Redbud Writing Project | So & So Books | 719 N. Person Street, Raleigh
For readers and writers alike, the Triangle has always had much to offer: a multitude of beloved bookstores, residents like Lee Smith and the late Randall Kenan, the North Carolina Book Festival, and even a few streets in Raleigh’s Quail Hollow named after writers like Thoreau and Hemingway. But for all its merits, the area has historically lacked a space dedicated to its literary-minded folks—until recently.
In June, Raleigh’s So & So Books teamed up with Redbud Writing Project, a writing school serving adults in the Triangle, to open a headquarters for both companies that would bring together the people who write books and those who love to read them.
While Redbud’s co-founders Emily Cataneo and Arshia Simkin had envisioned a physical hub for the organization since its 2019 launch, it wasn’t until So & So’s co-founders Chris Tonelli and Charles Wilkes left the shop’s longtime Mordecai location last winter in search of a larger space that the possibility of collaborating took shape.
“The Triangle area is rich with writers, but there’s not a unified scene, the way I see in other cities, and I think some part of that is a storefront or a place to go,” Tonelli recalls thinking.
So when an opportunity arose to partner with another organization to share rent on a new location at 719 N. Person Street, Redbud immediately sprang to mind. The space Tonelli and Wilkes landed upon (just across the street from their previous location) features two floors, each with its unique layout: upstairs, customers can browse So & So’s endless rows of bright-colored shelves before following the staircase down to enter Redbud’s offices, with their brick-covered walls and hand-carved wooden tables.
The two spaces have separate entrances, with Redbud’s just around the corner from the bookstore’s, making it ideal for both individual and joint activities.
”It made a lot of sense,” Tonelli says, “to try to develop a kind of center where folks know they can go for books, they can go for writing, they can go for readings and panels and other literary discussions.”
For Cataneo and Simkin, partnering with the So & So team was an easy decision. “So & So is one of the places that has been a champion of Redbud since the beginning,” says Simkin, noting the bookstore’s long-held support of its classes and program. “When they mentioned that they had this opportunity, it kind of seemed too good to pass up.”
After all, So & So isn’t just any bookstore. Founded in 2013, the shop specializes in giving customized book recommendations to each potential buyer, along with hosting a number of readings, book clubs, and listening parties, among other events. Tonelli and Wilkes frequently collaborate with other local businesses, too; currently, they’re partnering with Oakwood Cemetery and NC State’s MFA in Creative Writing Program for a poetry contest, with submissions open until Sept. 1.
So & So’s model of community reach-out and nontraditional programming fits well with Redbud’s philosophy. Although the school had long held its courses at bookstores around the Triangle—places like Raleigh’s Quail Ridge and Chapel Hill’s Epilogue (and continues to do so, as well as online)—the new headquarters offers a chance for it to expand its offerings through events like readings and trivia nights.
Already, the locale has been put to good use: besides the packed grand opening party the organizations hosted June 25, the space has held writing classes, meet-ups, and even a pop-up plant shop from local company Philo And Fern.
When they’re not teaching, both Simkin and Cataneo even occasionally take on a few shifts at So & So, selling books and encouraging writing-curious customers to check out the organization based just down the stairs.
“The goal is to unify the communities so that it’s not about separate little pods,” says Tonelli. “It’s really great to be in the shop or in a book club or at a reading and they’re talking about Redbud. It just kind of means that those things are becoming synonymous and the barriers to those communities are easing even faster.”
While Redbud isn’t the first Triangle-based organization interested in offering writing workshops in a communal space—Tonelli himself took part in a short-lived endeavor called The Hinge that offered classes in Durham back in 2011—there’s reason to think it’ll thrive where its predecessors have failed. For one thing, Simkin and Cataneo are determined to reach students from all areas of the Triangle, not just Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill. And with the Mordecai location as home base, Cataneo says, she and Simkin can focus on furthering the school’s reach to areas like Pittsboro, where, through the town’s McIntyre’s Books, Redbud will be offering its first class later this month.
“It is really important to us to continue to offer classes throughout the Triangle so we can reach people in all parts of the community, but then we’re also really, really excited to have this headquarters,” says Cataneo. “Having brick and mortar literary spaces like this are super important in engendering growth and community in a literary scene in a city.”
For its fall course load, Redbud is offering six workshop classes at its headquarters, in addition to several more at Quail Ridge, in Pittsboro, and on Zoom. Among other offerings, students can enjoy an introductory novel writing course, an explainer on memoir, and a class entirely focused on surrealism in poetry. Each class will see participants not only learn the craft in question but also work on projects of their own to share with classmates. Registration is open now; the first courses begin August 15.
Tonelli is hopeful that Redbud’s students will check out So & So’s offerings upstairs before and after each session.
“If someone’s writing reminds them of this certain author, [the teachers] are recommending books, so hopefully those folks come upstairs and snag that book by that author,” he says. The favor goes both ways; Tonelli keeps a printout of Redbud’s schedule at the bookstore’s checkout desk to inform any interested writers of their programs.
Says Simkin, “Our goal is always to reach as many people as possible and to sort of do it in the most fun and inclusive way.”
Already, the effects of that mission can be seen. At the grand opening earlier this summer, dozens of people filed into both levels of the building to hear writers read their work and to celebrate Redbud and So & So’s partnership. As Simkin watched students meet in person for the first time after talking only on Zoom, and then enjoy applause from the crowded room after their readings, she felt a sense of assurance. Here was evidence underscoring the reasons that she and Cataneo had pursued a physical location.
“Getting to see them read them in person and feel appreciated and feel like they were part of something bigger, for me that was like, oh, this is why we’re doing this,” she recalls.
The goal of any community organization, Cataneo adds, is to encourage members to root each other on in achieving their goals.
“In a physical space,” she says, “it’s all the easier to make those connections and support each other.”
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