Amid the gift shops and chain restaurants at Raleigh-Durham International Airport, travelers discovered something you’d find at few airports in the country: A used bookstore.
It was known as The Book Cellar when it opened nearly 34 years ago near the baggage claim area of what was then Terminal A. After several moves around the ever-changing airport, 2nd Edition Book Sellers has spent the last six years between gates D8 and D10 in Terminal 2, the airport’s main terminal.
Now the store is preparing to close at the end of the month. Owners Karen and Walter High of Chapel Hill, professional librarians who came on as partners in 1991 and became sole owners 14 years ago, have decided to retire when their lease runs out.
“We will miss our faithful customers, and RDU will lose one of its most unique aspects,” Walter High wrote on the shop’s Facebook page last month. “A used bookstore behind security at the airport doesn’t happen anywhere else in the US that we know of.”
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Actually, there is at least one other used bookstore in an airport – Renaissance Books at Milwaukee’s General Mitchell International Airport – but they are rare.
Despite the novelty, High, 69, says an airport is a good place to sell second-hand books. Used books are cheaper, taking some of the sting out of the premium prices on most goods in the airport. And while you can get new bestsellers at the chain stores, they don’t offer much beyond that. You’ll find the latest John Grisham novel at the Hudson Booksellers shop near the Terminal 2 escalators, but 2nd Edition stocked every other Grisham novel, too, going back to “A Time to Kill.”
2nd Edition has a reputation for offering a wide selection of books organized by subjects that include not only page-turning mysteries and romances but also meatier topics such as religion, philosophy and science.
“We tried to carry just a little bit of everything,” High said this week, already speaking about the store in the past tense. “And every time you came in, it was going to be different from the last time. It depends on what we could find. The mix was always changing.”
High said they had lots of regular customers – airline employees and frequent business travelers who came in as often as once a week to see what they could find. Business remained good even after the advent of Kindles and e-readers, he said. Travelers who came across the shop for the first time were often taken by the very idea of it.
“Best. Idea. Ever. Aside from just the concept, the execution is great, too,” a visitor from Brooklyn wrote on Yelp. “The store is incredibly organized, the prices are good, and the staff are incredibly nice to boot. It’s probably one of the best used bookstores I’ve ever been in, period.”
The concept for the store belonged to Mark and Judy Burnham, who moved their used bookstore from Carr Mill Mall in Carrboro to RDU in May 1984.
“I think they just had a brilliant idea that it would be a high-traffic area,” High says. “And they were correct about that.”
The Highs were in the midst of their careers as librarians when they bought in to the business in 1991. Walter High, a native Californian, had come to North Carolina to study at UNC-Chapel Hill, where he earned a doctorate in information science. Karen High is a Raleigh native and a descendant of both Joel Lane, who famously sold the state land for its new capital city, and Isaac Hunter, whose tavern in what is now North Raleigh hosted the meeting where the sale was approved in 1792.
The Highs continued working as librarians until they retired, he from N.C. Central University’s law library in 2006 and she from the health sciences library at UNC in 2008. By then the Burnhams had retired, and the Highs were sole owners of 2nd Edition.
The main challenge of a used bookstore in an airport is keeping it stocked. Unlike most second-hand stores, where people continually bring in boxes of books they want to unload, the Highs had to go looking for their inventory, acquiring 1,000 books a week on average just to keep the shelves full.
They scoured flea markets and thrift stores, and made whirlwind visits to yard sales on weekends. They became members of public library friends groups all over North Carolina to get early access to library book sales. At big sales, the couple might buy as many as 5,000 books at a time.
“They’re very happy to see us coming, because we always spend a lot of money,” High said.
The hunt could be exhilarating, but lifting, toting and sorting all those books took its toll on Walter High. He’s had both knees replaced and has arthritis in his lower back. Doctors say it’s time to retire.
The decision was made easier by the end of the couple’s lease. High says RDU is now renting space in the concourse in packages of several stores to single vendors, so renewing wasn’t an option anyway. Neither was selling the business to someone else.
RDU will be bring 15 new retailers to Terminal 2 over the coming months, but does not have another tenant lined up for the 2nd Edition space, said spokesman Andrew Sawyer. He said the airport is sad to see the Highs go.
“We have enjoyed them being a part of our landscape for so many years,” Sawyer said.
The Highs plan to travel in their retirement, seeing if they can visit all 59 U.S. national parks (they’ve been to 17 so far). Walter High also plans to spend more time indulging his hobby of playing chess and organizing tournaments.
And the couple will get to do more of something that has been hard to squeeze in between their hunts for books and running the store: Read. Walter High says he has hundreds of books set aside, and plans to start by re-reading a book he first encountered as a college student 40 years ago, historian Richard Hofstadter’s “Anti-intellectualism in American Life,” which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1964.
“I remember how impressed I was by it,” he said. “And it may be applicable to our current times.”