It all started with a complaint among friends: Why doesn’t Columbia have an independent bookstore?
That was five years ago, but gradually, eventually, the group of local booklovers stopped grumbling and started to joke instead: Maybe they should open their own shop. And then the joke got a little less jokey: Maybe they could create a place not only for books but discussions and gatherings, author readings and . . .
Wait. Was this group — united only by a love of books and the value of bookstores — actually serious? Could they really open a bookstore in Columbia? Would they ever really make a go of it?
You’ll find the answer at All Good Books, a thriving bookstore on Harden Street in the heart of Five Points. Walk through the door of what once was home to the Parthenon restaurant, and you’ll see neat shelves filled with classics and new releases, a counter for coffee, beer and wine, comfy chairs, a children’s corner and — perhaps most important of all — a welcoming vibe.
Since opening its doors in early 2023, word has spread through the Columbia and USC community. Much of its staff, advisory board and owners boast USC connections. Or, as co-owner Clint Wallace, a professor at the USC School of Law, says: “We have lots of Gamecock DNA in our team.”
Wallace was one of the instigators who brought the bookstore to the capital city.
“Columbia as a college town has a serious demand for a real community-oriented bookstore,” he says. “We have seen that in almost every other college town any of us have visited. It seemed like a real void five years ago that there was not that kind of institution here.”
All Good Books takes its name from an Ernest Hemingway quote, which shoppers may notice on the wall near the entrance, but what happened next reads more like Stone Soup.
The classic European folk tale tells the story of a group of hungry strangers who convince multiple townspeople to each contribute a small amount of food that can be used to make a meal for the whole community. In this case, educators, lawyers, historic preservation specialists, architects, bookstore operators and community leaders — book lovers, all — pooled their expertise and connections to bring All Good Books to life.
For example, Wallace’s background in tax law came in handy when the group was working on purchasing and renovating a historic building. Plus, students in his classroom at USC’s law school learned from real-world examples, working through tax issues with property transactions and rehabilitation costs.
The group also included Ben Adams, the founder and owner of the now-shuttered Odd Bird Books in the Arcade Building downtown. It included Ruth Smyrl, a Columbia native with 40 years of bookselling experience, including at USC’s law school bookstore. And it included Jared Johnson, a community organizer who earned his journalism degree from USC in 2009.
“Books definitely brought us together,” says Johnson, who is part of the ownership group and serves on the store’s advisory board. “One of the beautiful things about Columbia is that we do have the flagship university, so you just have access to things that other cities wouldn’t have.”
As a way to spread the word and gauge interest — and also raise money — the group started a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign. “That was what really set things in motion,” Wallace says. “We set a very ambitious goal that would pay for all of the bookshelves that we would want in our dream bookstore space.”
The community responded. The group raised more than its goal — enough to pay for the custom-built bookshelves in the front of the store. The shelves in the back were donated by Heathwood Hall Episcopal School, which had retired them during a renovation.
“And that’s been the throughline. Whether it’s Kickstarter or the donation from Heathwood, the advisory board or just the community, people got involved,” Johnson says. “It’s all been a community effort. That’s been the beauty of the store and one of the joys of being involved with the store. You feel the support.”
The Gamecock connection
If community is the throughline, it extends right up Greene Street to the USC campus. Just a few months after opening, All Good Books had already hosted two Pulitzer Prize winners in town for USC events and opened its doors for book-signings and gatherings for USC authors and alumni.
“When big-name authors come for events, they’ll often come to the local bookstore. And we’ve never had a way to share part of what’s going on at the university with the rest of the community,” Wallace says. “It’s been word-of-mouth, but also working with all sorts of people at USC who are doing interesting, awesome stuff.”
The store’s advisory board includes people like renowned poet and USC English professor Nikky Finney, and Aurora Bell, the associate editorial director at USC Press. Meanwhile, plenty of people have been stopping by the store and grabbing a coffee or a beer while they browse.
“All Good Books goes beyond just selling books; it’s a space and place of community,” Johnson says. “If you want to buy a book, come and get the book. You want a coffee or wine, come and get it here. You have a book club, have it here. We just want it to feel like home for everybody.”