Georgia’s Rural Center exists to celebrate all that is unique and wonderful about life in the state’s small towns and crossroads communities and to build a brighter future based on that uniqueness. In this “Hometown Heroes” series, we will highlight a few of the unique and wonderful people we admire for their investments in and commitment to the state’s less-populated places.
Before we begin, allow us to explain exactly what we mean by “hero.” In a literary sense, a hero is someone otherwise ordinary who pursues a purpose, remaining committed in spite of setbacks, obstacles and trials. In doing so, he or she inspires and sets a standard for others. This is the sense in which we use the word hero and the understanding with which we’ve approached this series.
In other words, our heroes haven’t necessarily saved a life or even saved the day. Instead, through ongoing acts of personal responsibility, these rural Georgians are among those who are building on the best of rural life and opening others’ eyes to the potential present in the places we call home.
Through this series, we aim to shine a light on rural Georgians whose work
Helps their rural community, making a difference that reaches beyond their own lives,
Encourages others to remain in, return to and invest in their own rural communities,
Reflects positively on their rural communities and on life throughout rural Georgia, and is
Ongoing, revealing a true commitment to and hope for the future of their communities.
Finally, each of the heroes we highlight has made and continues to make a choice to call rural Georgia home. This criterion is as noteworthy as it is obvious, since it is, after all, the most fundamental, most significant and—in today’s world—arguably the most admirable of the criteria our heroes hold in common. This qualification makes all the difference.
Without further ado, allow us to introduce our first Hometown Hero, Thomasville’s Annie B. Jones.
Growing up surrounded by extended family in a quiet Tallahassee neighborhood, Annie B. Jones looked forward to the day when she could leave her hometown behind and soak in all the excitement of big-city life she’d read about in books and seen in movies. Jones was 12 when she first saw “You’ve Got Mail” and admired the lead character’s idyllic life as the owner of a small, independent bookstore in a close-knit Manhattan community.
She filed the memory away and went on with life, eventually earning a degree in journalism before marrying and returning to Tallahassee while her husband attended law school. During weekend trips to nearby Thomasville, the couple came to love a little, local bookstore that brought to mind the one Jones remembered from the movie many years before.
When a branch of The Bookshelf opened in their Tallahassee neighborhood, Jones jumped at the opportunity to try the trade on for size, leaving a promising path in her chosen profession for a part-time post at the satellite store. And when The Bookshelf’s owners decided leave bookselling behind, they made Jones an offer she could not refuse: Take over management of the flagship shop in downtown Thomasville, and they would credit Jones’ time toward the purchase price of the business.
Jones invested several years this way, working-to-own the beloved business. Just 27 when the venture began, Jones made the last monetary payment on The Bookshelf earlier this year, just after she celebrated her 37th birthday. Today, 10 years into owning her own independent bookstore, Jones laughingly quips that she is “channeling Kathleen Kelly,” the fictional bookshop owner she esteemed as a preteen movie-goer. Though her childhood dream of metropolitan life has not come true, what she has found—and helped build—in a small Georgia town is every bit as admirable.
So, what makes Annie B. Jones a hometown hero? According to Thomasville City Councilman Scott Chastain, it’s what she’s helped make happen in his hometown.
“When Annie took over The Bookshelf, it was one of only a handful of businesses like that downtown,” he recalls. “This was before the coffee shop, before most of the restaurants—before downtown Thomasville was what people think of it as today.”*
Jones’ role in it all is a story Chastain knows well. In addition to being a city council member and a Thomasville native, Chastain and his wife Katie are the previous owners of The Bookshelf, the very ones who hired Jones to work in Tallahassee and made the “sweat equity” offer that allowed her to buy the business. A young couple when they chose to return to Thomasville to raise their family 15 years ago, the Chastains saved The Bookshelf from closing when they purchased it soon after settling in.
“Katie and I didn’t have the passion for books that Annie has,” Chastain says. “We just didn’t want to see this local business die.”
Heroes in their own right, what the Chastains preserved, Jones has built into one of downtown Thomasville’s most beloved attractions. As the former owner points out, Jones has broadened The Bookshelf ‘s customer base from a local to a national reach, and in doing so, she has helped establish downtown Thomasville as a destination.
With an estimated 60,000 in-person shoppers each year and thousands more served through online sales, business at The Bookshelf is booming. While book sales skyrocketed during the COVID pandemic, allowing Jones to more than double her workforce, the ventures that keep Jones busiest are not found on shelves. The podcast she started in 2014, From the Front Porch, is downloaded by more than 10,000 listeners every week. Many of those weekly podcast listeners find their way to the brick-and-mortar Bookshelf or to one of the wildly popular events Jones and her team host in Thomasville several times each year, each of them eating, staying, shopping and playing among a long list of other local establishments.
It is true that Jones has built The Bookshelf into big business for the local economy, but there is an aspect of her work that she holds more dear: building community. As The Bookshelf’s mission statement—and the “mission tee” available in the online shop—proclaim, Jones and her team “believe in the power of books to shape communities and foster conversations,” inevitably bringing about a future that is brighter both in Thomas County and beyond.
For Jones, the commitment to community reaches outside The Bookshelf’s artfully arranged front windows and carefully curated walls. It’s a personal commitment she lives out through leadership in programs like One Book Thomas County and the Destination Thomasville Tourism Authority. When she’s not working, Jones is an active member of Trinity Anglican Church and a Thomasville Entertainment Foundation season ticket holder. She also takes great joy in sharing good reads secondhand through the “Little Free Bookshelf” that occupies a corner of her front yard. All of this is because Jones believes in the power every person possesses—even in sparsely populated places—to effect a more preferable future.
“In a divided country, the rural South is uniquely positioned to see everyone’s humanity, value and goodness,” Jones explains. “We Southerners are not a homogenous people. If we could turn down the voices of fear and anger, of those trying to force us into different corners, and see each other as neighbors, as members of the same community, we could actually show the nation the way forward.”
For her part, Jones is doing just that, day in and day out, in her little slice of rural Georgia. Though she’s chosen to call a small town home—not at all how she once imagined her grown-up life going—her influence reaches far beyond rural Georgia and reflects beautifully on us all, drawing outsiders in and inspiring long-time locals to see their surroundings with new eyes. It is this sort of commitment, vision and hope we, at Georgia’s Rural Center, exist to celebrate and cultivate. Because Thomasville’s Annie B. Jones is setting such a superb standard, we consider her a true hometown hero.
*In case you’re unaware, people far and wide think quite a lot of Thomasville today. Just ask our friends at Southern Living, who recently ranked it one of the Best Small Towns in the South. Or peruse the pages of Garden & Gun, which have featured Thomasville’s people and places three times in the past year alone.
Coming up: The Bookshelf’s next Literacy Night will take place Thursday, May 25. As with each of The Bookshelf’s Literacy Nights, the May event will feature a book donation to benefit a local organization. All children’s books donated in May will be distributed during Thomasville’s Juneteenth celebration Saturday, June 17. “Our goal is for every child who attends the Juneteenth event to go home with a new book,” says Felicia Dilbert, The Bookshelf’s community liaison and coordinator of the collection.