The Browsery was once part of the fabric of the UNCG community. Then it became a downtown fixture as well.
Soon alumnus and bookseller Ben Mathews will be closing shop.
Matthews came to UNCG in February 1967 – two years after the first men enrolled. His academic career was disrupted when his father was killed back in his Georgia hometown, and family responsibilities pulled him back to Georgia. He attended through 1970.
He was an English master’s major, though he did not graduate. He did start a bookstore near campus on Mendenhall in April 1976, with business partner Charles Gibson. It was called The Browsery, located in the building where Firehouse Grocery now resides. Every book lover at UNCG from the mid-1970s through the final years of the millennium has memories of this College Hill bookstore.
Mathews would welcome all customers. Robert Watson would come by. So would Fred Chappell. Eleanor Ross Taylor. Sarah Lindsay. And many other authors and poets and book lovers. The Browsery would draw them in.
UNCG had drawn him. He’d graduated from Oglethorpe University, having started his undergraduate studies at Sewanee, and knew UNCG’s reputation for its professors of English. Randall Jarrell, especially. Tragically, Jarrell died two years before he enrolled. He recalls the first day in Greensboro, arriving at a house on Tate St. across from the post office (now the printing office), near the underpass. A parking lot is there now. After getting his utilities turned on, he visited St. Mary’s House near Tate & Walker. He recalls there was one person there, aside from the priest. That person introduced herself. “Hello, my name is Mary Jarrell.” She was Randall Jarrell’s widow. He instantly felt very welcomed to Greensboro and the UNCG community.
Years later at his bookstore counter, he would provide that same sense of welcoming.
Peter Taylor, a UNCG faculty member who received the Pulitzer for “A Summons to Memphis,” admired a photo of author Robert Penn Warren near his register. “Where did that come from?” Taylor asked. Mathews gave it to him. Taylor, who knew “Red” Warren from his visits to UNCG and earlier, explained that Warren’s expression in that photo captured him is his distinctive way of laughing.
As business grew, Mathews co-opened a second location of The Browsery at 516 South Elm. And he became co-owner of a much larger “The Browsery” space – just for books – at 504-6 S. Elm near the railroad on South Elm.
If you’ve loved books – especially if you’ve loved Greensboro authors and UNCG authors – you’ve likely known Ben Mathews. And you’ve enjoyed some of his great stories of area writers – or heard him recite some of his favorite poems.
The only store that remains is the 516 South Elm location. He’s at the counter and helping customers every day.
But that store is closing soon, he tells us. He is retiring.
Great bookstores are about connecting … with writers who lived long ago or live far away , and in this case with a UNCG alum who’s enriched the community for decades.
The sale will draw some traffic. But a chance to discuss Greensboro writers … or hear him recite the Randall Jarrell poem “Nestus Gurley” from memory … or find out who originally owned this book you’re buying – will draw more.
By Mike Harris
Photo by Katie Loyd