Grumbly but great: Asheville landmark Downtown Books and News heads into its 25th year

Image 1. DBN staffers sometimes reproduce iconic moments from art history, such as edward hopper’s 1942 painting “Nighthawks.” See the store’s Facebook page for more. Photo by Max Cooper

Image 2. The staff at DBN really gets into its annual group portrait. From back left, Julian Vorus, Lisa Nance, Patrick Kukucka, Kaitlyn Allen, Julie Wade, Alice Murphy, Gwen Casebeer, Diane Tinman. Photo by Heath Cowart

If you've lived in Asheville for longer than a few years, try to imagine your life here without Downtown Books & News (aka DBN). The shop on Lexington Avenue sells used books, newspapers, magazines and local artwork. It also hunts down rare and out-of-print books and buys books for cash or store credit.

That's the quick rundown. "Grumbliest used bookstore in downtown Asheville. Been here and open every single day for round about 24 years," is how the shop describes itself on Facebook. Grumbly or not, DBN celebrates a quarter-century this year, making it — along with such mainstays as TOPS For Shoes and Instant Karma — one of Lexington's anchoring establishments. And DBN, particularly, represents what makes (and keeps) Asheville so pitch-perfectly odd.

Speaking of pitch-perfect: DBN’s infamous "Drink. Smoke. Read." slogan. It kind of started with Elizabeth Gilbert's 2006 book, Eat, Pray, Love. Malaprop's Bookstore, DBN's “new books” counterpart, hosted Gilbert when she was touring with the memoir, and began using its slogan — Eat. Sleep. Read. — around the same time. (Eat. Sleep. Read. comes from IndieBound, a national marketing organization for independent bookstores.) Malaprop's general manager Linda Barrett-Knopp suggested the snarky DBN variation. Both Malaprop's and DBN are under the larger umbrella of Renaissance Bookfarm, which at one time also encompassed the now-closed Haywood Street stationary shop, M' Press.

But back to the bookstore’s cornerstone status. You'd have to have lived in Asheville prior to 1988 to remember a time before DBN, which is also prior to Barley's Pizzeria, prior to Highland beer (which began in Barley’s basement), prior to Laughing Seed (barely a juice bar under the downtown YMCA at that point), prior, even, to Mountain Xpress. Current DBN manager Julian Vorus has been at the helm since 2005.

Open every day

DBN's has not been a tenure without some drama. Like the rumor a handful of years ago that DBN would lose its location to make way for more downtown parking. "Periodically, things come up," says Vorus. "The parking deck plan didn't happen. Since then, the landlord has been really helpful with getting repairs done."

One major and recent upgrade: air conditioning. Which, now that it's winter, doesn't sound like such a big deal. But think back to the sweltering days of August. "We do great business in the summer," says Vorus. "People go in the bookstore and sit in there for hours." That was before AC. But, climate controlled or not, DBN has always been cool with readers, browsers and hanger-outers.

They're so OK with all of that, that they're open every day. Every. Single. Day. "We may have closed early once," Vorus says. Full disclosure. But the bookstore is even open on Christmas day. "The Christmas before last, we had a spontaneous potluck in the store. We do plenty of business as well — we're one of only a couple of businesses that are open," says Vorus.

There's more to DBN than just books. More than just a wide and varried selection of national and foreign newspapers and magazines, and locally made art. In June of 2012 (in preparation for a month of events celebrating the bookstore's 24th anniversary), a stage and sound system were set up in the store's book-buying area. Neither are permanent fixtures, but can be be stored and then installed again for events.

Music events have happened sporadically in that space over the years. Last year’s special programing brought in the likes of lute player Will Tocaben, guitarist Tashi Dorji and the Jandek-like Body of John the Baptist. "I tell people, 'You have to provide an audience, because we're not known as a venue," says Vorus. He also points out that he loves it when unsuspecting tourists walk into the store and find themselves face to face with "something unique and special” — like the literally acrobatic old-time group The Sugarfoot Serenaders (Serenader Patrick Kukucka works at DBN). Or playwright John Crutchfield. Or the Juniper Bends author collective, who sometimes hold their quarterly reading series events at DBN.

Improvements make events more viable. Next for an upgrade is the customer bathroom. "It's a dusty, creaking old store, but I like it," says Vorus. "It was such a classically dilapidated used book store. You can't hurt it — you can only make it better. Now we have nice rugs on the floor. It's an endless project."

Vorus says the last part with a sort of contented resignation. He mentions that, while he's not opposed to change, so much about the store has worked and functioned for so long. He says that Renaissance Book Farm’s owner Emoke B’racz once told him that if you put your energy into something, that energy will draw other people to it. "The best evidence of that," says Vorus, "is if you're shelving a section, people will wander into that section."

As evidence of B’racz’s maxim, the bookstore does a brisk business, according to Vorus. "Our sales are great," he says. He believes the local economy can support a number of bookstores. And, while DBN felt the effects of the economic downturn in '08, Vorus points out that they have “profoundly inexpensive books." The thing is, people like to buy things and they like books. When the economy is bad — and even when it's good — people look for bargains. DBN has some books for $1.

Adventures in book buying

Vorus moved to Asheville from New York City, where he had also managed a bookstore, though it was a completely different sort of establishment. That business was a bookstore and publishing company specializing in psychoanalytic titles. "With Downtown Books and News, there are exceptions to every rule," says Vorus. "Everything is guidelines."

He's talking about buying books. DBN pays cash or store credit for second- (or third-, or 10th-) hand books, which supplies its inventory. But how do DBN employees know what to buy and what to turn down? "It's a matter of working in a store and knowing what sells," says Vorus. "You get a sense of what we have."

The "Inner Arts" (spirituality) section "definitely pays the bills," says Vorus. Looking for something from, say, the theosophical movement? Or pan-millenialism? Head to these shelves. Fiction is also popular. "We decide what we're going to buy, but we can't predict what our buying choices will be from week to week," Vorus explains.

On the other hand, "All of our sections do well, because we're buying the books that are being read by our community. It cycles on itself." He adds, "Because our books come from the community, we are a direct reflection of the community."

Then again, the DBN staff occasionally comes across a random book that's lingered in the store for a full decade. That can be lucky: When the refrigerator died and had to be removed, Vorus discovered a book that had been stuck underneath the appliance — it was all about fictional creatures on an island in the South Pacific and their unique evolution. He thinks it would be interesting to track a book as it cycles through DBN to see where its journey takes it.

Sometimes Vorus is called into assess the book collections of estates. These trips can turn up interesting finds — correspondences to Henry Rollins, a signed Eudora Welty book and a first edition by Zelda Fitzgerald top that list. "I once bought a 300-year-old Rosicrucian text," Vorus recalls. "That was exciting. It was really great to handle something that was considered a magical text."

In May, the bookstore posted, "Wow. Totally stoked here. Someone today sold us a signed, Modern Library edition of Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian. A seriously rare and valuable book. We are doing something right to get that into our inventory!" Once, DBN acquired a $1,000 set of books by Aleister Crowley. But, says Vorus, "sometimes the most interesting things are not necessarily the most expensive things."

Recent changes — not just economic, but also within the publishing industry — have also impacted DBN. Earlier this year, Vorus told Publisher's Weekly, “We do hear people mentioning they are selling most of their books to us and going to e-readers."

But a lot of people (readers) are just selling books to buy more books. More choose store credit than cash, says Vorus. The exchange rate is higher that way, which means the bookseller can buy more new-to-them books. But the cash versus credit ratio really fluctuates, says Vorus. The bookstore is fine with either. What they care about is getting more smart/weird/interesting/spooky/popular/brainy/strange/amusing books for their smart/weird/interesting/spooky/popular/brainy/strange/amusing readers.

Editor’s note: This story was originally published as a two-part feature at mountainx.com.

Alli Marshall can be reached at amarshall@mountainx.com.

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts writer and editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs.

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