On a spring morning, a community of writers, readers, politicians and residents bid farewell to the beloved bookseller Nancy Olson, who died of kidney disease on March 27, 2016.
Olson was the founder and owner of Quail Ridge Books for 29 years until she sold it in 2013. In 2001, she was named Publishers Weekly’s Bookseller of the Year. Her business savvy and knack of picking bestsellers earned her a local and national reputation as running one of the best independent bookstores in the country.
As photographs flashed on a screen of Olson with her trademark white pageboy hairstyle and mischievous smile during her memorial service, a steady flow of literary and political figures filled the seats of Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in west Raleigh, just a short distance from the former location of Quail Ridge Books. The store has moved to North Hills in Raleigh.
Family and friends from near and far came to honor Olson, who found a way to thrive as the bookselling business shifted from bricks and mortar stores to online retailers. She created a community gathering place, where readers and writers came together to get informed, buy books and hang out.
While Olson attended booksellers conferences, she always followed her own instinct as an avid reader and an astute observer of the community she served. “She believed the bookstore should stand on the side of literature, not commercial writing,” says Sarah Goddin, the store’s longtime store manager.
“Even though she held strong political view, she believed the store should not take a political stand because she wanted everyone to feel comfortable in the store and to be able to explore any ideas, regardless of their beliefs,” Goddin says. “She believed in hosting authors with widely divergent views and respecting that her customers could make up their own minds and do it better if they had an opportunity to hear from many different perspectives.”
“Nancy also believed strongly in good old hospitality, greeting everyone who walked in the door and helping them to the full extent possible,” Goddin says.
Olson was fan of many writers but she especially championed the local ones: Lee Smith, Kaye Gibbons, Angela Davis-Gardner, and Clyde Edgerton. The first signing at her original Books at Quail Corners was for Jill McCorkle of Hillsborough. She sold 6,000 copies of Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain.
Frazier recalled during the service thinking that Olson’s store was a club of sorts. And that her customers were club members who all seemed to know each other’s names. And Nancy seemed to know all of them and the exact book they were looking for.
In short, the narrative was the same. Nancy Olson touched more lives and enriched them than most of us. She did it with wit and if you were lucky, a good book.
Bridgette A. Lacy is an award-winning journalist with a public love affair with food and culture. She authored a column “Morsels” for The News & Observer in Raleigh for many years and writes about food, chefs and culinary trends for The Independent Weekly and the North Carolina Arts Council. She's now the author of Sunday Dinner, a part of the Savor the South series by UNC Press and a finalist for the Pat Conroy Southern Book Prize