Our Kind of Place

North Carolina’s Old Books

Where books aren’t just business

Photo: Harry Taylor

A cozy reading nook among the stacks at Old Books.

I can think of at least two ways to use a bookstore (that place where you go to buy those things made of paper, ink, cloth, and cardboard—bound with glue):

1) As a place to buy a popular book you know you want. In that case, you may choose to go into a chain bookstore, where a book published by a major book publisher in the last few weeks or one that’s been a big seller over the last few years will be prominently displayed in a Sam’s Club–size room.

2) As a place to buy the above book, or a new or old book that you didn’t know you wanted. Old Books on Front Street, in my hometown of Wilmington, North Carolina, is such a place. It’s run by writer-reader Gwenyfar Rohler, who, it turns out, reads about a book a day and has a novel on the way. When I walk into her store, I get a feeling that the store somehow fits me like loose, very soft blue jeans and a warm flannel shirt on a cool day.

When I walk into a number one bookstore, it fits like a gargantuan business suit. I was once with a salesperson in one of these large bookstores and I asked, “Do you have any Flannery O’Connor?” and he said, “What did he write?” and I said, “Oh, you must be new,” and he said, “Yes, I was selling tires until recently.”

A handwritten sign in front of Old Books on Front Street says, IT’S BIGGER ON THE INSIDE. The message is both factual and metaphorical. From outside, the store does look small, and once inside you see that it is relatively narrow, but oh so deep and oh so full. In fact, just inside, you feel as though you have arrived at one end of three joined, somewhat wide, high-ceilinged, long train cars.

Books everywhere. And handmade signs. (I remember once driving through rural Maine, wondering why I kept thinking of rural North Carolina. Finally it dawned on me. Handmade signs along the road: TOMATOES, LAWN MOWER SERVICE, etc.)

Here’s what a few of those signs in Old Books, as the locals call it, say:

  • BARGAIN BOOKS! $0.25 each!

In the middle of the store, artsy neon lights, one for wine, one for beer, bookend a bar. On the chalkboard menu (among many other listings):

  • Henry & Arthur Miller [a beer] $2.50
  • Welch’s Grapes of Wrath [a juice] $1.00

Near this central location, local book clubs meet in soft living room chairs and upon a big couch that sits behind a coffee table stacked with books.

Throughout the store, more stuffed chairs rest in nooks that pop up unannounced.

The First and Fourth Constitutional Amendments are prominently displayed.

A piano sits near the back. Its owner, James Jarvis, comes in and plays on Wednesdays. But it stays unlocked for anyone to play. A handwritten note asks you not to place a drink on it.

You will find, here and there on the floor, empty cardboard boxes and boxes half full of books—inviting boxes. Maps are everywhere…

And you know those trifold display boards for school science projects? It’s not unusual to find one in a corner or on a table. The last time I visited, I saw one for Lenny Bruce (photos and info) near the back of the store, another for James Joyce. On a small reading stage back there sat a vintage typewriter among copies of Ulysses—all on an antique table. A sign said BLOOMSDAY, ANNUAL INTERNATIONAL CELEBRATION OF JAMES JOYCE, MARATHON READING JUNE 16 10 AM–8 PM.

Lamps are littered all around the place—high and low. Rare books are displayed behind glass. Cards noting Nobel Prize winners from 1927, ’55, ’57, ’64, etc. are stuck beside selected books. I find several shelves of books written in Chinese and Japanese.

You get the idea—and the idea is one that cannot be packaged. Cannot be chained. And so the place feels, in important ways, like comfortable old clothes.

Time escapes Old Books on Front Street, a place where you can become lost in worlds of words. It’s a good place to be.