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"You’ve Got to Read This"

My Bookstore: Writers Celebrate Their Favorite Places to Browse, Read, and Shop Hardcover – November 13, 2012, Black Dog Press

Nancy Olson, the beloved owner of Quail Ridge Books and Music in Raleigh, reads, on average, four books a week. Four thousand people receive her recommendations in a regular email newsletter. Nancy’s mission as a bookseller these twenty-seven years has been to transfer her passion for books to her customers. “I want to stuff the books down their throats,” she laughs.

She’s actually a gentle person, with a cap of white hair, blue eyes, dimples, a smile that animates her entire face, and an irrepressible sense of humor. Today she’s wearing a rhinestone pin that spells out READ in glittery letters.

We’re sitting in a coffee shop talking, as usual, about books. She mentions a novel she’s just finished. It could become an American classic, she says, if people just knew about it. She’s indignant that Publisher’s Weekly --the almighty pre-publication arbiter of literary opinion -- didn’t review it. She’s called them herself and asked if they’ d consider doing a post-publication review. (She has cachet with Publishers’ Weekly: in 2001, they named her Bookseller of the Year). PW has agreed to have a look at the novel; two copies are on the way.

“Oh, Angela, you’ve got to read this book,” she says, leaning forward, “I’ll lend you my copy. I want to know what you think.”

The effect is hypnotic. As soon as we part ways, I drive to the store, where I’ve already been earlier that day, buy the book, go home, and dive in. She’s right. I love the book.

Nancy has a genius for matching books and readers. People often ask her, “What should I read?” She knows her regular customers well enough that she can usually make an immediate suggestion. If she doesn’t know the reader – or the readers’ friend or aunt, for whom the book will be a gift – she asks about preferences, sometimes walking around the store, mulling it over with the customer until she has an answer.

A lifelong voracious reader, she has a substantial mental catalogue to draw upon. She also knows her stock; all the books in the store were handpicked by Nancy and her staff, from small as well as large publishers.

Nancy also has a rare capacity for attention. When she greets someone – in the store, or elsewhere – she comes to a physical and emotional pause. She takes you in. She wants to know how you are, and what you’ve been reading.

Only connect, Forster said.

Connection is the genus loci of this bookstore. Their motto, “Bringing Readers and Writers Together,” is not an empty slogan.

Many people, myself included, think of the store as a second home. People who work there are like family. I go in so often that if I miss a few days, a staff member might ask, with genuine concern, if I’ve been ill. People occasionally bring their lunch. One woman slept on the couch in the afternoons when she was recovering from chemotherapy. Some people come every night for the readings by authors, many of whom are famous; the store is a prime destination for writers on tour. (Their autographed photographs fill the walls of the cozy bathroom).

There is no coffee bar. Before the last expansion, Nancy asked her customers if they wanted books or coffee. One hundred percent voted for more books.

Nancy’s aim is to offer books not found everywhere, along with the expected titles. (Best sellers are on a shelf facing away from the door.) There’s a section of international fiction, an impressive collection of books on writing and publishing, and an eclectic mix of paperbacks laid out on a table. (I recently discovered an Iranian novel there –Women Without Men, by Sharnush Parnispur -- and The Filter Bubble: How the New Personalized Web Is Changing What We Read And How We Think.) Classic fiction is shelved with the contemporary American and British work. Jane Austen occupies most of a shelf; Anthony Trollope stands beside Joanna; there are multiple editions of War and Peace. Occasionally I come across a tempting work of new experimental fiction tucked between books by established writers.

There’s a large, separate area for children’s’ books, overseen by children’s literature specialist Carol Moyer. The music section offers the only substantial collection of classical music CDS in Raleigh, along with jazz and American traditional music.

The reading area, with its table and four armchairs, can be quickly transformed into a public space for readings and other gatherings.

The store hosts discussion groups (on topics as diverse as the Koran, health care, and Flannery O’Connor), writers’ groups, including one for teenage writers, numerous children’s programs, concerts, and quarterly town hall meetings. In programs co-sponsored by the local classical music station, WCPE, the conductor and assistant conductors of the North Carolina Symphony give talks at the store about upcoming performances. Last year conductor Grant Llewellyn prepared his audience for Mahler’s Ninth, with excerpts from the music. Shakespeare’s influence on composers from Mendelssohn to Bernstein is the subject of an upcoming lecture.

An annual used book sale raises money for Book for Kids, a non-profit that Nancy founded for children whose families can’t afford books. Since 1999, 50,000 kids have received books through this program. (This effort is operated almost entirely by volunteers. Devoted volunteers also help in the day-to-day operation of the store, shelving and wrapping books.)

From the beginning, Nancy Olson has given strong support to North Carolina and Southern writers. The first author she invited to read at the store was Jill McCorkle, who had just published two novels with Algonquin Books.

Nancy scheduled the event on an afternoon that happened to coincide with a North Carolina State – Carolina football game. No one showed up.

“I’ve learned a lot since then,” Nancy says with a laugh. “But Jill was very gracious. We spent an hour or so going around the store, talking about books. We bonded for life.”

She has also bonded for life with numerous writers whose books she has saved from oblivion, including mine.

A writer’s career can rise and fall with stomach-dropping speed. My first two novels had done well, but my third, Plum Wine, made the rounds in New York for years without a sale. I finally placed it with a university press, which produced 1000 copies of a beautifully designed volume, but the press didn’t have money to promote it. The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times,which had given my earlier books excellent reviews, overlooked it.

Nancy Olson, who is quick to say that she is not necessarily drawn to each book by her many writer friends, happened to be passionate about this one. After a gala launch, the store gave the book what one staff member called “The Big Push.” Customers could hardly get out of the store without hearing about Plum Wine. Nancy nominated it as a “Pick” for BookSense, which is published by a national consortium of independent booksellers. The novel was chosen, featured in stores around the country, and began to sell. Nancy sent the book to an agent in New York who took on the book with enthusiasm. Suddenly I had a contract for four books: paperback editions of Plum Wine and my first two books, as well as a new novel. Nancy Olson saved my career.

She has also given boosts to dozens of other writers. She praised fledgling North Carolina fiction writer Ron Rash during an NPR radio interview; that day he received several calls from editors. (He has since won numerous awards for his fiction, and a movie based on one of his novels is in the works). Nancy saw promise for a wide readership in Jan Karon’s first novel, House of Mitford, originally published by a small Christian press, and sent the book to an agent. Jan Karon now has a series of Mitford novels that have sold millions of copies.

In the decade before Charles Frazier published Cold Mountain, he often came into the store, and he and Nancy became well acquainted. She was a little anxious about what to expect of that first novel, she says, but when she read it, she was electrified. Quail Ridge launched the book with spectacular sales from the start, and Nancy was by Charles Frazier’s side when he won the National Book Award for Cold Mountain.

Although Nancy Olson has become a major voice in the book world, she and her husband Jim started out in 1984 with a shoestring budget and no experience in bookselling, or in any form of retail.

Nancy had just retired from a government job in Washington D.C. when she and her husband Jim began to think seriously about opening a bookstore, Nancy’s lifelong dream. Their research consisted of a national tour of 24 bookstores. “I saw what I liked, and what I didn’t,” Nancy says. She decided that Raleigh, with its seven colleges, including one university, and at the time, no other independent bookstore, was fertile ground.

Since then, the store has grown from 1200 to 10,000 square feet, with a stock of some 70,000 books. Customers drive to the store from other states and place orders from various foreign countries. (Just because a scientist or professor moves from this area to Sweden or Italy doesn’t necessarily mean that he or she will leave her book home behind.)

Quail Ridge Books and Music, which Newsweek recently named one of the great bookstores in the country, has been phenomenally successful. Even in these hard economic times, it’s holding its own.

But as the years pass, and the culture shifts, the book business and bookstores have become increasingly fragile.

What if there were no Quail Ridge Books and Music?

It’s an unthinkable question, but I’ve heard many people ask it. If we did not have this magnificent bookstore, I and countless others would lose a refuge, an intellectual home.

Since this particular store is so vital to our community, there’s a good chance it will continue for decades, in one form or another.

But the possibility of an ending makes the existence of any living thing – and bookstores are live entities – more precious.

So read, Reader, read. And buy books, from stores.

My Bookstore: Writers Celebrate Their Favorite Places to Browse, Read, and Shop Hardcover – November 13, 2012, Black Dog Press

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