Arts » Feature

Books Are Making a Comeback in the Queen City

Charlotte biblio-files


Nikki Baucom celebrates Small Business Saturday. (Photo by Shauna Sinyard)
  • Nikki Baucom celebrates Small Business Saturday. (Photo by Shauna Sinyard)

For brick-and-mortar bookstores, the writing was on the wall.

It was November 19, 2007, and Amazon had just released the Kindle. The world's first e-reader sold out in five-and-a-half hours, and shell-shocked industry watchers and members of the reading population predicted that physical books — those archaic construct of bindings, glue and printed pages — were on the way out, and that neighborhood bookstores were soon to be as extinct as the trilobite and the passenger pigeon. In the intervening 11 years it became easy to believe these dire predictions, as bookstores closed and publishers released fewer and fewer new books.

"At one point in Charlotte we had three intimate bookshops," Sally Brewster remembers. Brewster, the owner and manager of Park Road Books, notes that Horizon Books, Brandywine Books and Poplar Street Books have all closed their doors.

Lee Rathers points out that her father, Richard Rathers, who owns Book Buyers in Plaza Midwood, learned the bookseller trade at Appleton's, another vanished retailer.

Just last June, family-owned business The Last Word filed for bankruptcy, joining a roll call of shuttered Charlotte bookshops including The Bookmark, Joseph Beth Booksellers and RealEyes Bookstore. Even big-box behemoth Borders bit the dust, filing for bankruptcy in 2011.

Despite this daunting retail body count, predictions of mass bookstore extinction have been greatly exaggerated, says Jeanne Dowd, owner and manger of The Book Rack in south Charlotte.

"The year Kindles became popular, that was the first time our sales fell instead of growing," Dowd remembers. However, she points out that the e-book sales have since plateaued at about 20 percent of the market, and that new physical books continue being published. After a few rocky years, the Book Rack's sales have been steadily increasing.

Other book retailers have weathered the digital revolution and are now reporting a similar uptick in business. In Charlotte at least, people still love their physical books and local booksellers. They apparently ascribe to Ernest Hemingway's observation that, "There is no friend as loyal as a book," and to Roman statesman Cicero's credo: "A room without books is like a body without a soul."

Book Buyers' comfy seating area. (Photo by Pat Moran)
  • Book Buyers' comfy seating area. (Photo by Pat Moran)

Launched in the Park Road Shopping Center in 1977, Park Road Books is Charlotte's oldest extant bookstore. Current owner and manager Sally Brewster was a sales representative for Random House publishers when she first called on then-owner John Barringer in the late 1990s. It was Christmastime and Brewster knew that no one wanted to talk to a sales rep during the height of the holiday season, so she cut a deal with Barringer: She offered to work for the bookseller every Christmas. As a result, Brewster became familiar with the store and its product. In July 1999 Barringer hired Brewster as store manager. Four years later, he asked her if she wanted to buy the business from him.

"I told him, 'Anybody who would buy a book store now is insane,'" Brewster remembers with a laugh. "And I just happened to be that insane person."

Crazy or not, it was natural fit for Brewster who says she's been selling books her entire adult life. Today, the store occupies a long and narrow 46,000-square-foot space stocked with over 30,000 tiles, Brewster says. Most hardcovers are $26. Mass-market paperbacks, what Brewster calls "the rack-sized jobbers," are $7.99 to $9.99. Trade paperbacks, the oversized volumes that use better glue and paper, run around $16.

The store's staff ranges from 13 to 16 people. Brewster has a handful of criteria for hiring, and the most important qualification for employees is that they must love reading. "We look for people that read authors that are alive," Brewster continues. "If you don't read anybody published after 1945, that's not going to help because most of our books are current."

Brewster also stresses that Park Road Books' staff must posses a certain je ne sais quoi, a combination of customer service skills and personality. "[Employees] have to engage the customer. People are looking to delve into the book and talk about them here." Perhaps the most friendly and dedicated employee is the bookstore dog, Yola. She's spent nine and a half of her 10 years at the shop, Brewster points out, adding that Yola is sleeping behind the counter as we speak.

For many readers, used books possess a particular allure. They come with a history, a connection to previous owners and an oft-musty smell that fantasist Ray Bradbury likened to the tombs of ancient Egypt. Author Virginia Woolf wrote, "Second-hand books are wild books, homeless books; they have come together in vast flocks of variegated feather, and have a charm which the domesticated volumes of the library lack."

Richard got the idea to launch a used bookstore in Plaza Midwood because he loved books, Lee says. He also thought that running a bookstore would be a good way to spend his retirement. It makes sense that the elder Rathers would choose a hectic activity like launching a business as a way to relax, Lee continues laughing. With an employment history that includes the Air Force, coal mining and teaching, Richard boasts a varied and busy background. In 1998 Lee's father started working part time at Appleton's to learn the book trade's ropes, while still teaching full time at Harding University High School.

"He started building bookcases, and going to yard sales, just amassing boxes and boxes of books, until he got to the point where he said it's time to open up the shop," Lee remembers.

Jeanne Dowd, owner and manager of The Book Rack. (Photo by Ken Dowd)
  • Jeanne Dowd, owner and manager of The Book Rack. (Photo by Ken Dowd)

In 1999, with the help of Virginia O'Riley, the Rathers moved their collection of used books into a 1,000-square-foot space at the then nearly empty Midwood Corners Shopping center at the intersection of The Plaza and Central Avenue.

"We were driving around Plaza Midwood and my father just had a good feeling about the [location]," Lee says. A year later, the store moved into a larger space in the strip mall, and a few years after that, it relocated once again (still the same building) into its current 35,000-square-foot space. Lee estimates that Book Buyers stocks close to 50,000 books, all priced, shelved, curated and sold by a lean staff made up of just O'Riley and the Rathers. Paperbacks run half the cover price, while hardcovers range from $6 to $10, with most falling in the lower end of that range. Book Buyers vets the used books that customers bring in, and offers store trade-in credit.

In many ways, The Book Rack represents a hybrid of Park Road Books and Book Buyers, offering a selection of new and used books. Dowd says she wanted to own a bookstore ever since she was a little girl. She got into the book trade soon after graduating from Wellesley College, when she went to work for Kroch's and Brentano's, then the largest privately owned bookstore chain in America. She moved from Massachusetts to Charlotte to manage the location here that opened in Carolina Place Mall in 1991.

"We did nicely for a few years but then Barnes & Noble opened up right across the street," Dowd remembers. With a much bigger selection and more attractive discounts, Barnes & Noble was rapidly pushing Brentano's out of business. Dowd cast around for her next move and decided she could compete in the bookselling market with The Book Rack's business model. "The Book Rack is a franchise, but a very loose franchise, " Dowd explains. She had too many bad memories of being micromanaged by district managers during her days at Kroch's and Brentano's. "I had had managers come in and say, 'You know what would be fun? Let's switch the entire store around. We'll move everything from the back into the front and everything from the front into the back.' Then I had to deal with all the angry customers."

In contrast, The Book Rack provided a bit of training, some books to start out, and few group-buying opportunities, Dowd continues. "Other than that they let you do what you want," she says. "[The Book Rack] gave me freedom with a little bit of support."

Dowd launched her store in 1995, moving from a 2,000-square-foot space to their current 5,000-square-foot space on Johnston Road in 2010. She currently employs six people who work the front desk, two employees who handle shelving and one woman who comes in part time to do the store's shipping.

Dowd estimates that she currently has 50,000 used books and 8,000 new books in stock. Prices range from $4 to $6 for used books. New books, both hardcovers and paperbacks, are discounted 20 percent off the publisher's price.

The mid-to-late 1990s was a stressful time for book retail, Brewster remembers.

"It was brutal," she says. "We were dealing with Borders, Barnes & Noble, Amazon, Media Play." To compete, Brewster expanded the store's scope and outreach in the community. She brought in more books, bolstered the shop's selection, strengthened existing relationships with publishers and started catering to book clubs. "Anybody that needed somebody to talk about books, I was more than willing to talk for free," she maintains. In-store events and author visits became a key part of Brewster's business model. She recalls Barringer telling her about a young writer coming into the store eager to talk about his self-published book. That young scribe turned out to be Pat Conroy, best-selling author of The Prince of Tides, The Great Santini and other blockbusters.

"That's why we have author events," Brewster concludes. "We want to help the writer meet the reader. Sometimes only a couple of people show up. Sometimes we have hundreds. But they're all important because the writer is trying to make contact, and people are interested."

Upcoming in-store author visits this fall include former Creative Loafing contributor Frye Gaillard (A Hard Rain) and Ellen Hilderbrand (Winter in Paradise). Brewster recalls Anne Rice stopping in and Conroy returning multiple times. She reckons the most memorable event was an appearance by Diary of a Wimpy Kid series author Jeff Kinney. "We had him for Cabin Fever, and they brought in 2,000 pounds of ice and made it into snow," Brewster remembers. The stars from the Wimpy Kid movie made a surprise visit to the store, and the line wound all the way down to Suarez Bakery at the far end of the shopping center, she continues.

In contrast, Dowd took on the big-box competitors with The Book Rack's discounted prices. The Book Rack, like most bookstores gets its new product through wholesalers like Baker & Taylor and Ingram Book Company.

Lee Rathers at The Greener Apple in Book Buyers. (Photo by Garrett Simmons)
  • Lee Rathers at The Greener Apple in Book Buyers. (Photo by Garrett Simmons)

"Wholesalers buy from publishers and sell to bookstores," she explains. Ingram Book Company is a quick source for titles and they also offer lower minimums than publishers in exchange for free shipping, Dowd continues. "With Ingram you can order from a whole variety of publishers from one source." Efficiency and cost-cutting results in saving, which is passed down to Dowd's clientele. "We take a lower margin on our new books than other new bookstores do which, is why we can offer the discount on them."

Also unlike new bookstores, The Book Rack can offset their lower margin on new books with a slightly higher margin on used books. "New bookstores have to make all of their money off new books so they can't afford to discount as much as we do," she explains.

Book Buyers has managed to cut itself loose from the big box pack with diversity. While many stores offer gift cards and bookmarks in addition to books, Book Buyers is the only bookstore where you can also pick up vegan products or adopt a kitten. The cat adoptions started in 2002, when O'Riley discovered an abandoned kitten in an alley behind the store, Lee says.

"Virginia scooped up the cat, who became our bookstore cat, Page," Lee continues. Soon O'Riley started rescuing other kittens and cats and bringing them into the store. A large cage at the back of the store currently houses the animals until O'Riley finds permanent homes for them. Prospective book buyers can now find themselves captivated by cute kittens, and they could wind up leaving the shop with a brand new pet as well as a used copy of Danielle Steel's latest opus.

As is often the case, it's easier to adopt out kittens than grown cats, so O'Riley moved some of the adult cats she rescued from her home into the store, where they currently reside in the back room. By the spring of 2017, Page had her own bookstore cat Facebook page with 6,063 followers, but she grew weary of the attention she drew from store patrons. Deciding it was time for Page to retire, O'Riley brought the literary veteran home and swapped her out with Book Buyers' current bookstore cat, Deena.

In much the way that O'Riley started rescuing and adopting out animals from the goodness of her heart, Lee followed her passion to launch her vegan store, The Greener Apple, which is housed inside Book Buyers. The shop, which offers vegan food, cleaning products, toys and more, began life in the front of the bookstore as Ecolicious, a locally sourced gift and food store that Rathers launched with a former business partner. When Ecolicious moved to Commonwealth Avenue, Lee decided to continue her business with an accentuated vegan bent.

"I started the Greener Apple because there wasn't anything around that just sold vegan," Lee explains. "You had to go to Whole Foods and look up all the ingredients."

Currently, Greener Apple carries everything from vegan cookbooks to 23-pound bags of vegan dog food. It's a one-stop shop where you can find products that you previously could only find in vegan magazines, Lee says. People come in specifically looking for vegan products, she continues, but sometimes people come in for books and leave with vegan health and beauty products.

"It's cool and eco-friendly stuff," Lee concludes. "It's sustainable, conscious of the earth and an alternative to our disposable culture." The Greener Apple had gotten so popular by last spring that Lee and her father considered giving over most of the bookstore's space to vegan products — but then book sales started to explode. Lee credits the population boom in Plaza Midwood for the uptick in book business. It seems that Richard's good feeling about the location at the intersection of the Plaza and Central Avenue has paid off. Lee notes that the shop's foot traffic has increased dramatically.

"We get people walking into our store who have never been here before," she says. "And there are people who have just moved here that are looking for a cool place. We remind them of bookstores that are like what they had where they used to live."

Brewster has also noticed an increase in Park Road Books' business.

"For the past seven years we've had an uptick almost every year," she says. "For us, the real slam was the recession." Park Road Books suffered with the big-box stores, and then suffered a little more when the market went digital, she continues. "But that peaked about five or six years ago," Brewster maintains. "A lot of people say they still read electronically but they also like to have a physical copy in their hands."

Dowd sees a similar trend.

"The number of physical books published every year is down, but The Book Rack's sales, after a bit rockiness in 2011 have gone back to growing." This growing customer base is shopping for best-selling fiction and action/adventure and suspense novels, Dowd says. Romance typically makes up 40 percent of the paperbacks sold in this country, she continues. "Our history and science fiction/fantasy sections get scoured on a regular basis.

Fiction titles are the most popular at Park Road Books, Brewster says. The store sells a lot of histories, biographies and young adult fiction, she continues.

"[Young adult fiction] is a category that expanded after J.K. Rowling and the Harry Potter books came out. We keep increasing our selections on that category."

Book Buyers' expansive selection of books. (Photo by Pat Moran)
  • Book Buyers' expansive selection of books. (Photo by Pat Moran)

For Book Buyers, the titles that people bring in for trade-in do much to dictate the categories. It may be the only bookstore where you will see categories like Marxism right down the aisle from Paranormal Romance.

"At one point we had a hypnosis category," Lee says. "If we get in enough books on a subject to fill a shelf, we make up a brand new category." One category that's easy to spot is Book Buyers' Aviation section. That's because the books are shelved just beneath an actual airplane, a 1940s Piper J-3 Cub. "My dad got his private pilot's license in the 1980s. He loved to fly. So one day he decided to build an airplane." Suspended from the ceiling without its canvas covering, the Piper Cub is just a frame and an engine. It looks too fragile to fly through the air.

"It's definitely a conversation piece," Lee says. "Some kids see it and say, 'Wow, an airplane!' It's a good way to bring the little ones into the store." With more children and adults coming in to Book Buyers, Lee attributes the surge in business to the tactile and nostalgic nature of physical books. "[People] like the feel and the smell of a book," she says. "They remember it and they miss it."

"A lot of people like holding a book in their hands," Dowd agrees. "We have people come in saying they look at a screen at work all day. The last thing they want to do is come home and look at a screen again." Dowd cites multiple studies that show the blue light emanating from e-reader screens is not conducive to inducing sleep. "So if you're reading yourself to sleep with a tablet, you're doing it the wrong way."

Brewster thinks our attachment to reading physical books goes even deeper into our psyches.

"There's something psychological about it," she says. "It hones into our being. I think our eyes and our brains react deeper and better with paper." Even with all the digital devices and entertainment options to choose from there is nothing like a book to fall into, Brewster continues. "There is so much depth to a book. I'm not going to lie. I do watch a little TV, but the experience of reading a book is so much broader and richer."