7/7/2008 - Asheville has become a book lover's paradise
ASHEVILLE Books do furnish a room, the British novelist Anthony Powell once wrote. In Asheville, books are deeply woven into the fabric of the citys vibrant culture.
"We are lucky in Asheville. We are an art destination and the prevalence of bookstores here goes hand in hand with the notable artists, said Chan Gordon, who with his wife Miegan, has sold used and rare books at The Captains Bookshelf Ashevilles oldest bookstore since 1976.
When we opened, there were tumbleweeds blowing down Haywood Street, Gordon said. We have become a destination simply because weve been around so long. In many ways, we are fueled by the book-minded tourist coming from Charlotte, Atlanta, Knoxville, even Washington, D.C.
While independent bookstores nationwide struggle as they compete against national chains such as Barnes & Noble, discounters such as Wal-mart and Internet booksellers like Amazon, veteran booksellers like Gordon have survived and even thrived in Asheville. In the town that gave birth to literary legends such as Thomas Wolfe and Charles Frazier, readers like to buy books locally, Gordon said.
But Asheville has seen recent turnover in booksellers. The Atlantic Books closed on Lexington Avenue this spring after relocating several years ago from Charleston, S.C. On May, Gillian Coats put a f0r-sale sign on the door of The Readers Corner, a used bookstore, which had operated on Montford Avenue for 11 years.
Bookselling is still a struggle, Gordon admitted. The streets are not lined with gold, but we just happen to live in a place with lots of visitors who support the arts, he said.
Threat of rising rents
Emoke BRacz opened Malaprops Bookstore in 1982. With a focus on poetry, feminist issues, Southern and regional writers, Malaprops has become a downtown institution, hosting readings by writers from across the nation.
I think book selling is a dream, not really a business, BRacz said in an interview last year. We dont compete against anyone, but we are realistic.
That blend of idealism and realism helped BRacz build her business. She has moved into the used book market, opening Downtown Books on Lexington Avenue in 1988. In 2000, Publishers Weekly named Malaprops its bookseller of the year, the first Southern seller to win that distinction.
Asheville is unusual from what I hear from other booksellers across the Southeast, said Linda Barrett Knopp, the stores general manager. Our sales are up, and Ashevilles local economy seems pretty healthy. People are very supportive of us.
Knopp credits some of Malaprops ongoing success to a generous landlord. The Haywood Street location is owned by Public Interest Projects, the for-profit company launched by philanthropist Julian Price to boost the downtown area.
Until recently, The Captains Bookshelf had the same landlord, but Public Interest Projects decided to sell the Page Avenue building that is home to the bookstore in order to settle taxes due on Prices estate.
Bookstores are businesses that require significant amounts of square footage. As property values rise, that square footage becomes more precious, Gordon said.
You cant survive in a high-traffic location, especially if youre a store meant for casual browsing, he added. I mean, were 32 years old and we still dont have a cash register.
The Gordons became minor partners in a group that bought the building for $1.3 million. We have a favorable lease now, and were here for the foreseeable future, Gordon said.
Secret of service
Down in Biltmore Village, Stan Collins has been selling childrens books at Once Upon a Time for the past 15 years. I think that Asheville may be unique in the number of independent bookstores, he said.
People are really committed and dedicated readers have a tendency to patronize us independents. They know when they come into an independent store, that the people there really know the books. I really try to read each of the books that comes in my store, Collins said.
In North Asheville, Lewis Sorrells and Patrick Covington are marking the 25th anniversary of Accent on Books, the independent that specializes in childrens titles, theology and spirituality.
Independents succeed by focusing on service and in-depth knowledge of whats new and whats good to read, Sorrells said. Even with reader recommendations on Amazon.com, the Internet cant duplicate the physical sensation of browsing along a shelf of new or used books. Theres that aesthetic sense of actually holding the book in your hand, Sorrells said.
Barnes & Noble, m eanwhile, has found Asheville a good place for business. After outgrowing its current store on South Tunnel Road, which opened in 2000, the bookseller is building a 35,988 square feet store at the Asheville Mall, due to open in 2009. At that time, the chain plans to close the B. Dalton store, which it also owns, inside the mall.
Barnes & Noble is also expanding its presence into South Asheville with a new store under construction at the Biltmore Park Town Square project. That store is set to open this fall.
But the independents dont seem overly concerned by that expansion. Its amazing to me how loyal our customers are, Covington said. They can go to Barnes & Noble and buy many books cheaper, but so many have stuck with us.
Webshapes used book business
After 11 years dealing in used books, Gillian Coats was ready to write a new chapter in her life.
On May 17, she pasted a f0r-sale sign on The Readers Corner, the used bookstore she operated on Montford Avenue. It was time for me to move on, Coats said.
Bookselling is a labor of love that runs in her family. Her father, Irv Coats, has operated The Readers Corner in Raleigh since 1976.
With used books, you buy a bunch of books, and pay 15 to 25 percent of what you think you can sell it for, Coats said. You wind up not selling perhaps 80 percent of what you buy.
The Internet has revolutionized the used book business. Now anyone around the world can go online and find any used title imaginable, while prices for used books have flattened. A popular novel that I might have sold for $10 now sells online for a $1, Coats said.
That affected the amount she could pay for used books coming into the store. People dont like getting $1 for a book they might have paid $25 to buy and read.
But many used bookstores have found the Internet to be a gold mine, Coats said, including her fathers store, which specializes in selling technical and research textbooks online.
Chan Gordon of The Captains Bookshelf, which deals in rare and antique books, agreed that the Internet has been a doubled-edged sword, raising the price of hard-to-find books and flattening the costs of others.
The Internet has made the rare book rarer, Gordon said. The first edition of Thomas Wolfes Look Homeward, Angel has escalated in price rapidly, while a seventh printing edition of Charles Fraziers Cold Mountain has gone down in monetary value.
Still, the used book business has been steady, particularly in Asheville, Coats said. She hopes to find a new buyer for her store with its full stock of 20,000 books, DVDs, CDs and vinyl records.
In the meanwhile, shell serve as interim director of the Media Arts Project, and she has launched her own New Mediacast Productions, a company specializing in podcasts and other audio programs for online users.
Customers with store credit at The Readers Corner can use their credit at the Raleigh store if they are ever in that area, Coats said. Interested buyers for the Montford Avenue store can contact Irv Cross at 919-82807024.