9 College Way

Site of the Book Basement, 1946-71

Gay history, literary history, and intellectual history, are all part of the story of this house, lived in by generations of a Charleston family.

This building, originally a private residence, and now the home of the College’s Department of Communication, was the site of the Book Basement, a store run by two of Charleston’s most significant gay men of the middle of the 20th century.

Originally constructed circa 1835 and owned by Abiel Bolles, who also owned similar houses to the south, this dwelling was modified for Dr. Edmund Bellinger circa 1850, with the shifting of the main entrance from the piazza on the south side to a new doorway on the ground level, at the corner of Green and College streets. The house was owned for nearly 100 years by members of the Follin family, a French Catholic family that fled to Charleston from Santo Domingo during the slave rebellion that resulted in the founding of the country of Haiti. A relative associated with the house was Harry Erckmann, attorney for the College who handled the privatization of the college in 1949, as it shifted from a municipal college to a private one, to avoid integration.

Another descendant was John Zeigler, Jr., who with his life partner, Edwin Peacock, opened a bookstore on the premises on the ground floor on February 19, 1946, the birthday of the famed southern writer Carson McCullers, a friend of Edwin Peacock. Zeigler had been born in Manning, South Carolina, in 1912, and as a child he often visited this house shared by his great aunts. He graduated from The Citadel in 1932, founding The Shako, its literary magazine. Before settling in Charleston, he lived briefly in Washington D.C. amid a group of gay male friends. In the nonfiction book based on the group, Jeb and Dash: The Diary of a Gay Life, 1918- 1945, he appears under the pseudonym “Nicky Bowen.”

In July 1940, Zeigler met and fell in love with Edwin Peacock, who worked at Fort Moultrie on Sullivan’s Island. Peacock, born in 1910 in Thomasville, Georgia, had become a close friend of Lula Carson Smith; he would encourage her artistic growth and introduce her to her future husband, Reeves McCullers.

To try to stay together during World War II, Zeigler and Peacock enlisted together in the Navy in San Francisco; both were stationed at different bases in Alaska until Zeigler served as a radio man on a battleship in the Pacific. Peacock, always slightly deaf, could not serve in that capacity. Many believe he is the basis for the John Singer gay deaf-mute central character in Carson McCullers’s first novel, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. Over the years McCullers made several visits to the bookstore and was a close friend of the couple.

The Book Basement became a cultural and intellectual center in the city under the benevolent guidance of Zeigler and Peacock. In a segregated era, they welcomed both whites and blacks, gays and straights, readers and writers. Many literati, including the gay writers Langston Hughes and Maurice Sendak, as well as gay lithographer Prentiss Taylor, who designed the logo for the shop, often stopped by. Never hiding their relationship, Zeigler and Peacock were promoters of the arts and champions of civil rights in a homophobic and racist era.

When the College acquired the property in 1971, Zeigler and Peacock retired to private life. Green Street and College Street were soon closed to automobiles and became pedestrian walkways in the heart of the campus. In 1984 Zeigler published a book of poems, Alaska and Beyond, and his volume The Edwin Poems, published in 2007, is a tribute to his beloved partner who died in 1989. Zeigler also published an autobiography, Edwin and John: A Personal History of the South in 2009.

By the time of his death in 2015 at the age of 103, Zeigler had endowed the College with nearly a million dollars in scholarships; he mentored and made possible the careers of many young musicians now coming to national and international prominence.

In 2005, acknowledging this generosity, the College placed a tribute to John Zeigler and the Follin family in front of the house. The bronze plaque mentions Peacock, but only as business partner of Zeigler, shying away from the true nature of the relationship. Their papers are now part of Special Collections in Addlestone Library and are a prized part of the College’s Documenting LGBTQ Life in the Lowcountry Project.

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The audio version of this essay was voiced by Joy Vandervort-Cobb, associate professor of theatre at the College of Charleston.
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9 College Way, Charleston, SC 29401