Downtown Books & News: nearing a quarter century

If you’ve lived in Asheville for longer than a few years, try to imagine your life here without Downtown Books & News. 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 DBN describes itself on Facebook. In a few short months, DBN (grumbly or not) celebrates a quarter-century holding down its spot (and, it could be argued) anchoring Lexington Avenue and much of what makes (and keeps) Asheville so pitch-perfectly odd.

Which means you’d have to have lived in Asheville prior to 1988 to remember a time before DBM. Hint: That was also prior to Barley’s pizza, prior to Highland beer, prior to Laughing Seed, prior to Mountain Xpress. Current DBN manager Julian Vorus (also a poet and dramatist — his newest work, Red Black White, is set to premiere at The Magnetic Field: Friday, Oct. 26; Saturday, Oct. 27; Friday, Nov. 1; and Saturday, Nov. 2) has been at the helm of DBN since ‘01. The used bookstore is under the umbrella of Renaissance Farm, also the home of Malaprop’s.

It’s 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 October, 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.” The was before AC. But, climate control or not, DBN has always been cool with readers, browsers and hanger-outers.

They’re so okay 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.

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 resigned contentment. 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 Malaprop’s owner Emöke 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.” (More on books in part two of this story.)

Another evidence of B’Racz maxim is that, though DBN might not ever be a Fortune 500 company, the bookstore does a brisk business. “Our sales are great,” Vorus 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, people look for bargains. DBN offers books for as cheap as 25 cents.

Recent changes — not just economic, but also within the publishing industry — has 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 book seller can buy more new-to-them books. But the cash vs. 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.

(Next: adventures in book buying, DBN-sponsored events and that infamous “Drink. Smoke. Read.” slogan.)
Photos borrowed from the bookstore’s Facebook page.

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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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