North Carolina's strong literary tradition boosts book sales, said SIBA president Sally Brewster, co-owner of 30-year-old Park Road Books in Charlotte. “This is a rich place for stories,” she added.
“We have an enormous wealth of writers,” agreed Craig Popelars, marketing director at Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, naming Tar Hill natives from Thomas Wolfe and O. Henry to Charles Frazier, Lee Smith, Jan Karon and Tom Robbins. “Hell,” he said, “even Sara Gruen is moving to Asheville.”
But North Carolina isn't just a magnet for writers. The 48,710-sq.-mile state ranked ninth in population growth, up 21.43%, in the decade between 1990 and 2000. In the intervening years, Charlotte and Raleigh have been named the country's seventh and ninth fastest growing cities in the U.S., respectively. And two North Carolina communities were included in last year's lists of the top 10 places to live: Cary hit number five in Money, Asheville number seven in Kiplinger's.
With a population of 8.5 million people and a median household income of $38,234—as high as $75,122 in Cary—in recent years North Carolina has attracted chain superstores and Joseph-Beth, and is the headquarters for Baker & Taylor. Combined, there were 28 Barnes & Noble and Borders superstores in 2006—up from 22 in 2001—two B. Daltons and 16 Waldens. A new Barnes & Noble will open in Asheville in March 2009, which will add to the 138 Wal-Marts, 38 Targets and seven Costcos in this still predominantly rural state.
Former Kroch's & Brentano's president and CEO Bill Rickman, who co-owns three stores in the Outer Banks, enjoys the less frenetic pace. “We have the best of all worlds,” he said. “In the off-season, I get to enjoy nature and the environment. In season, I can afford to live here.” He likens bookselling in a vacation community to being in a time warp: “I don't feel the pressure of price. It's wonderful to sell books on merit.”
Malaprop's Bookstore/Cafe in Asheville has had solid double-digit growth for each of the past two years, according to general manager Linda Barrett Knopp. Similarly, Jamie Fiocco, general manager of McIntyre's Fine Books in the planned community of Fearrington Village near Pittsboro, said, “It's a nice, steady growth. I would like to say that the dust has settled on online competition.”
The Literary Bookpost in Salisbury, about 30 miles from Charlotte, hit double-digit increases for three years until the past year and a half, when sales flattened out after the loss of textbook sales to a nearby seminary. This year, said owner Deal Safrit, sales are back up, even as Safrit refuses to stock any sidelines, other than a few small pieces of sculpture and a rack of postcards. He also doesn't do returns for his biggest sections—classics and modern literature, poetry and philosophy.
Margaret Osondu, founder of three-year-old Osondu Booksellers in Waynesville, recently added a tea and wine bar to boost sales (which were up 20% for each of the past three months). She plans to add vegetarian sandwiches and gourmet cheese. “I have to do something to supplement my book habit,” Osondu said.
Other stores compete by changing selection and increasing service. In April, the Regulator in Durham began selling used fiction, mysteries and science fiction, and shelving them beside new titles. And Quail Ridge Books & Music in Raleigh not only has 60 book clubs but has begun expanding special orders. Said general manager Sarah Goddin, “It's part of a swing back to personal services.”