The tributes began in a deluge with the news that Nancy Olson died Sunday. First, there were the writers, so many writers, whom she had welcomed to Quail Ridge Books, the store she owned for three decades. Some were struggling writers she’d encouraged for years, even when it appeared struggling was all they’d ever be. And there were the young ones, who made their success quickly. And there were the famous ones, like Charles Frazier, who got hours of Nancy’s incandescent encouragement before he hit it big with “Cold Mountain.” Tom Wolfe visited and filled the store one evening as it had never been filled before, excepting for political celebrities.
Nancy welcomed a former president, Jimmy Carter, once. She welcomed poets, and golf writers, and true crime writers and bluegrass bands.
Nine to nine, she was open, most every day, in the earlier location and for the last 20 or so years in the Ridgewood Shopping Center. The children’s section was spectacular, and even the bathrooms, nicest in town, were lined with autographed pictures of writers.
Welcome. Yes, it felt like home, it did. If a man like Wolfe was a friend to the English language, Nancy Olson was the best friend writers, and readers, ever had.
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First, let’s just say this: Nancy Olson had the greatest smile there has ever been. End of that story. And even when she didn’t feel well herself, she was a tonic for others. She was coach and confessor, psychologist and teacher, comforter and sometimes, when one needed it, a set-’em-straighter.
Some people came and pulled books down from the shelves and never bought a thing, but sat for hours. It didn’t bother Nancy a bit.
Even little-known writers, perhaps doing a first public reading, when introduced by Nancy, got ebullient praise that made them feel like Shakespeare.
You could tell her anything without fear of judgment or indiscretion. She’d flash that smile and you’d hug like old friends. She was one of those people who was so positive about others, so reluctant to criticize, even when you tried to draw her into it, that it was even a little annoying. Because you knew she was right. I finally gave up, and told myself to be more like Nancy.
The pictures that ran of Nancy in the stories about her passing always had her smiling, because she always was. The smile. No one can stop talking about it.
Certainly she was the best-read person I ever knew, which made her one of the smartest people I’ve ever known, and she seemed to know something about everything.
And everyone is going to be saying this, for a long time, but Quail Ridge went from store to institution quickly, When it came out that the store was moving to North Hills from Ridgewood (after its purchase by Lisa Poole), it was big news all over town. But location was never what it was about, anyway. It was about Nancy, and then about all those wonderful people who worked with Nancy, and about being a place to come to. Still is.
And though Quail Ridge was such a place for many of Raleigh’s more prominent people, Nancy had one quality only the best and greatest among us have: She treated every person she met exactly the same way. If she were talking to a child about Harry Potter, and a swell walked in the store, she never took her eyes off the child and if the swell tried to get her attention, she notably ignored him.
She was particularly attentive to elderly people, whom she welcomed to the store’s “membership club” free of charge. She talked about her far-flung travels, or her encounters with famous writers (only if pressed) and she didn’t boast about the fact that her store was regarded as the one of the premiere independent bookstores in the country.
Once, in Portland, Ore., at a famous (and I think the country’s largest) bookstore named Powell’s City of Books, I was checking out and a man asked me, “You’re from Raleigh? Do you know Quail Ridge and Nancy Olson? She’s great!”
There would be no argument about that, from anyone. Nancy made a life-changing difference to people, and to her community, and when day is done, that can’t be said about many people. She will be, as they say, much missed and long remembered.