The Word Merchant Highway

By Tom Poland

Upon taking a writing position long ago, the boss of bosses shot me a sideways look, “So, you’re a word merchant.” Clever, I thought, but as time wore on so did he. A tyrant, nothing he said or did pleased me. Others, too, it turned out. “Word merchant” took on a bad taste. One sour negative human can ruin most anything can he not? But that was long ago, and when he went to the bad bosses graveyard, my fondness for the expression, in time, returned. 

Word merchant, one who sells words, is slang for writer, but you won’t find it in the dictionary. Call me one if you like, because I do, in fact, sell words at some level—books and speaking engagements. But I have come to think of myself as a blue-collar writer-historian and entertainer, if making people laugh counts. I never intended to, but here I am traveling the Word Merchant Highway. I’ve been on the road steadily now for many years, but the pace quickened in 2015 when I had three books come out after a period of writing some label “prolific.” The year of the great mask aside, most years have been busy ever since. 

A spate of book events kicked off 2022 in January when I spoke to a DAR group in McCormick about South Carolina’s back roads. Later that month I traveled to Suwanee, Georgia, to talk about the old Sunday drive tradition, which is just about dead now. RIP ye old tradition. 

The year began to roll and events in February and seven events in March had me on the road across South Carolina. April brought talks on “Growing Up Southern” and “South Carolina Back Roads;” May, June, and July found me on back roads spreading the gospel as “Folk Medicine,” “Mysteries of the Carolina Bays,” and “82 Miles Along The Coast” go. My route ran from Georgia to Camden, to the Sandhills and beyond. 

Come August I found myself along the Savannah River in Evans, Georgia, talking about compelling sights along the Georgia-South Carolina border. After a lull, the road took me to the fresh faces of the University of South Carolina’s Honors Class where we had a good discussion about writing—Finding Your Voice. 

I could go on, but I’ll sum things up by saying drives to Savannah, Aiken, Edgefield, Greenwood, Abbeville, and other places brought me good times with good people. As I’ve written before, you don’t meet unpleasant people at book and writing events. Among the wonderful groups who book me on a frequent basis are libraries, museums, Daughters of the American Revolution, Huguenot Societies, private groups, universities and colleges, historical societies, and others. 

December 17, I’ll close out 2022 in downtown Columbia at the Mast General Store, a tradition for me, something I’ve done for four years how. Each holiday season, sitting among stacks of new books, pen ready, I meet the nicest people. The creaky wooden floor (sounds just like a true general store), people in holiday attire, and holiday music give me the Christmas spirit. Parents with excited kids, folks with man’s best friend on a leash, and old friends make the four-hour event pure pleasure. 

Come January 2023, I’ll hit the Word Merchant Highway anew. I already have a dozen events on my 2023 calendar. I’ll be going to Darlington, Greenwood, Chapin, Elberton, Georgia, Ridgeway, Greenwood, Aiken, and Conway, and as I used to announce on the public address system for Greyhound and Southeastern Stages, points in between. I already have an event on my 2024 calendar in Richmond, Virginia. That seems far off but the Word Merchant Highway can turn expressway. It’ll be here before I know it.

Other events are sure to come, and I look forward to seeing some of you down the road, the oft-traveled Word Merchant Highway. 

Georgia native Tom Poland writes a weekly column about the South, its people, traditions, lifestyle, and culture and speaks frequently to groups in the South. Governor Henry McMaster conferred the Order of the Palmetto upon Tom, South Carolina’s highest civilian honor, stating, “His work is exceptional to the state.” Poland’s work appears in books, magazines, journals, and newspapers throughout the South.

Author: Stephan Drew

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