This is part two of a two-part series. Read part one here.
Adventures in book buying
Downtown Books and News manager Julian 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 is how they acquire their stock. But how do DBM 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 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 with Henry Rollins, a signed Eudora Welty book and a first edition by Zelda Fitzgerald top that list. “I once bought a 300 year-old Resocrucian 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 Alistair Crowley. But, says Vorus, “sometimes the most interesting things are not necessarily the most expensive things.”
DBN staff often posts covers of interesting/rare/quirky/weird books on their Facebook page.
There’s much more to Downtown Books and News than just books. More than just a wide and varried selection of newspapers, magazines and locally-made art, too. In June of this year (in preparation for a month of events celebrating the bookstore’s 24th anniversary), a stage and sound system was set up in the book buying are. Neither are permanent fixtures, but can be be stored and then installed again for performances.
Music events have happened sporadically in that space over the years. June’s special programing brought in the likes of lute player Will Tocaben, guitarist Tashi Dorji and alt-rockers 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 Sugarfoot Serenaders. Or playwright John Crutchfield giving a performance. Or the Juniper Bends author collective, who sometimes hold their quarterly reading series events at DBN. (The most recent one was in August.)
That infamous “Drink. Smoke. Read.” slogan
It kind of started with Elizabeth Gilbert’s book, Eat Pray Love. Malaprop’s (who hosted Gilbert when she was touring that memoir) played off the three word catch phrase with its slogan, “Eat. Sleep. Read.” It was actually Malaprop’s general manager, Linda Barrett Knopp, who came up with the snarky DBN tageline, “Drink. Smoke. Read.”
“I’d love to take credit for it, but I can’t,” says Vorus. “People think it’s funny.” DBN has not only printed shirts, but reissued them. In black, of course.
Photos borrowed from the bookstore’s Facebook page.