Nancy Olson, whose store, Quail Ridge Books, is credited with launching a literary renaissance in North Carolina by giving readers and writers a place to gather, and whose own life here was a love story about ideas and human emotion, died early Sunday. She was 75.
Olson, a native of Virginia, moved to Raleigh with her husband, Jim, in 1981. She soon got involved in volunteer work, including a stint at Dorothea Dix Hospital, said Sarah Goddin, a longtime friend and former employee.
In the mid-1980s, Olson sized up an inheritance from an uncle and determined it was enough to launch a bookshop. Olson had no experience running such an enterprise, Goddin said, but was a lifelong lover of reading who credited weekly visits to the Richmond Public Library with instilling an adoration for the printed word.
“Raleigh didn’t have any strong independent book sellers, and Nancy wanted to live in a place that had a good bookstore,” Goddin said. “So she opened one.”
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Olson launched Books at Quail Corners on Falls of Neuse Road in October 1984 with $30,000 worth of inventory in 1,200 square feet of space. She was the manager and, as she referred to herself, “Jill-of-all-trades.” At the time, chain bookstores were proliferating, and industry profit margins, already slim, were shrinking as the chains leveraged buying power with publishers.
To set her store apart, Olson focused not just on supplying books, but giving customers an experience. She invited authors in to read and sign copies of their books, starting with local writers.
Mystery writer Margaret Maron, who lives in Johnston County, has told the story of her first reading at the original store. The audience was Maron’s husband, mother, Olson and a store clerk Olson offered to pay overtime for staying.
To connect with her customers, Olson spent time on the floor talking to people about what they read and telling them what they should be reading.
After a decade in the original location, Olson moved the store to a larger spot at Ridgewood Shopping Center on Wade Avenue and renamed it Quail Ridge Books. Not long after she opened there, Goddin said, Olson’s former landlord came in looking for a best-selling thriller that everyone was talking about.
“She told him, ‘You’re a really wonderful landlord, but you have terrible taste in books,’ ” Goddin recalled. “And she gave him (a book by) Stephen Ambrose or something. Who else but Nancy would say something like that?”
Other times, Goddin said, shoppers would ask Olson’s advice about what to read for their book clubs.
“They would come in and say, “We want something light,’ and she would say, ‘No. That’s not what a book club is for. You want to be challenged. You want to feel something.’ ”
Goddin first met Olson in 1985, when Goddin opened her own bookstore in Cary, just a few months after Olson had launched what would become Quail Ridge. Goddin went to Olson’s store and introduced herself, and the two talked for hours. Over the next decade, they got together at least once a month to collaborate on books and authors. When Goddin sold her store, she said, Olson asked her to come work for her.
The store grew more and more successful, becoming a coveted stop on authors’ book tours. Writers came as much for Olson as for the often standing-room-only crowds. The roster is a who’s who of literature and politics: Tom Wolfe, Andrew Young, Gloria Steinem, Wally Lamb, Sebastian Junger, Frank McCourt, Mary Higgins Clark, Reynolds Price, George Plimpton, Allan Gurganus, Dan Quayle, Susan Sontag, David Sedaris and former President Jimmy Carter. Olson especially nurtured writers who sprang from – or who adopted – North Carolina, including Charles Frazier, Lee Smith, Jill McCorkle, Allan Gurganus, Doris Betts, Clyde Edgerton and others.
Carol Moyer, longtime friend and co-worker at the store, said Quail Ridge was groundbreaking for Raleigh in the 1980s.
“It wasn’t a cookie-cutter store; you could tell individual thought had been put into the collection and design of the store,” Moyer said. “(Olson) was a dream to work with. She was always open to ideas and loved children’s literature. ... She was definitely devoted to supporting local authors, which is essential for any independent bookstore. She was devoted to our First Amendment rights, which is why she carried a wide range of books, so everyone could find something that suited them or broadened their horizons.”
Mamie Potter said Olson’s recommendations were not to be missed and were often tailored for friends and regular customers.
“Her word was king; if she would find a book that she was passionate about, we couldn’t keep it in the bookstore,” said Potter, a close friend and former employee of Olson’s. “Her choice, the books she chose for us to read, proved themselves over and over to represent the best of what’s being written. ... We came to depend on her word.”
Though she told people she was not a good manager, Olson saw the business thrive. Publishers Weekly named her “Bookseller of the Year” in 2001. But as the business grew, it took her out of the aisles, where she so enjoyed talking to people, and required her to spend more time meeting with publishing company representatives and poring over catalogs and reading book reviews.
As far as she knows, Goddin said, Olson never dreamed of being a writer herself. For a time, Olson and Goddin tried to work together to write book reviews for an upstart magazine, but even that was a terrible chore and both were secretly relieved when the venture folded.
Olson never lost her love of reading. Even when she was working 80 hours a week, Goddin said, Olson was reading 80 books a year. She read all kinds of books.
In addition to running her own business, Olson became a champion of the “Shop Local” movement through an alliance of area businesses. She served on the North Carolina State Library Board, helped raise money for libraries and started Books for Kids, a nonprofit foundation that gives books to needy children.
Each Christmas, she placed an “Angel Tree” in the store, through which customers donated thousands of books to children and adults chosen by social service agencies. She also collected used books to distribute to prisons, mental health facilities, low-income day care centers and overseas programs, according to a biography written when she was inducted into the Raleigh Hall of Fame in 2007. She also supported the N.C. Symphony, the N.C. Food Bank, the N.C. Museum of Natural Science and Hospice of Wake County.
Several years ago, Olson decided to retire and began looking for a buyer for Quail Ridge Books. It was a slow process, as Olson wanted a caretaker not just for a business, but for a literary world. She sold the store to Lisa Poole in 2013. Poole recently moved the store to a new location in North Hills.
As she was selling the business, Olson discovered she had kidney disease. She was hospitalized several times, and her condition had recently worsened. Rene Martin, events coordinator at the store, said Olson died around 4 a.m. Sunday at hospice. The family is working on plans for a memorial service.
Olson is survived by husband, Jim, sons Corey Raines of Raleigh, David Raines of Poughkeepsie, N.Y., stepchildren Heidi Sloan and Eric Olson of Raleigh, Terrilynn Olson of Denver and Douglas Olson of San Jose, Calif.
Through her illness, Goddin said, Olson continued to read. In recent months she took on “Being Mortal” by surgeon Atul Gawande, about the end of life.
“She loved it,” Goddin said.