In Praise of Booksellers

The world of words and ideas lost another champion recently with the passing of Nancy Olson, the founder and longtime owner of Quail Ridge Books and Music in Raleigh.  Nancy was a kind, warmhearted and generous person who loved books and loved authors.  When you went to Quail Ridge to promote a new book, Nancy drew a crowd, made you feel at home, and made sure everybody who came in the store in the days and weeks after knew about your work.

Nancy was an independent bookseller, and one of the most successful anywhere.  Booksellers all over the country knew about Quail Ridge and admired the way she ran her store.  Those who studied how she did it knew that she combined the two essential ingredients of any successful bookseller: a love of books and authors and a keen business sense.  She made her store a warm and inviting place, she was a master of personal service to her customers, and she knew how to promote and market.

Not all that long ago, there were thousands of local, independently-owned bookstores in America, a great many of them started by good folks whose main attribute was a love of books and writing.  Any town of any size had at least one independent store, and in larger communities there might be scores of them. 

Then along came the big chains with huge stores and inventories and great buying and marketing clout.  It was devastating for the independents, just as the mom-and-pop grocery stores fell victim to the Krogers of the world.  Hundreds of independents fell by the wayside.  But a few, like Quail Ridge in Raleigh, survived because folks like Nancy Olson knew that a love of books wasn’t enough.  You had to know how to count and how to let the world know what you were doing.

More recently, bookstores of every size and shape – chains and independents alike – have struggled in the new world of e-books and online ordering.  When you can turn on your Kindle and order an electronic version of the latest hot seller, or go online to Amazon and get a physical copy delivered in a couple of days, why bother to get in the car and drive to a bookstore?  The reason you should is that those booksellers who have weathered the storm give you individual service, host authors to tell you about their work, and generally make you feel at home when you walk in the door.

My books are available in all sorts of formats and sources, but so-called “midlist” writers like me would not exist if it were not for people like Nancy Olson.  When you enter one of their stores and ask, “What have you got that’s good to read?” they can recommend a book that fits your particular taste.  To a bookseller like Nancy, every customer is an individual, unique and special.

I sure do miss Nancy Olson.  But Quail Ridge Books and Music is still going strong under new leadership, and when I have a new book to show off, I’ll make a beeline for that place.  And I’ll feel unique and special, too.