Barry Saunders

Southern writers lose a giant in bookstore founder Nancy Olson

Lisa Poole (left), the new owner of Quail Ridge Books & Music, is introduced by former owner Nancy Olson in Raleigh, N.C. Friday July 12, 2013. The store moved from Ridgewood Shopping Center to North Hills last month.
Lisa Poole (left), the new owner of Quail Ridge Books & Music, is introduced by former owner Nancy Olson in Raleigh, N.C. Friday July 12, 2013. The store moved from Ridgewood Shopping Center to North Hills last month. cliddy@newsobserver.com

It’s a feeling I’ve had before – once – and that was when the janitor at Leak Street School in Rockingham got drunk at a local bootlegger’s house one night and my childhood buddy Glen lifted his key to the school’s gym, took it to the hardware store, made duplicates and returned the original to him.

Forty-five years later, I still genuflect to such genius.

From that day on, we never had to climb through the window to break in and play basketball. Just inhaling the stuffy air – stuffy because we dared not open the windows, lest our encroachment be discovered – was intoxicating, as was the knowledge that if we got caught we could just say, gee, y’all must’ve left the door open by mistake.

Entering the gym felt like what entering Valhalla must feel like.

I got that same feeling upon entering Quail Ridge Books and being greeted by its founder, Nancy Olson.

When Olson died March 27, literate and literary Carolinians lost a helluva friend. She was 75.

This is no screed against mammoth chain bookstores, not only because they, too, have their place, but because all bookstores, in their own way, are like beer, pizza and strip clubs: Even when they’re bad, they ain’t bad.

There is, though, something about an independent bookstore that touches my soul. Maybe that derives from my own unprofitable experiences as a small business owner and knowing that the $25 I spend on a book there might be essential to helping the owner make payroll or the rent that month.

I never get that feeling at Barnes & Noble.

Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill bibliophiles are blessed to have independent bookstores with unique personalities and that are more than just places to go pick up a book. There are also the huge stores, if that’s what you like.

In the past two months, book lovers have lost Harper Lee, Pat Conroy and now Olson. Even though she was no writer – friends say she never aspired to be one – she is still a worthy member of that Southern literati triumvirate, shining just as brightly, in her own way, as those two beacons.

There was seldom, if ever, a time that I called the bookstore to request a book which, if the shop didn’t have it, someone wouldn’t order for me. Often it was Olson herself who called to tell me my book was in.

The people who run Quail Ridge now seem just as committed to making each visit an experience, and they retained shelves dedicated to employees’ recommendations. I hope Quail Ridge’s North Hills shopping center location retains the charm of its Ridgewood Shopping Center home of the previous 20 or so years. I also hope it retains the charm of its bathrooms, with their walls covered with signed photographs of authors famous, obscure and in-between.

Even after Olson retired, I would still call her at home for advice on pricing and marketing my books, and she was always – always – cheerily helpful. I’d call upon her only once every few months or so – didn’t want to become a nuisance – but even when I didn’t, it was comforting to know that she was there.

Now she’s not, and I’ll miss her.

Barry Saunders: 919-836-2811, bsaunders@newsobserver.com, @BarrySaunders9

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