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'Mockingbird' Eases Hard Times In Lee's Hometown

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'Mockingbird' Eases Hard Times In Lee's Hometown

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'Mockingbird' Eases Hard Times In Lee's Hometown

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Today is the 50th anniversary of the publication of "To Kill a Mockingbird." Author Harper Lee has always said the book is fiction, but that won't stop thousands from visiting her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama.

Anna Boiko-Weyrauch reports from the real town that inspired one of the most influential pieces of American literature.

ANNA BOIKO-WEYRAUCH: All around downtown, there are glimpses of how Monroeville might have looked in the 1930s when Harper Lee grew up.

Ms. SANDY SMITH (Executive Director, Monroeville Chamber of Commerce): Okay, we're going to go right over here.

BOIKO-WEYRAUCH: Sandy Smith heads the Monroeville Chamber of Commerce and gives a walking tour every Saturday morning during the spring.

Ms. SMITH: The one where it says Johnson Jewelers, that was not here. There was another building on that piece of property.

BOIKO-WEYRAUCH: Theres a mighty courthouse in the middle of the town square, now a "To Kill a Mockingbird" museum. Today, a lot's changed in Monroeville. Lee's childhood road has been razed. Down the road, there's a Wal-Mart and McDonalds.

But there are also a lot of well preserved brick buildings from the '20s. One thing sets this town of 6,000 people apart from others: literary geekiness. "To Kill a Mockingbird" allusions are everywhere, like a huge bird mural downtown.

Ms. SMITH: That is what a mockingbird looks like.

BOIKO-WEYRAUCH: Smith says 25,000 visitors come here every year. She expects to get 20 percent more this year. In fact, the town is holding a series of Mockingbird-related events, some going for as much as $75 a ticket.

Harper Lee doesn't give interviews anymore. She said that the book and its setting are fictional. But looking at Lee's childhood, there are a lot of parallels. Lee and her main character, Scout, both had fathers who were lawyers and they both had a mysterious neighbor feared by local kids.

Monroeville isn't the town in the book but it's as close as visitors will ever get. In the courthouse museum, Japanese native Yoshimi Yoshifuji drove here for the day because she says she was curious after she saw the movie adaptation of the book.

Ms. YOSHIMI YOSHIFUJI: (Through translator) My first impression was the South really was a challenged place. That was my impression. So, after watching that, I think everyone wonders what it's like now.

BOIKO-WEYRAUCH: Yoshifuji recently moved to Alabama from Japan and picked up a copy of the book when she was in town. Mockingbird souvenirs make hot items and local businesses are looking to cash in on demand.

Ms. FAYE DUEITT (Shopkeeper, Purple Papaya): This is one of our courthouse plates done in gold with gold and black accents.

BOIKO-WEYRAUCH: Faye Dueitt runs the Purple Papaya, a small art store across from the courthouse museum.

Ms. DUEITT: I've got round plates and the square plates, Mockingbird margarita glasses.

BOIKO-WEYRAUCH: Did you come up with that?

Ms. DUEITT: There was a drink called the Mockingbird Margarita, so I just came up with my own glass.

BOIKO-WEYRAUCH: A few blocks away from the art studio, the Mockingbird Grill is busy. A framed picture from the movie and an autographed copy of the novel sit at the entrance. Kenya Perez, a waitress at the caf�, says she sees the author around town all the time.

Ms. KENYA PEREZ (Waitress, Mockingbird Grill): She would come in, but she don't like to be noticed, right. Her and her sister used to go down to the lake to feed the ducks, and I would take my baby and they would have some corn that they would give to the ducks. And one day, she gave my baby some and they fed the ducks.

BOIKO-WEYRAUCH: Further back in the restaurant, local teacher Chester Moore just finished lunch. A native of Alabama, Moore remembers reading the book for the first time, especially the mistrial of Tom Robinson, a black man.

Mr. CHESTER MOORE (Teacher): I thought, wow, well, I'm so glad that some things have changed. I'm so glad that this story was written and I'm so glad that it depicts some of the cultural things that were happening.

BOIKO-WEYRAUCH: Today, the book has taken on new importance for the region, which has 20 percent unemployment. Sandy Smith at the chamber of commerce says attention from Harper Lee's story has given the town new purpose.

Ms. SMITH: Monroeville since the 1930s has been a manufacturing hub. And we have had a lot of plants idled in the last couple of years because of the recession. And what this has given us is a way to at least hang on to something and somewhat reinvent ourselves off of it.

BOIKO-WEYRAUCH: Peering down from the bookshelf behind Smith are two small statues of gray mockingbirds.

For NPR News, I'm Anna Boiko-Weyrauch.

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