Octane Coffee Shop in Grant Park is bustling on this cloudy Saturday morning. A dozen twenty- and thirty-somethings have stationed themselves behind laptop computers along a wall of windows or await their to-go orders at the bar. Laura Relyea spots me next to a row of pastries as soon as she enters. When she reaches my table, even as she pulls out a chair, she commences a discussion about her greatest passion: good books.
Relyea heads Vouched Books, a company that introduces readers to poetry and other literature published by small, independent presses that they might not find at mainstream bookstores. Combining her love of good writing with a gift for building relationships with authors and readers, Relyea, 27, has become an important player in Atlanta’s vibrant literary scene.
Vouched Books functions mainly in three ways. It sets up “guerrilla bookstores,” portable tables of books, at local literary events, such as Solar Anus, lostintheletters and the Decatur Book Festival. It hosts its own reading series, “Vouched Presents,” at the Goat Farm Arts Center and Young Blood Gallery. And it blogs author interviews and book reviews on its website.
Since its October 2010 debut in Indianapolis, Vouched Books has experienced impressive growth. Relyea came on board in July 2011 to open the Atlanta branch. And having recently taken over as editor-in-chief, she now oversees all four branches, including newly opened ones in Austin and San Francisco, and an eight-member staff.
To date, Vouched Books has curated titles, in prose and poetry, from 39 authors, including Michael Nye, Heather Christle, Roxane Gay, Amber Sparks, Bruce Covey, Amy McDaniel and Gina Myers, and from approximately 20 small presses including Dzanc, Octopus Books, Melville House and Rose Metal Press.
Soft-spoken but clearly excited, Relyea pulls some current favorites out of her bag and proudly fans them out on the table. Gabe Dunham’s Fun Camp is a collection of stories, monologues and lists about summer camp. Vouched Books’ Single-Sentence Review describes it as a volume that will “stain your lips with barrels of bug juice, callous your fingers from failed archery attempts, and give you the crisp thrill of a post-popsicle kiss: revel in the confusion and anarchy of summer camp.”
Relyea is equally enthusiastic about Zachary Schomburg’s poetry collection FJORDS Vol. 1 and Aubrey Hirsch’s short story collection Why We Never Talk About Sugar. During the course of the conversation, she ticks off at least a dozen other titles she’s read and loved. Though she’s a bookseller professionally, she’s a bibliophile at heart.
How does Vouched succeed in the struggling book market? Part of the answer lies in its inventive business model. The idea of the guerrilla bookstore originated with Christopher Newgent, who founded the flagship Vouched Books in Indianapolis. But Relyea has been able to better capitalize on the guerrilla bookstore method in Atlanta, because of its more established literary events and regular reading series. Moreover, because she stocks only titles that she or other staff members recommend, she carries a finite, easily manageable inventory. Thus Vouched incurs minimum overhead with maximum reach.
And she gives her adopted city part of the credit for her success. “Atlanta is a city that is not afraid to reinvent itself and take risks, a trait that has really resonated with me since moving here,” Relyea says.
Matt Bell, one of Vouched’s authors, compares her mission and method to a grass-roots political campaign. “We talk a lot in the literary world about community-building and activism, and I think [Relyea’s] work is an exemplary example of both,” Bell says. “She’s a champion for small press literature, and for books and writers that truly need that support, in the absence of the kind of marketing and coverage that bigger-press books receive.”
Relyea’s enthusiasm for literature is contagious. Kate Sweeney, the founder of True Story!, met her at the Vouched table during a Write Club event. Soon the two began talking about books. “Then [Relyea] handed me a book of amazing poetry,” Sweeney says. “I opened it up, it blew my mind, and I bought it.” As a result of their meeting, Relyea now regularly sets up tables at True Story! readings.
Where does Relyea’s devotion to literature come from? Picture a young girl with a father in the military, moving nine places before heading off to college. Imagine a mother signing up her daughters for library cards even before unpacking the family’s household goods. Despite frequent relocations that brought new schools, neighborhoods and friends, a love of literature kept Relyea grounded. “Books were consistent,” she says. “They helped tether me to a place.” She wonders now whether she gravitated to adventure novels, such as Jean Craighead George’s Julie of the Wolves and My Side of the Mountain, because they spoke to her experiences as a child always on the move.
Later, as a college student at Ball State University in Indiana, Relyea joined a folk band and interned at independent record labels. What struck her in particular was how small record companies weren’t afraid to take on and promote music considered too risky or avant-garde for larger, mainstream companies.“Small presses function in the same way as small indie record labels,” she says. She believes they provide a “more personal and intimate” connection between author and publisher, and are also more creative in their promotion of their authors. “Small presses grow with their authors and help them pave their own path in publishing.”
Relyea brings a writer’s perspective to her work. Her latest prose poems appear in Coconut Poetry’s 17th issue. She has published a summer reading list for Scoutmob, and her first book, a collection of short stories titled All Glitter, Everything, will be published by Safety Third Enterprises in October.
Relyea envisions expanding Vouched Presents, applying for nonprofit status, acquiring a greater variety of titles from small presses and increasing Vouched Books’ attendance at local literary events. “And I’m always looking to work with more presses,” she says.
A couple of Octane customers recognize Relyea and stop to chat. Though she has lived in metro Atlanta for only five years, she’s as comfortable as a native.
The name “Relyea” is derived from French, meaning to link, join or bind. It’s a fitting moniker for a woman whose mission is to connect great authors with avid readers. Small press readers and writers can vouch for that.