It was like a wake, only not as loud, or maybe more accurately, it was like visiting a dying friend, knowing there would not be a next time. When the News & Observer published a report numbering The Book Exchange's few remaining days as "the South's greatest bookstore," both those who had loved it long and those who'd never before wound through its labyrinth began to pour in. As we picked the bones of this shabby, legendary giant, cramming our shopping bags—$10 per—with loot, I wondered where we'd all been while she was losing the struggle to live. The dignity and generosity with which she was approaching her closure made me sick with regret. I don't believe you'd see Borders or Barnes & Noble or Amazon selling books by the sackful at pennies per pound, just so they'd have good homes. We didn't love this now frowsy 75-year-old bookshop enough to sustain her, but she loves us to the bitter end.
My family moved to Chapel Hill in 1961, and since we were the kind of people who had more books than furniture, it wasn't long before I heard of The Book Exchange. The word was, if the book couldn't be gotten at the Ram's Head at Carolina, or at the Intimate Bookshop on Franklin Street, you could most likely find what you were seeking at The Book Ex, a sprawling emporium near Durham's Five Points. I didn't visit the store until 1969 or 1970, but I was suitably awed. Compared with the Intimate, which I knew well, The Book Ex was enormous. It seemed to go on forever, up, down and sideways. It was a warren, a maze of narrow aisles between towering bookshelves and precarious piles. There were ladders propped everywhere, for reaching the shelves extending high overhead. As you wandered around, attempting to decode the organizational system and snuffling up the scents of old paper, new ink and dusty floorboards, you felt like an explorer about to make a life-changing discovery, and you felt right at home.
I've discovered some good things in The Book Ex on my own, like a classic weaving book with lovely hand-woven samples tucked in, but the best way to find anything specific was to ask. The Book Ex has been the home to true bookmen and women, who knew their stock. About 10 years ago I wanted a somewhat obscure, early George Eliot novel, so I asked Curtis Ferguson, the store's manager for 45 years. "Oh, yes, I'm sure we have that," he said, darting up two flights of stairs, around a corner and up a ladder, to pull it off a high shelf.
This happened before there was a computer in the store. How did they do it? With card files and several editions of Books in Print, in which to look up needful information. I've heard similar stories from others this week. I've never seen another instance of this, but The Book Ex organized its stock by publisher. More or less. Some things had their own categories. You really had to ask.
Never had I appreciated this method so much as in these last days. Moving through the shelves with their faded labels was like traversing a columbarium. In this dying bookshop were preserved, for a little longer, the names and small remains of deceased publishers, and in some places the spines on the shelves charted the changes (or not) in book design over decades. You could see the evolution of the Penguins and the Pelicans, rank after rank, mutating in size, color, typeface; and the long consistency of Cambridge University Press. New Directions isn't dead, but its books are now distributed by W.W. Norton, so the remains of the ND section were pure black and white. I took a William Carlos Williams for old times' sake.
The Book Exchange has been my neighborhood bookstore for more than 20 years now. I've bought, I've sold, I've browsed, I've used it like a public library. It is a downtown landmark and wayfinder. It forms part of my personal romantic history, as it provided me with the excuse I needed for first calling on the charming man living at Five Points whose attention I was longing to catch. So many subsequent evenings we've browsed its windows as we strolled our darling downtown. So many hours it has offered me haven for procrastination on some stubborn piece of writing. So often has it provided a badly needed paperback mystery fix late in the day.
I'm saddened by the closure, though I'd guessed The Book Ex's remaining days were few. The prolonged confusion of dirt, noise, ripped-out sidewalks and blocked streets during the downtown streetscape construction caused a noticeable drop in traffic to the store. Some of the mainstay textbook business went elsewhere. Last year, cart after cart of disintegrating books were hauled to the dumpster. A little notice went up—they were no longer buying books. Another little notice went up, enticing passersby to check out the glossy covers on the $3 wall. Then came the big notice, thanking us for our 75 years of patronage.
In no way did the old lady keep herself up-to-date. There were no chairs, no reading lamps, no coffee, no magazines, no discs, no noise in The Book Exchange. In her early years, she was a grand dame; recently she became anomalous and anachronistic. But always, she was gallant. I'm proud to have known her.
The Book Exchange will close Feb. 14.