RALEIGH — When he heard that Nancy Olson planned to sell her beloved Quail Ridge Books & Music, North Carolina novelist Clyde Edgerton immediately thought of two favorite moments:
The first came in 1985, when Olson bought several hundred copies of his second book Walking Across Egypt, five times as much as any other store, and stuffed them into crevices and corners of her then-tiny independent store. She vowed to sell every last copy, and after 10 years, she finally did.
The second came not long ago, when he inscribed a book to his longtime friend, who by then had ushered local writers all the way to the National Book Award.
If I could write books the way Nancy Olson sells books, Edgerton wrote, Id have won a Nobel Prize.
At 71, Olson wants someone else to care for the 70,000 titles she keeps on her shelves. Shes ready to retire, and doesnt want to die with her stores futures uncertain.
I started this as my baby, and now its a teenager older than a teenager, she said. Im just old. It comes down to that. Im just old.
Founded in 1984, Quail Ridge started in 1,900 square feet on Falls of Neuse Road cobbled together when Olson sold some stocks and borrowed some money from her parents.
Now at 9,400 square feet on Wade Avenue, it has steadily sold more than $3 million a year despite the rise of Kindle, Amazon and discount retailers.
Olson regularly packs readers into book signings, bringing in Pulitzer Prize winners such as Michael Chabon and Nobel Prize winners such as Al Gore. When the late journalist Christopher Hitchens came to Quail Ridge to debate a professor from Campbell University in 2007, crowds grew so heavy that 200 people had to be turned away.
Her finest moment, still, she said, was watching Chuck Frazier win the National Book Award for Cold Mountain, the Civil War story that she still counts among her biggest sellers.
She recalled knowing Frazier as a skinny kid who shared her taste for a good read.
When I came to Raleigh, I couldnt find a bookstore I liked, so I opened my own, Olson said. I wanted to try something different. I selected books that I felt were important. We started the author-signing events at the local stores. And we had a strong backing of North Carolina authors.
Olson plans to travel with her husband, Jim, but doesnt plan to leave right away or permanently. She hopes to find a buyer like herself: an avid reader who can keep the printed word going in the age of iPhones. Whoever buys it, she says, will have to let her stay on in some role.
The only person that I think might take her place would be God, Edgerton said. Her enthusiasm for a book never seemed fake. I think nobody but God could put on such a convincing show.
The standard line on independent book stores is theyre constantly at war with the Walmarts of the world, but their numbers are actually growing, said Oren Teicher, executive director of the American Bookseller Association.
Nearly 1,600 still operate nationwide, not counting many used and campus stores that arent part of the ABA. Olson has placed a unique stamp on Quail Ridge, he said, so it is bound to change. But not expire.
People are embracing print the way they embrace vinyl, said John Valentine, owner of The Regulator Bookshop in Durham. Its not going away. Theres a tremendous opportunity for somebody young and savvy.
Olson doesnt know just how picky she will be, or what her price might be. But she admitted Wednesday that shes turned down offers before.
The first came from an independent buyer who wanted her to leave in 30 days. She didnt sign.
The other came from a chain that wanted to cut staff and lower salaries, telling her the staff would stay on because they enjoyed the work. She turned the chain down, and before long, she said, it went out of business.