The book business is strong in North Carolina as booksellers in the Tar Heel State come out of the economic downturn that wreaked havoc across the nation starting in 2008.
Malaprop’s Bookstore/Cafe in Asheville saw a double-digit increase in sales in 2014 over the previous year, says Linda Marie Barrett, the store’s general manager and incoming SIBA board member. “Sales just spiked,” she says, “and we had the best holiday season yet. We’re still up tremendously so far in January.”
According to Chris Wilcox, owner of City Lights Bookstore in Sylva, 2014 sales at his shop were up 6% compared to 2013. “It doesn’t sound like much, but it was the first real positive year where all the numbers—sales, bottom line, gross, all of them—were up,” he says. “It was certainly better than the couple of years preceding it. We feel really good about where we’re heading.”
Even in a less than ideal economy, North Carolina has a lot to support booksellers: a rich literary history, a robust tourist base, and a strong “shop local” movement. “I think the whole local thing is really taking off,” says Pete Mock, book buyer for McIntyre’s Books in Fearrington Village near Chapel Hill. “People are finally realizing that bigger is not better. We have books that you’re not going to see anywhere else.”
Another positive trend for bookstores is the state’s population, which continues to grow at a significant pace. According to the UNC Carolina Population Center, between 2000 and 2010, North Carolina gained 1.5 million residents and is projected to gain around one million residents per decade through 2040. As of 2013, North Carolina’s population was estimated to be roughly 9.85 million.
Certain areas of the state seem to be leading the momentum of population growth. In March 2014, CNN Money listed Raleigh as one of the fastest-growing cities in the country. With a population of 1.2 million, Raleigh—one-third of the state’s well-known Research Triangle, along with Durham and Chapel Hill—saw a 2.2% increase in population between July 2012 and July 2013.
Retirees, creative types, and well-educated young professionals are drawn to North Carolina for various reasons, and they all seem to like to spend their money on books. John Valentine, co-owner of the Regulator Bookshop in Durham, says that his store was “in a sleepy part of town up until 10 years ago.” Then, as the city’s population grew, there was demand for more shopping choices. So, new retail developments began to pop up around their neighborhood. “Now you see families pushing strollers down the street,” he says. “We’re across from a big grocery store, and there are a lot of people walking around. We have a broader base than ever before.”
Valentine and other store owners are also noticing less price resistance once their customers get to the register. “We do not discount at all,” says Jamie Fiocco, owner of Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill and an incoming SIBA board member. She offers a bookstore membership, which comes with a 10% discount, as well as price reductions for book clubs. But she tends to focus more “on the experience customers have when they come to the store. Some people are price-motivated; others are experience-motivated. We give them a good experience to keep them coming back.”
That experience includes writing workshops, book clubs, and regular author readings and signings, which are easy to organize, considering North Carolina’s deep pool of in-state talent. “There are a lot of writers here—writers who are nationally known, regionally known, and locally known, and those who aspire to be published,” Fiocco says. “I think bookstores play a strong role in reader meeting writer and aspiring writer meeting writer.” Kathleen Jewell, owner of Pomegranate Books in Wilmington, agrees. “We’re in a lucky position here at the beach,” she added. “There’s a depth of really famous writers here.”
In many parts of North Carolina, the economy is driven by tourist dollars and retirees. Tryon, about 35 miles southwest of Asheville, has historically attracted visitors who are drawn to the mountains and those who relocate to the area after retirement, says Penny Padgett, owner of the Book Shelf, which calls Tryon home. “So they’ve made up a substantial amount of our sales,” she says.
Garden of Readin’ owner Elizabeth Berry has only owned her store in Edenton, located an hour-and-a-half from the coast, since October. But already she knows to rely on the tourists that clamor to the town each summer and fall. Her customers tend to be interested in regional titles and fiction that features North Carolina, especially, she notes, novels by Nicholas Sparks, who used Edenton as the backdrop in The Rescue. “His are one of the few books people do buy new,” she says. “Otherwise, our bookstore does not normally buy new books.”
North Carolina has a well-established tradition of independent bookstores that offer something for everyone—longtime residents, tourists, and retirees—says Mock, of McIntyre’s. “I’m really happy to be a North Carolina bookseller,” he says. “We have an incredible wealth of bookstores in the state, across the board, from the mountain to the sea. It’s a good place for books.”
Tiffany Razzano is a journalist living in the Tampa Bay, Fla., area, and is PW’s new Southern correspondent.