If there was any doubt about the huge reservoir of good will Nancy Olson has earned over 28 years of owning Quail Ridge Books & Music in Raleigh, it evaporated last Wednesday. When word got out that Olson was selling the store, the reaction was swift. While readers expressed shock and concern on social media, four local television stations sent crews to the store.
One of the TV crews stayed all day, past closing time. The News & Observer ran a story featuring quotes from Clyde Edgerton and tales about Charles Frazier. It was quite a reaction to the sale of a little ol' book store. But of course, Quail Ridge isn't just any book store.
In a carefully orchestrated announcement, Olson informed the community of her intention to sell the store and retire. The 71-year-old said she wanted to have time to travel with her husband, Jim Olson. The press release went on to extol some of the accrued value of the 9,400-square-foot store, including the 17,500 households in the loyalty program, the 70,000 titles in stock and the $3 million in sales in 2011. It's the highest-profile bookseller in the Triangle. In addition to often being first in line for the major author visits, it hosts numerous book clubs and debates on civic issues.
Above all, it has Olson. A robust, perpetually beaming septuagenarian, Olson's singular charisma is a big part of the store's renown. Simultaneously a passionate bibliophile, a charming meet-and-greeter, a savvy businesswoman and a shrewd book buyer, she is inextricably associated with the store.
Which makes selling Quail Ridge something of a tricky proposition. Someone buying the store will not get to keep one of its major assets—Olson. Although, Olson says, even that could be negotiable.
Despite the chilly, rainy conditions on this Thursday afternoon, or because of them, the store was busy enough for customers to be served at all the registers, and at least four employees were on duty. The normal conduct of business today, however, is punctuated by customers asking about the sale and extending good wishes. In the lounge area, two women are warming themselves by the fireplace, while a book club prepares to discuss Erik Larson's In the Garden of Beasts.
Olson is adamant that there is no deadline for a sale and that the store will not close—but Quail Ridge surely is an attractive purchase for someone. Olson has retained professional advisors to assist in the sale. In addition to deploying a publicist to release the sale announcement to the media and organize interviews, she has retained consultants to appraise the value of the store and to field inquiries from interested buyers—the day of the announcement, there were seven calls, Olson says, and two more on the day of our interview.
Olson won't specify the asking price of the store, but she says that she received two quite-different appraisals conducted under different sale scenarios, including the accounting of $120,000 in unredeemed gift cards. Although Olson doesn't say so, one imagines that her own presence in Quail Ridge is part of its capital and part of what needs to be calculated. As far as capable stewardship is concerned, Sarah Goddin, a senior staff member, points out that three employees, herself included, are past owners of bookstores.
Whoever buys the store will inherit a knowledgeable staff, a large, diverse inventory and 28 years of social capital. And Olson herself will train if necessary.
"I'm willing to work with a newbie," she says.
As far as the future of selling printed books, Olson is optimistic. She says Quail Ridge is on solid financial footing, in spite of the constant turmoil in the publishing industry. In the latest purported death knell, Penguin merged with Random House to become the world's largest publisher in a desperate defense against Amazon. But there's no denying that book sales are declining while e-books are gaining market share. Owners of indie bookstores have acknowledged the need to counter the Kindle, a proprietary device that is designed to force readers of e-books to become Amazon customers. When Olson and I spoke last summer for an interview, the American Booksellers Association was still working on its own reader that could be sold by indie stores. Now, Olson says, that device has arrived.
Manufactured by Kobo Inc., a Japanese-owned firm headquartered in Toronto, these e-readers are able to read most e-book files except, of course, those from Amazon. (Kobo also makes reading apps for other platforms, including Apple, Android, Blackberry and Windows.) Quail Ridge sells two versions of the reader, the Mini ($80, on sale this weekend for $50) and the Glo ($130). The store gets a small percentage of the device sale, but more importantly, customers are now able to continue supporting the store when they prefer to purchase an e-book. When they visit the store's website, or the Kobo site, to purchase the e-book, the store will get a portion of the sale.
Elsewhere in the Triangle, the sellers of Kobo—which is simply an anagram of "book"—include the Regulator Bookshop in Durham and Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill. Keebe Fitch, owner of McIntyre's Books in Chatham County, reports by email that the store's website is going live next week and Kobo titles will be available, "but it might take a few weeks."
On the same forlorn afternoon, I drove through the drizzle to visit the Galaxy Cinema, a more recent addition to the Wake County cultural scene. It closed last Sunday, Nov. 11, after nearly seven years of operation. Located in a nondescript intersection of a massive, if aging, outpost of strip mall suburbia in Cary, it was truly a bright spot of culture and transmissions from abroad. The principal owners of the Galaxy are members of the local South Asian community, and they diversified the usual menu of art house titles by showing Bollywood movies to appreciative audiences.
Without ever becoming particularly profitable, the theater built relationships across the community. A marketing manager was hired to reach out to segments of the audience and program special events. (True to the theater's ethnic leanings, such events included daytime live screenings of international cricket tournaments.)
But there was also the sense that the theater had long been living on borrowed time. The lease was a verbal, month-to-month arrangement with York Properties, which owned the six-screen facility on a parcel that includes several other buildings. Last spring, York announced that it proposed to build a 53,000-square-foot, two-story Harris Teeter on the site to replace an older one nearby.
Around the same time, an eviction order was given to the Galaxy over a lease dispute that was later resolved. A campaign on Facebook tried to rally support for the theater, but in June, co-owner Kirit Padia confessed to Andrew Kenney of The News & Observer: "We're going to lose this. We are going to close."
I waited in my car in the Galaxy's empty, wet parking lot for a while, before two men pulled up and approached the door. They were Brantley Sawyer, the theater's manager, and one of the theater's owners, who politely declined to identify himself, deferring comment to Sawyer.
With pride, both pointed out that the Galaxy's Bollywood offerings were so successful that competing theaters had begun booking them. Indeed, one highly awaited title that was booked for the Galaxy on the weekend it closed is Jab Tak Hai Jaan. That title will open this weekend instead, down the road at Crossroads 20. Another top title, Son of Sardar, is playing at the Carmike Park Place in Morrisville.
Sawyer says there's no bitterness over the ending of the theater. "We've had a great relationship with the owners since the day we opened, and they were instrumental in helping us open. They're planning to redevelop the whole area and they need their land."
Sawyer confirms that the owners of the Galaxy would like to see the theater re-emerge somewhere else. "It's something we would love to do, for ourselves, the staff and our customers," Sawyer says. "But nothing's set in concrete yet."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Changing of the guardians of Wake."