Sonny Brewer arrives for our interview perched atop a long, black-seated gray scooter with two boxes of books duct-taped behind him. Settled inside the Windmill Market, he looks healthy and relaxed — trim and bearded, with wire-rimmed glasses, plaid shirt, jeans and signature vest. In conversation, he proves to be just as passionate about books and reading as ever.
Brewer’s bona fides include work as a journalist; a newspaper, magazine and book editor; an author; a publisher; a used and rare bookstore owner; a writer-in-residence; a sponsor and organizer of literary events; and a friend to writers famous and obscure. His books include “A Yin for Change”; “The Poet of Tolstoy Park, ” 20 years in the making; “A Sound Like Thunder”; “The Widow and the Tree”; and “Cormac.” He is something of a cracker-barrel philosopher, and this mien deeply infuses his writing.
Taken in toto, his books represent a running meditation on the meaning of life and finding one’s center.
Born in 1949 upstate in Lamar County, hard by the Mississippi line, Brewer grew up an Air Force brat and moved half a dozen times before he was 6. He discovered books at the age of 10, when he began staying with his great-grandmother after school. This helped anchor him in Alabama and opened a new interior world. “There was not a radio in the house, ” he recalls, “and it was very cold and quiet in the winter.” But the house was full of books. “Her son, my great-uncle, was a Harvard-trained preacher, ” Brewer explains. Here, he makes a motion as if to pluck a volume from a shelf. “There was nothing else to do. That’s what hooked me on reading.” He only remembers one of those early titles now, “Shane: A Dog of the North, ” but maddeningly, he hasn’t been able to find it on any Internet book searches.
Brewer went to college at the University of Alabama as a business major. “I was miserable. I was lost. I didn’t have money, didn’t have a cool car, wasn’t a football player.” His epiphany came in an English composition class after the teacher gave an unusual assignment. On a particularly pretty day, she dismissed her students and told them to venture onto the campus, pick any object they fancied and “make a picture” with words. Brewer chose the iconic Denny Chimes. His paper got an A-plus and a thrilling comment to boot: “You are sweetness and light.” He immediately changed his major to journalism. “That’s how I was attracted to writing. Stringing words together, I could be somebody.”
At this point during our interview, we are interrupted by Rick Bragg, who lives part-time in Fairhope. Bragg has collaborated with Brewer on a number of projects, and they harbor an evident immense respect and affection for each other, fueled in part by a bone-deep understanding of similar past travails. “Sonny is Fairhope, ” Bragg asserts, and no one who knows either the man or the town is likely to disagree. But then Bragg’s famous deviltry comes to the fore as he admonishes me, “Please get in there just how persnickety and hardheaded he is.”
If Brewer is indeed hardheaded, on balance, it’s probably served him well. Despite his initial epiphany, he still suffered a great deal of uncertainty, and he flunked out of Bama during his second year. He then volunteered for the Navy, figuring that “the worst rolling deck on the South China Sea was better than the warmest foxhole in Vietnam.” But even at sea, his literary interests found outlets. He kept a journal, wrote press releases, and “took up reading again.” After his discharge, he returned to Bama, finished his degree, and then helped found the West Alabama Gazette, a weekly newspaper. “I wrote about pigs and city council meetings, ” Brewer chuckles. He also began honing his distinctive voice in a column titled “Over the Transom” (later the name of his Fairhope bookstore). A move to the Mobile Bay area meant a position as a corporate writer at Scott Paper Company, which led to a job at this magazine, where he subsequently served as editor for three years.
At present, Brewer has slowed down somewhat. He’s writing poetry in the style of Rumi, an “absolutely new” endeavor for him, and promises that he “will try to publish” the results. He continues to work as a freelance editor, with a couple of book manuscripts lined up. When asked if he plans to restart the long-running annual Fairhope literary conference known as Southern Writers Reading, Brewer declares that era “done.” But, clearly, whatever else he tackles in this life, books and writing are sure to be at the heart of it. “Everything I know comes from books, ” he insists, and in a fitting conclusion to our time together, he shares a favorite epigram: “Man builds no structure that outlasts books.”
John S. Sledge is the author of “Southern Bound: A Gulf Coast Journalist on Books, Writers, and Literary Pilgrimages of the Heart.”
text by John S. Sledge • photos by Jeff and Meggan Haller