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Indie bookstores keep the spirit and practice of literature alive

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Twenty years ago, the Independent Weekly ran a cover story celebrating the rise of indie bookstores. The story's author calculated that there were about 80 booksellers in the Triangle, and his account lists a number of stores that are now only a fond memory among area bibliophiles.

But the 1992 cover story is also striking in that it was written before the emergence of the biggest challenges that indie booksellers would face, from the metastatic growth of the Barnes & Noble behemoth (which would dwarf Waldenbooks and B. Dalton, the big, bad chain players of 1992) to the emergence of the Internet, e-readers and Amazon.com. But to the first of four indie booksellers we're honoring, "change" is always threatened, but the business remains primarily about books.

The Regulator Bookshop: Celebrating the words, increasing the fun

Sitting in a homey office filled with papers and 1990s vintage computers in the back of The Regulator Bookshop's Ninth Street location, co-owner John Valentine rattles off the things that were supposed to kill books: "CD-ROMs, videos, Internet, Amazon."

But co-owner Tom Campbell, who co-founded the store with Aden Field in 1976, concedes that operations have changed. "We do a lot of tending to the website, social media, processing online orders. That's easily half of what we do. We didn't do any of it 25 years ago."

"We've learned just enough to stay ahead of the curve," Valentine says with a smile.

Both Campbell and Valentine express ambivalence about the rise of e-readers. While this device carries the potential to disrupt their business, they point to recent research showing that the use of e-readers is leveling off. Meanwhile, the store, like their fellow indies across the Triangle, is engaged in the business of selling e-books to their patrons in a partnership with Google. These books can be read on devices other than Kindle.

While they work to manage this part of the market, Campbell and Valentine, like the other store owners, haven't adopted the technology themselves. Aside from the aesthetic pleasures of the printed page, Campbell notes a profound, troubling issue with e-readers, particularly the Kindle. "Your reading is locked down to one piece of hardware. I'm amazed that people put up with it."

But don't mistake Valentine and Campbell for dour bibliophiles. They're active in creating fun, stimulating and creative events to help the store engage with the community. To the regular lineup of author appearances, they've added a program called Blast from the Past, in which local literati come to discuss a favorite classic. Hillsborough novelist Allan Gurganus packed the house for the first one, discussing The Great Gatsby, while Kathy Pories of Algonquin Books excited a similar crowd with her appreciation of Graham Greene's The End of the Affair. Campbell also promises a return of the Durham Pun Championship, which was an unexpected success a couple years ago and will be reprised this fall, probably at an off-site location. Valentine, who took an ownership stake in the store in the late 1970s and is a contributor to the Indy's Front Porch, is also proud of their support for local magazines, zines and postcards.

And both men are proud of seeing a regular customer turn into a star, which came when Charles Frazier published a historical novel called Cold Mountain.

Quail Ridge Books & Music: The books are good

In 1984, Virginia native Nancy Olson opened Books at Quail Corner, located in North Raleigh at the corner of Millbrook and Falls of the Neuse. Her first year, sales were $164,000. In 1994, two years after the Indy cover story, she established herself in her present 10,000-square-foot location, where her sales rose to $3.4 million in 2008.

After a sales slide over the next couple of years of general economic calamity, she saw a sales increase last year for the first time since 2008.

Why is she telling me this?

"I've always been very open about the business," she says, pointing out that it's good for the customers to have a feeling of ownership of Quail Ridge Books & Music along with her. While every indie bookseller is a reader, Olson shows unusual gusto for the challenges of ownership.

"We had to jump into the technical game to be part of the game, to stay in business," she says of selling books online. She's eager to start selling a nonproprietary e-reader, which the ABA is trying to develop for its members by next year. She probably won't be an adopter herself, though: "I'm too ingrained with books. I use the computer sparingly." Olson has also become interested in on-demand printing of books, but she's not yet sold on it, due to the high costs involved.

Olson credits her staff with keeping the inventory current and dynamic, such as Sarah Goddin, formerly of Wellington's Books in Cary, and Carol Moyer, who heads the children's inventory—an important part of the business.

Also important is keeping the store alive with social and intellectual events. In addition to the regular stream of authors, Olson has a knack for drawing political celebrities. And not just from one end of the spectrum: For every Jimmy Carter, Al Gore or Bill Bradley, there's been the occasional Dan Quayle, Charlton Heston and current rising Republican star Marco Rubio.

She's also committed the store to be a staging ground for town hall-type events, in which hot topics are discussed—even at the risk of angering customers. A few years back, Christopher Hitchens browbeat a young seminarian at a packed event that was held down the street at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship. Topics concerning Israel-Palestine issues are a minefield, as she's discovered, but it's another issue she's not shied from.

"Raleigh is a very mixed place," Olson says. "We learned that real fast!"

McIntyre's Books: Curation is the key

McIntyre's Books is a singularly cozy shop, impeccably designed and congenial for diving into the desert island reading list. A conversation with Keebe Fitch, the owner, and Pete Mock, the store's buyer, reveals how intertwined our community of booksellers is. The store is located in Fearrington Village, an upscale mixed-use community that was developed on a historic dairy farm in 1973 by Fitch's parents.

When her father wanted the shops to include a quality bookstore, Fitch stepped in. As a college bookworm at UNC-Chapel Hill, where she majored in history, Fitch enjoyed catching the likes of Kurt Vonnegut and John Irving when they appeared on campus. But she needed to learn the retail book trade, an education she acquired from Erica Eisdorfer at Bulls Head Bookshop.

When Mock came aboard 16 years ago as the store's buyer, Fitch acquired someone with a deep knowledge of local literary tastes—derived in part from years he spent with the now-defunct Intimate Bookshop. She also got someone who reads upward of 200 books a year. And that's not counting the ones he doesn't finish.

"Of those 200 books, I can really only recommend about 10 percent," he says. "But those 10 percent, I can sell," he says with an emphatic smile.

Mock's influence carries over to the display shelves, where title after title features a hand-written review attached to it—written by him or another staff member. He remembers customers' names and recommends books. And he's not afraid to cut against passing fads, as Fitch notes.

"For example, during that whole Stieg Larsson kick, a customer might have come in looking for The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest," Fitch says. "And I'll say, 'Well, we have it, but Pete says you should be reading Jo Nesbø.'"

"I don't pay attention to bestseller lists," Mock says. "We're smart and we're honest."

She and Mock express less overt concern for staying on top of the e-reading trend, but they're not oblivious to it. Like Olson of Quail Ridge, Fitch reports a significant uptick of sales this year. She exchanged theories about the sales trends with Olson, who wondered if the demise of the area's Borders bookstores could be a factor. Fitch, however, doubts that the closing of a chain store located between Durham and Chapel Hill could have affected her sales much.

This might lend support to the idea that McIntyre's thrives because of its attention to the needs and tastes of its customers: people who like to read good books.

Flyleaf Books: The upstart

Several years ago, Chapel Hill developer Ron Strom was looking to bring a bookstore back to Chapel Hill, to be situated in his shopping complex on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. He called around the established indie stores to inquire if any wanted to open a satellite store. When he called McIntyre's, one of Keebe Fitch's staff members, Jamie Fiocco, took the call.

"Ron piqued my interest," Fiocco acknowledges. And before long, she and McIntyre's co-workers Land Arnold and Sarah Carr were in business together. Fiocco serves as general manager, while Arnold is the storefront manager and Carr is the children's manager.

Three years on, Flyleaf Books is flourishing, particularly making a name for itself supporting local poets and musicians. Yep Roc holds album-release parties there—two weeks ago, 130 people packed into the store's dedicated performance space to hear Chatham County Line. The Sacrificial Poets, a collective of young spoken-word artists, hold monthly shows in the store. Local writers pay frequent visits, and even non-local ones, like John Grisham, drop in whenever they're in town. Last spring, one of Chapel Hill's up-and-coming writers, Rosecrans Baldwin, launched his most recent book there.

"Jamie, Land and Sarah really care about their events," Baldwin says. "They know their community, and the audience is always terrific."

But opening a store—and not just any store, but a bookstore—in 2009 was not an easy undertaking. In some ways, the timing was perfect, because of the renewed interest in supporting local businesses. "We kind of came in on the upswing of the local food movement, which had kind of become the local-everything movement," Arnold says. He also points out that nationally in 2009, more bookstores opened than closed.

Readers in Chapel Hill are glad that they have an indie bookstore again.

"I'm in Flyleaf every two weeks," says Baldwin, "if only because they tell me what I'll enjoy reading next. And they're (almost) always right."

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