Remembering Quail Ridge Books Founder Nancy Olson, a Reader's Best Friend | Arts

Remembering Quail Ridge Books Founder Nancy Olson, a Reader's Best Friend


Quail Ridge Books & Music owner Nancy Olson (center) with employees Carol Moyer (right) and Sarah Goddin (left) - FILE PHOTO BY D.L. ANDERSON, 2012
  • file photo by D.L. Anderson, 2012
  • Quail Ridge Books & Music owner Nancy Olson (center) with employees Carol Moyer (right) and Sarah Goddin (left)

Like many book-lovers in the Triangle, I felt as though I lost a family member last Sunday.

Nancy Olson’s passing at age seventy-five was not a complete surprise to those who knew her. For several years, she’d been battling kidney disease, which played a part in her decision to sell Quail Ridge Books, the independent bookstore she opened in Raleigh in 1984. 

But she remained a vital presence at Quail Ridge, often appearing at store signings, beaming as authors were introduced and chatting with them like old friends afterward. Occasionally, I’d say hi, and she’d introduce me to the authors as “one of our very best customers.”

I suspect that I was not the only person she introduced that way, but Nancy was utterly sincere when she said it, and that’s what made her a triple-threat: a smart businessperson, a genuine fan of the products she sold, and someone who related to everyone, from authors to coworkers and customers, with equal kindness and appreciation.

She’d probably laugh if you read that description to her. But I defy you to find anyone who’d disagree.

I came to know Nancy at Quail Ridge’s first incarnation, Books at Quail Corners, when I was ten or eleven years old. I was seeing a therapist for social anxiety on Wake Forest Road, and stopping at the bookstore afterward was the one part of those trips I looked forward to each week.

The store just made you feel comfortable, with stuffed couches and wood-paneled shelves—the look of a musty old library, but without the mustiness. And Nancy made you feel at ease. When I asked about a book I’d heard about, she not only offered to order a copy, but had an opinion on it, and knew what other reviewers had said. I still have that book, Maniac Magee, on my shelf.

When Quail Corners became Quail Ridge, it was just a ten-minute walk from the house where I grew up, and during the awkward years of high school, it was my refuge—an open, welcoming place full of books and friendly people. Nancy not only let me come in and flip through things on a regular basis, trusting I’d buy something once in a while, but she'd also listen to me talk about what books I was looking for and why I was looking for them.

I didn’t have a lot of friends, and fewer still enjoyed the books about film, old-school sci-fi, or children’s fantasies I liked. Nancy was someone I could talk to about what I loved. That meant a lot. I interviewed her a few times over the years, first for a high school project, and then, more recently, for the INDY. When I was younger, I was too shy to go author signings, but time makes you bolder, and Quail Ridge became like CBGB for me, except the rock stars were authors.

Writers from every genre, from people I'd loved since I was a kid to rising stars—they were there every night, and they were just people who loved books and Quail Ridge. The bathroom was festooned with framed pictures of the hundreds of authors who’d passed through for signings; in the photos, Nancy was often right there next to them. 

Nancy and I would joke about having my picture in the bathroom after I published a book. Now she’s gone, and the bathroom is empty. It’s so strange that she passed during this transitional period, with the old store at the corner of Ridge Road and Wade Avenue so recently vacated. She had voiced her approval of the move, just as she had personally chosen Lisa Poole as her successor when she retired. It was, at that point, more than just a bookstore; it was a tradition.

Nancy’s biggest concern about retiring, she told me, was making sure that the existing staff stayed in place. Many of the people who worked at Quail Ridge knew her even longer than I did, and she recruited carefully—retired librarians, teachers, people who were as passionate about books as they were about selling them. There were times when I’d tell an employee how excited I was to see a certain author at the store, sometimes someone not well known, and they’d reply that they’d been trying to get them for years. Nancy knew how to let smart people follow their instincts.

Authors were taken care of, too, and not just the many local ones who spoke of Nancy as a friend. I would sometimes find myself dealing with a touring author’s PR person, arranging an interview, and they’d mention that they always had the best time at Quail Ridge signings. Their authors begged them to put it on their tour maps because every event was organized and promoted, with friendly crowds and brisk sales. It made the Triangle feel not only like a vivid literary scene, but a destination, a place where authors wanted to be.

The day before Nancy passed, I had stopped by Quail Ridge's temporary location beside Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse in North Hills. It’s a fraction of the size of the old store (and a fraction of how big the new store, coming this summer, will be), but it was as welcoming as any of Quail Ridge’s previous locations had been, laid out clearly, with a diverse selection and a staff ready to help at the drop of a hat.

The next day, as the news of Nancy’s passing sunk in and I felt that gaping emptiness in my chest that accompanies loss, I thought about that visit, and I realized that Nancy would live on at the new Quail Ridge through the people that were still there—and those at other local bookshops, such as Flyleaf, that Quail Ridge helped inspire. She’d live on through every author whose picture had hung in that bathroom, and through everyone who followed her example of kindness, intelligence, and enthusiasm for life.

Most of all, she’d live on through everyone who’d bought a book from her. Whether they grew up with her as little kids who only wanted a quiet place to read or discovered Quail Ridge later in life, they wouldn’t forget her. You don’t forget someone who helps you love to read.

So many people lost a part of their family last Sunday. Like the best family, Nancy Olson was a presence that brightened and enriched the lives she touched. And, in its own way, her story was as extraordinary as any of the ones she sold between two covers.

A memorial for Nancy Olson is scheduled for 11 a.m. on April 7 at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Raleigh.

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