Best-Kept Secrets

Best-Kept Secrets: Bookstores

Bookstores are rarely a vacation destination, although some such as City Lights Books in San Francisco and Shakespeare & Co. in Paris are at least tourist stops for non-bibliophiles.

But for a book lover, vacation isn’t complete without a chance to wander a bookstore’s aisles. The best stores add to the discoveries of a new locale – offering a window into the community with flyers for fish frys and local meetings – and an introduction to the area with books by local authors and regional guides and histories.

North Carolina has an abundance of independent bookstores, though the exact number is uncertain. The Southern Independent Book Sellers Alliance has 31 member stores in North Carolina – more than any other Southeastern state. But not every bookstore is a member.

The Triangle is rich in independent bookstores. Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh, Flyleaf in Chapel Hill, Regulator in Durham, McIntyre’s in Fearrington Village are some of the older and better known. But the Triangle does not hold a monopoly on reading. From Manteo (Duck’s Cottage Downtown Books) to Murphy (The Curiosity Shop), the state has stores worthy of a vacation stop or detour.

Linda-Marie Barrett, general manager at Malaprops in Asheville, credits North Carolina’s rich literary history for the wealth of bookstores. “We are well-represented by writers,” Barrett says, and adds that it’s their support that helps independents live up to their mission of “connecting readers with writers.”

Southern Pines is a showcase for that connection. The town is home to the Weymouth Center for the Arts and Humanities, the former estate of novelist James Boyd, who in the 1920s and ’30s regularly hosted the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and Thomas Wolfe. The center now houses the N.C. Literary Hall of Fame, started in no small part due to the efforts of Sam Ragan, the state’s poet laureate from 1982 until his death in 1996. Ragan also was the owner of Southern Pines’ newspaper The Pilot (once owned by Boyd) and so there’s some sweet symmetry in knowing that The Pilot now owns The Country Bookshop.

Kimberly Daniels Taws, manager of the shop, says the store is the soul of the town, and if you spend a little time you’ll see what she means.

Presiding over the shop on a Saturday morning, Bill Maher, a retired history professor, is quick to notice the section you’re lingering in and just as quick to bring a book that YOU NEED TO READ. Has he read every book in the history section? Don’t bet against it. His are the recommendations, written on notes attached to various books, that do not mince words: “Best history book in the store.”

In the course of an hour, it seems like half the village has wandered in for a browse. Joyce Arnott volunteers that she “loves this bookstore.” Arnott, who lives in nearby Pinehurst, has brought in her granddaughter to experience what she calls “an old-fashioned bookstore.” They are in the young adult section which butts up against the well-loved children’s section with its just-the-right size chairs. Round any corner and you’ll stumble on a new treasure.

Half of the front of the store is devoted to history and the military, and Maher says it’s popular with soldiers at nearby Fort Bragg as well as the brass and other operatives who have retired nearby. Could the elderly man sitting in the chair by the window scanning a book on the Cold War be retired CIA? It’s a good place for your imagination to run wild.

The Country Bookshop. Open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday-Saturday, noon to 4 p.m. Sunday. 140 NW Broad St., Southern Pines. 910-692-2037,

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City Lights Bookstore, Sylva

Sylva, with a population that hovers around 2,600 and an elevation above 2,000 feet, has four book stores and one mighty fine library – one of two in Jackson County. In this book-loving town City Lights stands out and not just because it shares a name with the San Francisco landmark. Opened by a local playwright/teacher/storyteller/author, Gerry Carden, in 1985, it was nurtured for 23 years by Joyce Moore and now, since, 2010, Chris Wilcox has taken on what he calls “the role of caretaker” for what Moore built. The store is perched on the corner of Spring and Jackson, and if you walk toward it near sunset you’re in for a treat. Once inside, if you’re lucky, you’ll be welcomed by one of the two store cats, Rowena and Cedric. You also might be so lucky as to run into a local writer or two – former N.C. poet laureate Kathryn Stripling Byer keeps a studio in the same building. Author Ron Rash, who teaches at nearby Western Carolina, is a fan. “Never know who you’re going to bump into,” says Wilcox, who was an employee at the store before buying it. The selection is as varied as you’d expect of any general interest book store, but Wilcox takes “considerable pride in our selection of regional books,” and notes “some of the fiction coming out of this area is remarkable.” The store is open 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday-Saturday, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Sunday. In winter (January-March), they open a bit later and go home a bit earlier on weekdays (10-7 Monday-Thursday). They do not close for snow. “We live close enough that someone will ski in and light a fire,” Wilcox says. Once you find a good book or two, wander over to the adjacent City Lights Cafe for a meal and a local brew. 3 E. Jackson St. 828-586-9499. Books To Be Red, Ocracoke

That’s not a typo in the store name. Leslie Lanier was a twentysomething with red hair and a love of books when she opened her store in Ocracoke in 1995. Her hair is no longer red, but the love of books remains. The small shop, housed in an old island cottage, is bursting with books and gifts – there are even some spilling out on the porch in old cabinets. When she started the store, she shared the space with a friend, a potter. The friend left in 2003, but Lanier continues to sell pottery, jewelry and other items. She explains her business strategy: “So often on the Outer Banks people travel in groups and if someone in the group doesn’t love books – hard to believe – they can talk the book lovers out of stopping.” This year, you’re just as likely to see folks with crayons in their hands as books. “Coloring as taken over the world,” she says. (You might also see a chicken. One wandered up one recent day and has decided to stick around.) The selection is eclectic and runs toward fiction – her favorite. “The beauty of having a bookstore that caters to such a wide variety of visitors, international and national is you can have anything in here you want and someone will like it,” Lanier says. “I don’t have to focus just on what people on Ocracoke want to read.” This year books about Alexander Hamilton have done well. And last week she sold four copies of “Old Man and the Sea.” Right now, the store is open seven days a week, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. In January and February, her name is on the door and visitors can give her a call if they need a book and she’ll open up. “Locals know how to get up with me,” she says. 34 School Road. 252-928-3936.

Old Books on Front Street, Wilmington

Gwenyfar Rohler started going to Old Books on Front Street when she was 2 years old, brought in by her parents who were regular customers at the store then owned by Richard Daughtry. She became his best customer so there’s no wonder that when, well into his 80s, Daughtry was ready to sell the store he looked to sell it to her and her family. She’s been the guardian and champion of its books and the state’s literary history ever since. The store has a funky charm: cozy chairs with nearby lamps so you can settle in for a read, books piled high on the coffee table in front of the sofa in front of the bar, and a literary jukebox with 100 CDs. Plunk in your money and hear Shel Silverstein read “A Light in the Attic” or Lawrence Ferlinghetti reading “A Coney Island State of Mind” while you shop. (Paul Simon’s also in there because Rohler considers him one of America’s greatest living poets.) It’s like being inside the very large home of a book-loving friend. Rohler has a beer and wine license (new motto “Two miles of books and four feet of beer”) and prefers beverages that are literary puns: Poet Stout, Wandering Poet Sake. Used books are the focus, as the name implies, but there are new ones, too. She likes to keep the classics in stock. North Carolina writers are the focus of her latest project, a room to let to people who’ve always wanted to spend the night in a bookstore. It should be ready for guests in October. She’s filling it with 1,600 books by and about North Carolina writers. A mural of North Carolina fills one wall, and she’s adding names of the state’s writers next to the towns they’re associated with; she’s up to 175. There’s also a full-size Scrabble board painted on the floor. The tiles just under a foot in size and made of plywood. The store’s hours are casual. It’s open by 10 a.m. Monday-Saturday, noon on Sunday and closes between 6 and 8 p.m. The only definite: The literary walking tour of Wilmington she leads leaves from the store at 1:30 p.m. each Saturday. 249 N. Front St. 910-762-6657.

Malaprops, Asheville

There’s no secret about Malaprops, but it also can’t be kept off a list of North Carolina bookstores. Owner Emöke B’Racz has created a hub for writers and readers and anyone who just needs a place to fit in. There are tattooed young people, sharply dressed older couples, tweens with dreadlocks and moms toting young children. They come to meet authors, pick up coloring supplies or listen to poets (once a month Malaprops has a “poetrio” event where people listen to three poets reading their work). The store’s mission statement includes this: “A gathering of people who are drawn to peaceful coexistence and the realization that knowledge is more valuable than money.” Readers also come for the huge poetry section (Asheville’s got poets) and a great selection for kids and young adults. The banned books section is popular, as are the books wrapped in brown paper (descriptions are written on them in Sharpie). The cafe should not be ignored. As the mission statement also says: “A place where the best reads, the best company, and the best coffee complete the picture.” 9 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Saturday, 9 a.m.-7 p.m. Sunday. 55 Haywood St. 828-254-6734.

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