When it comes to a love of literature and passion for the printed word, Western North Carolina is an open book. And many of its bookstores — independently owned, local institutions — have endured, even as megachains and online ordering have spurred the closing of the same in similarly sized cities around the country.
In WNC, say bookstore owners, size doesn’t matter so much as a deep well of literary history, and residents and visitors who simply love to read.
That the Asheville area continues to be fertile ground for the written word is clear in contemporary bestselling books authored by natives and evident in the regional section of Malaprop’s Bookstore/Café, which has an entire shelf devoted to native son Thomas Wolfe. “Our local section has regional guides, regional cooking, regional nonfiction and regional fiction,” says Gretchen Horn, an 18-year-employee who purchased majority ownership from founder Emoke B’Racz at the start of 2019 (as well as B’Racz’s other store, Downtown Books & News).
A literary landmark minus a marker is 61 Haywood St., site of the first location of The Captain’s Bookshelf and Malaprop’s, respectively. When Chan Gordon, co-founder of The Captain’s Bookshelf with his wife, Miegan Gordon, got out of the Navy in 1970, he took a job at Talman’s Bookstore on Wall Street in Asheville. After the store closed, the couple moved to Charleston, S.C., and worked in another bookstore, The Book Basement. In 1976, they returned to Asheville and opened The Captain’s Bookshelf.
Customers followed The Captain’s Bookshelf to its next location above Enman’s Furrier on Battery Park Avenue in 1982 but also continued to patronize 61 Haywood when B’Racz opened Malaprop’s there. “It was a seamless bookstore transition,” notes Gordon, with a laugh. While on Battery Park, The Captain’s Bookshelf shifted its inventory from new books to secondhand and rare, establishing a reputation that followed the business to Page Avenue.
Malaprop’s moved a few doors down to its current location at 55 Haywood St. in 1997 (B’Racz opened Downtown Books & News on Lexington Avenue nearly a decade earlier).
“WNC people are readers, curious people, people who seek knowledge. Visitors have that same curiosity,” says Gordon, explaining the success of the region’s independent bookstores.
Horn agrees: “Painters, potters, craftspeople, musicians, books and reading are the cultural landscape here.”
Here are some of the oldest and newest in Asheville and surrounding areas:
• The Captain’s Bookshelf, 31 Page Ave.: “In March , Miegan and I will have been in the retail book business for 50 years, and that’s long enough,” says Chan Gordon, in partial explanation of why Asheville’s oldest bookstore will close March 31. “Our lease is ending, and the new rent structure will be prohibitive for this kind of business.”
The enterprise counts almost 25,000 curated secondhand and rare books in its inventory, culled from multiple sources. “We just got a huge Edward Gorey collection shipped to us from California because they know we are interested in him,” says Chan.
The Gordons will retain a few thousand books as the basis for a continuation of their online business, but everything is for sale, including the signed, first-edition, original dust jacket copy of Maurice Sendak’s children’s classic, In The Night Kitchen. In December, all books priced over $10 will be discounted 40%. captainsbookshelf.com
• Malaprop’s Bookstore/Café, 55 Haywood St.: Since assuming primary ownership of the store, Horn hasn’t made any drastic changes to the model that has kept Malaprop’s thriving for nearly four decades. “We like to cram as much as we can in here,” she says, looking around the multisectioned space that, in addition to new books in dozens of categories, sells games, puzzles, crafty projects, calendars, greeting cards and journals. “Lots and lots of journals. But I’ve tried to open it up a little so it’s a bit roomier and easier to get around.”
She has streamlined programming a bit, too, from about six readings a week to four, from local and national authors. “But really, this place is all about community,” Horn says. “I don’t call myself an owner. I call myself a guardian, preserving the community spirit that draws us all here.” malaprops.com
• Downtown Books & News, 67 N. Lexington Ave.: Martha Stewart’s Living might be the most conventional publication on the shelves of this proudly quirky store. “It’s very Lexington Avenue,” says Horn, referring to the street’s inherent individuality. Secondhand books run the gamut from fiction and poetry to travel and the occult. The magazine inventory is epic in its breadth and ethos. Here you will find not just foreign language editions of American publications like Vogue, but titles like High Snobiety, Another Man, Bitch, frankie, Hi-Fructose, Toothache and six issues of Pussweek, by and about cats. “I love going to Downtown,” says Horn. “It’s like a vacation.” dbnbooks.com
• Battery Park Book Exchange, 1 Page Ave.: Books and bubbles. Is there a more perfect combination? Bibliophiles, oenophiles, jazz enthusiasts and passersby lured inside by the striking exterior of the shop and Champagne bar, anchoring a corner of the Grove Arcade, can be found nestled into the cozy leather seating tucked into the many rooms, levels, nooks and crannies in this encourager of indulgence. Resembling a French salon of the 19th century, the store stocks thousands of secondhand books, noted for their pristine condition. Also noteworthy: The wine list. batteryparkbookexchange.com
• Bagatelle Books, 428-C Haywood Road: This is the newest bookstore to open in Asheville, but owner Patrick Kutcher brings years of experience from working at Malaprop’s, Downtown Books & News and The Captain’s Bookshelf. The last was especially helpful in building an inventory of secondhand books to place on the tulip poplar shelves he had built for the light-filled shop on Haywood Road in West Asheville. “As Captain’s Bookshelf is winding down, they let me look through books they were receiving,” he says. “There was no secondhand bookstore in West Asheville, so I’m not stepping on any toes, and I like that our neighbors are Harvest Records and Flora.” A copy of Eudora Welty’s Country Churchyards and Patti Smith 1969-1971 by Judy Linn share a shelf and reflect Kutcher’s interest in regional work, collectible literature and music. So does the name of the store: “Bagatelle is a term for a short musical composition.” bagatellebooks.com
• Firestorm Books & Coffee, 610 Haywood Road: Firestorm is a small store with big and bold ideas. Launched in downtown Asheville in 2008 as a collectively owned, radical bookstore and community gathering space, it moved into a storefront in West Asheville in 2014. Along with mainstream titles like White Negroes and Where the Crawdads Sing, Firestorm is the best source for books exploring socialism, anarchy, racism, LGBTQ and gender issues, animal and environmental activism, food movements and feminism. The store serves coffee (no specialty drinks) and all-vegan local baked goods from a counter and hosts book events and community meetings on a near-daily basis. A significant area of the store is devoted to children, with books and toys. firestorm.coop
• Highland Books, 36 W. Main St., Brevard: Book lovers Amanda and Chris Mosser bought this 43-year-old Brevard mainstay in 2015 and, in 2019, moved it to Main Street. The store stocks new books, a large collection of greeting and note cards, fair trade gifts through an alliance with Ten Thousand Villages, wine and cheese. The owners share staff picks online and host author events with local writers. highlandbooksonline.com
• City Lights Bookstore, 3 E. Jackson St., Sylva: City Lights Bookstore, open since 1985, sells new and used books, journals, greeting cards, gifts and maps in its corner building, which it shares with City Lights Café on the lower level. The business hosts readings, classes and — in partnership with the North Carolina Writers Network West — a monthly open mic night for writers and poets to share new and in-progress work. citylightsnc.com
• Sassafras on Sutton, 108 Sutton Ave., Black Mountain: The business is less than 2 years old, but the brick-and-stone building it inhabits is one of the oldest in Black Mountain; a historical marker by the front door notes it was constructed in 1876 as the livery stables for the railroad. In addition to new books and a very large selection of gifts, Sassafras brews fresh coffee from roaster and neighbor Dynamite Coffee and serves baked goods from nearby Four Sisters Bakery. sassafrasonsutton.com
• Blue Ridge Books, 428 Hazelwood Ave., Waynesville: Blue Ridge Books specializes in new titles but also carries used books, gifts, greeting cards, magazines and newspapers, and is the only place in Haywood County to find The Wall Street Journal. The cozy store hosts local authors on weekends; Michael Beadle and Peter Yurko’s Waynesville has been the shop’s bestselling book for 10 years. blueridgebooksnc.com
• Wall Street Book Exchange, 18 Wall St., Waynesville: Located in downtown Waynesville for 23 years, Wall Street Book Exchange has been owned by Bonnie and Greg Owens since 2015. A large chalkboard on one wall announces new arrivals, events and posts literary quotes. The store boasts more than 50,000 used books, outdoor seating and a plush reading sofa named Ms. Virginia. wallstreetbooksnc.com