Nancy Olson used to mark her brother’s birthdays with the most acerbic greeting cards, pretty paper daggers she relished sending to her sibling to shorten the two-state distance between them.
He recognized the missives whenever one landed in his mailbox, and would start laughing even before he opened the envelope.
“The only question … once I got it open, was how deep the wound would be,” Jim Reedy said.
Those who knew Olson are now realizing how deep is the wound left by her passing, and more than 200 of them gathered Thursday to share their loss and rejoice in their memories.
Olson, founder of the venerable Quail Ridge Books, died March 27 after a lengthy illness.
The service was held at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Raleigh. Olson was adamantly unaffiliated with that or any other church.
Many of those who attended first met Olson in her store. Like the good books she had steered them toward, their friendships deepened over time.
“She loved people more than books,” said Clay Stalnaker, a retired NCSU professor who started a town hall meeting series at Quail Ridge Books. “Or was it the other way around?”
Had she not become a successful bookstore owner, a vocation she undertook after her letter-writing campaign failed to convince the Wake County Public Library system not to abandon seldom-read classics in favor of popular pablum, some of Olson’s friends think she might have made it as a comic.
“Nancy’s sense of humor was legendary,” said Sarah Goddin, who started her own bookstore shortly after Olson’s opened, and later went to work for Olson. “She regularly convulsed those of us on the staff and was a stand-up comedian at book club bashes and other events.”
So collegial was the shop that when he first walked into it, Charles Frazier thought it was some kind of club and he was not a member. He became one when Olson learned that he had been published, however obscurely at the time.
“She treated me like a writer when I didn’t really think of myself as a writer,” said Frazier. With Olson’s urging, Frazier said, he quit his regular job and worked full time on his novel. “Cold Mountain” later became a best seller.
Frazier said he considered titling his eulogy, one of six at the service, “Times I Made Nancy Mad.” He recounted two: when he refused to kick off the “Cold Mountain” book tour at Quail Ridge because he feared he would disappoint Olson, and when he wouldn’t let her write a letter to the New Yorker when one of its writers said his book did not deserve a national award.
Olson was not a woman easily swayed. She would go to booksellers’ conferences, listen to the advice, come back to Raleigh and follow her gut. She would order enough pop lit to satisfy the masses, then go way off-catalog in search of books with deeper meaning. As Goddin put it, Olson liked books that would last.
Though Olson had retired from the business before she was diagnosed with kidney disease, she left a durable legacy, said writer Angela Davis-Gardner, a friend of Olson’s for decades. “We still have the store.” It survived chain book sellers, Amazon.com and ebooks and is now at North Hills under new ownership.
Several speakers noted the contributions of Olson’s husband, Jim, who supported his wife’s literary passions and spent much time at the store after he retired.
Olson had withdrawn her membership from a local church and become an agnostic, but Tom Are, a friend and retired minister, wrote in a tribute published in the program for the service that Olson was “the most Christian ‘unbeliever’ I have ever known.” After she died, he said, “If Nancy Olson did not wake up in heaven, I am going to be terribly mad. If she didn’t make it, the rest of us don’t have a chance.”
Throughout the service, a portrait of Olson – sitting, her arms resting on a table covered with books – was perched on an easel with one leg shorter than the others. To level it, someone had used a book.