauren Groff Opened a Bookstore

Book Bans Are Surging in Florida. So Lauren Groff Opened a Bookstore

On a recent Sunday, Lauren Groff got out of bed at three in the morning, jolted by a mix of anxiety and adrenaline.

It was opening day for The Lynx, Groff’s new bookstore in Gainesville, Fla., and her mind raced with all that could go wrong. So she drove over to the store, where she felt reassured by the presence of some 7,000 books, a collection she had helped to curate.

“I like being there alone, because I’m surrounded by all of my friends,” Groff, a best-selling novelist and three-time National Book Award finalist, said of the books.

A few hours later, she was no longer alone: By 10 a.m., about 100 people had lined up outside the store to watch as Groff cut the ribbon. More than 3,000 people showed up throughout the day for a series of author readings, folk music, live poetry composition and, of course, to buy books.

Groff and her husband, Clay Kallman, had toyed with the idea of opening a bookstore in Gainesville for more than a decade, but the timing never felt right. Groff’s writing career was taking off, and they had two young sons. But last year, as book bans surged across Florida, they decided that their town needed an independent bookstore where titles that had been purged from libraries and classrooms would be on prominent display.

“This store would probably still be a pipe dream if the book bans hadn’t happened,” said Groff, who has lived in Gainesville since 2006. “I want this for me too. I don’t want to live in a place where we stifle free expression.”

Last fall, they found an old building, a 2,300-square-foot former hair salon, on South Main Street in downtown Gainesville. They transformed it into a bookstore and event space, with a cozy reading nook in the children’s book section, a small cafe and large rolling display tables that can be wheeled away to make way for chairs.

For the front of the building, they commissioned a 60-foot-long mural of a lynx, a wildcat native to Florida, sitting sphynx-like next to the store’s motto: “Watch Us Bite Back.”

“We wanted something a little fierce,” Groff said.

Banned titles are prominently placed at The Lynx. A large display near the front of the store features frequently challenged books across the United States — among them “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood; “Beloved” by Toni Morrison; “Tricks” by Ellen Hopkins; and “All Boys Aren’t Blue” by George M. Johnson.

Groff also hopes to make The Lynx a place where people will come together to discuss books that are being targeted. Upcoming selections for its Banned Books Book Club include “Gender Queer” by Maia Kobabe and “Flamer” by Mike Curato.

The store’s mission is also resonating outside of Florida. Since The Lynx opened, it has received about $1000 in donations from around the country. Groff plans to use the funds to distribute free copies of banned titles to Florida residents who might not otherwise have access to them.

“At a time when we in Florida need to speak out against the banning of books and against the restriction of reading, she’s going to have a real impact,” said Mitchell Kaplan, the founder of Books & Books, an independent chain in South Florida, who shared advice with Groff when she was preparing to open the store.

Groff is the latest writer to try her hand at book selling, joining Ann Patchett, Louise Erdrich, Judy Blume, Emma Straub, Jenny Lawson, Leah Johnson, Jeff Kinney and others.

This January, Groff attended the Winter Institute, an annual gathering of independent bookstore owners, where she got advice from more seasoned booksellers like Straub and Patchett. Straub said she urged Groff to focus not just on the fun parts of running a bookstore, like effusing over books with customers, but also the practical elements, like learning how to manage the point-of-sales system.

“A lot of us authors don’t spend that much time thinking about that part. We think about the books and the community, all of that big picture stuff, and we don’t necessarily think about the nuts and bolts, retail-ness of it,” Straub said. “Like, oh by the way, you need a mop.”

With its focus on banned books and Florida-centric literature, The Lynx could help make Gainesville more of a literary destination — a hub for author readings, book club gatherings and workshops.

For some local authors, The Lynx already feels like an oasis of sorts.

“This place is not only very welcome, but necessary,” said Amy Hempel, a fiction writer who lives in Gainesville and gave a reading on the store’s opening day, as did the Florida authors David Leavitt, Rebecca Renner, Cynthia Barnett and Kristen Arnett.

The Lynx not only provides a gathering spot for book lovers, Hempel said, but also offers hope to residents who have been discouraged by book bans happening across the state. More than 5,100 books were banned in Florida schools from July 2021 through December 2023 — the highest number in the country, according to PEN America.

“The signal it sends to a community, to the whole state, to the country, at a really heated, difficult time, is such a positive,” Hempel said.

Gainesville isn’t exactly a book desert. It is home to the University of Florida, and has a Books-A-Million and a new Barnes & Noble. But it has lost many of its independent shops. One of its beloved bookstores, Goerings, went out of business in 2010, and another longtime independent, The Florida Bookstore, which was opened by Kallman’s grandfather in 1933, closed in 2016.

“Gainesville has great potential to have a literary community, but we needed a bookstore,” said Alyssa Eatherly, a Gainesville resident who stopped by The Lynx on a recent evening with her friend, Katie Dreffer, to pick up copies of books that were chosen for the store’s romance book club.

“It’s nice to have something that’s not a big chain,” Dreffer added.

As more people trickled in, Groff greeted customers enthusiastically and asked if they needed recommendations or help finding a book.

“Can I show you where the kids’ section is?” she asked a little girl who came in with her mother. “What do you like?”

The girl followed Groff to the children’s area and asked for a book about ancient history.

Groff asked another shopper who was scanning the display tables if she was able to find what she was looking for. “If you see spots we need to fill, let me know, I’m on it,” she said.

A big draw of The Lynx for many readers and customers, of course, is Groff — an acclaimed writer. She has published two short story collections and five novels, among them her 2023 novel, “The Vaster Wilds,” about a girl who flees to the woods from a colonial settlement in the 1600s, and “The Matrix,” her 2021 novel about nuns in medieval England.

Part of the appeal of independent bookstores is their careful curation, and booksellers’ ability to recommend titles based on customers’ interests and moods; who better to help you choose your next book than a best-selling novelist who is also a voracious and wide-ranging reader?

Next to the entrance, on a shelf full of bookseller recommendations, Groff placed a few of her own favorite novels with handwritten notes effusing about them, describing “The Transit of Venus” by Shirley Hazzard as “a work of sheer genius,” and calling “Autobiography of Red” by Anne Carson “legit bonkers brilliant.” (Groff’s husband, Kallman, has only one recommended title on the shelf — Groff’s novel, “The Vaster Wilds,” with a note that says, “It slays.”)

Groff conceded that opening the store and meeting the demands of her own writing career has been exhausting. But she’s not especially worried that selling other people’s books will get in the way of writing her own. She often gets up at 5 a.m. to write and is working on three different books.

“I have four to five hours of writing usually, if I’m not opening a bookstore,” she said.

She plans to be intimately involved in the store’s operations, which will be overseen by the store’s three booksellers and two managers.

“I want to know how to do everything so that I can step in if I have to,” she said.

At the grand opening on April 28, Groff was sweaty and frazzled but buoyed by the enthusiasm of the store’s hundreds of visitors. She got up on an outdoor stage and read from a short story titled “Ghosts and Empties” from her 2018 collection, “Florida.”

Over the course of the day, the store sold 1,011 books, including 56 copies of Groff’s, which sold out. The toilet clogged a few times, and some customers gave up because the cash register line was so long, but otherwise, the mood was celebratory.

“Not a single one of us had a breakdown,” Groff said.

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