Several months passed before Charles Wilkes realized he might need to ask his business partner what would happen if the bookstore they had opened together never made any money.
In early 2013, Wilkes had just turned 30. He had a steady income and was married without children. But Chris Tonelli—the other half of So & So Books, a little part-time shop in the storefront of an architecture studio on Raleigh's revitalized Person Street—was at a different point in his life. A married homeowner and father of two, he was approaching 40.
"I wasn't sure if we were on the same page," remembers Wilkes. "We hadn't talked about it at that level."
In fact, So & So Books stemmed largely from conversational daydreams the two had shared about the possibility of a bookstore near downtown Raleigh, exchanges that friends at In Situ Studios overheard. They had extra space in their new office and could offer cheap, low-pressure rent for the right retail endeavor. Tonelli and Wilkes accepted, invested what they could in bookshelves and a modest first purchase of inventory and never pursued the sort of extensive business planning a bank loan would require. When it became clear that their profit margin would mean perpetually breaking even, Wilkes worried Tonelli might not have time to stick around.
"How long would we do this if Chris wasn't going to get paid for his time? I finally broached the subject, and I was reassured that he felt like we were offering a service," says Wilkes, laughing in a way that suggests he's still nervous about the numbers. "We felt like we played a role in helping the community exist."
Tonelli had grown accustomed to such situations. As a poet, a poetry reading series impresario and the co-founder of a successful small poetry press, Tonelli has worked at the essential (if underpaid) edges of the literary world for more than a decade. He has been published in esteemed journals, has issued several chapbooks and a book and just finished his second full collection, and has read at high-profile institutions. He has turned his city's contemporary art museum into its only regular poetry hall, and he has almost singlehandedly supported Raleigh's side of the Triangle poetry community. He has obtained grants so that his press, Birds, LLC, can help pay for its writers to travel, and he recruits writers from around the country to read in Raleigh in a series that stands out in part for its longevity and consistency. These days, he begins writing at 5 a.m. every morning before his children wake up and he goes to work in N.C. State's libraries. And he has learned to do all this while getting paid for, well, most anything else.
Closing his sports coat against an early fall breeze at an outdoor bar table a few doors down from So & So Books, Tonelli recalls his first public poetry reading outside of graduate school at Boston's Emerson College. He earned $200 for reading at New York's New School, a sum that still flummoxes him.
"They paid me, which was a disaster because I thought, 'Hell yeah, poetry readings! I'm going to make some money,'" says Tonelli, tilting his head so that his thick-rimmed glasses seem to hover above his grin. "I don't think I've been paid since. I took a $5 Chinatown bus and made $200? Amazing."
Tonelli had taken a slow, unexpected path to poetry. After moving to Raleigh from a small New Jersey town as a teenager, he attended N.C. State as a pre-med student. When he had the chance to graduate early, his father, a scientist, encouraged him to stay in school and study language, something few in his field understood. The analytical approach of the classes captivated him. He skipped medical school, later returned to N.C. State for a master's degree in English, taught in the department and finally moved to Boston to attend Emerson. He had fallen hard for poetry—writing it, reading it, engaging in its unique community. His experience in New York told him he needed to present it, too.
People had responded to Tonelli's writing just as he'd hoped, laughing at the right lines and listening attentively. In Boston, poetry readings almost exclusively featured the paragons of the literary world, descending from the heavens with their awards and bibliographies to offer a few words to those on campuses. There weren't many outlets for emerging authors or places for young writers like Tonelli to test new material. So he began making the trip to New York more often.
"It quickly got old and expensive—nights out in New York, coming back hungover on the Chinatown bus. It was like, 'Let's stay in town for a reading,'" he says. "So that's when I started the reading series."
That series—also named So and So, but with the formal conjunction—began in a small jazz space, for which Tonelli paid a pittance of rent. Word began to spread, and the room began to fill with writers eager for a chance to read and readers eager to hear their words. A reverse pipeline from New York to Boston even formed, with poets looking to get out of their own city.
After a successful first year, where people seemed eager to have a hometown poetry reading, the series relocated to an artist colony called The Distillery at the invitation of poet and current Harvard archivist Mary Walker Graham, who offered to print a broadside for each reading. The artists in the building would collaborate with the poets to create new works. After each season, Graham would bind and sew all of the broadsides together into ornate anthologies. Wide-eyed about the experience nearly a decade later, Tonelli still calls it one of the most exciting collaborations of his career.
When Tonelli and his wife, Allison, left Boston to return to Raleigh, the series had momentum. He quickly resumed So and So, hosting it for years in the coffee shop The Morning Times before relocating to CAM in 2014. Despite the city's growth, Raleigh presented a problem familiar from Boston: Most of its poetry could be found on campus, delivered by poet laureates and award winners.
That is, without Tonelli. Seven years after the move, he presented the 90th edition of So and So in mid-November; considered as a whole, the series' mix of academics and upstarts, touring and local writers represents a very current glimpse into modern poetry. Sometimes, low attendance tests his resolve, making him wonder if the series is necessary or if it's the best use of his time. As with So & So Books, however, So and So the series remains his community contribution—something he must see in his city, even if it means doing it himself for no financial return or never really reading his own work in Raleigh.
"If there had been or even if it came up that there was another event to provide Raleigh with another poetry option, I wouldn't necessarily feel compelled to continue So and So," Tonelli says flatly and without pause. "I just want the place that I live and happen to like, when it's an exciting time to be here, to have that option. It just doesn't otherwise."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Booking words"