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A Book-Crawl in Asheville

posted on 17 Sep 2015

A Book-Crawl in Asheville

 

Asheville, North Carolina is undeniably unusual. Home of Thomas Wolfe who wrote the US classic, Look Homeward, Angel, the town has grown into something I very much doubt Wolfe would have recognised. How to describe it? A centre for the arts, informal, impromptu music, independent shops, faded Hippies, progressive politics and environmentalist – all sitting side-by-side with a more traditional US small city infrastructure of shopping malls, modern restaurants, businesses and banks. A pretty heady mix and a fascinating one to spend a few days in.

Asheville is also rich in interesting bookshops. I’m far too old for the rigours of pub-crawling these days and so a book-crawl was a much more appealing prospect.

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We started with Downtown Books which is a pretty big space and well set up – with no clutter -  but it does have a good, bustling environment with plenty of people browsing or standing chatting without feeling they are being pressed into buying. One of the drawbacks to such a large shop is that so much shelf space requires lots of stock and it’s really hard to keep the quality high. For a book collector there was really very little; anything that was deemed to be remotely collectible was kept in glass-fronted or glass-topped cabinets and none of them looked too intriguing. However, if you’re looking for reading copies on just about every topic you’ll find this place heaven. I’d call this shop the workhorse of the second hand sector – you need these shops, they do all the heavy lifting.

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Up the hill and back towards the centre of the town is one of those delightful independent bookshops that make new releases look so tempting (even when that voice in your head is telling you not to fall for the packaging). Malaprop’s does the coffee and books thing delightfully. It specialises in local authors, has a range of signed new editions and clearly has an astute buying policy. What it’s really good at though is marketing itself and the whole notion of the bookshop. Mugs, stickers, pens and pencils – it’s got the lot and all branded to the hilt with Malaprop’s logos.

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Not strictly a bookshop but worth a visit is the book outlet run by The Pack Memorial Library. It’s commonplace for libraries to occasionally clear their shelves of stock that isn’t being used (a practice that makes me fundamentally nervous) but I haven’t seen anything on this scale. The library has a fully-fledged bookshop that sells their overstocks and anything that has been donated to them. Their prices are great and unlike British libraries that seem to enjoy defacing the books with stamps and stickers of all kinds, this library takes a light touch. Yes, there are a couple of library stamps on their books but you have to work quite hard to find them and I didn’t see any that were in really poor condition.

On to Battery Park Book Exchange & Champagne Bar. I really have never seen a shop like this before. Occupying the corner of a prime piece of real estate and an integral part of a shopping mall, this is a bookshop with a sophisticated cocktail bar – this takes the coffee & books model to a quite other place. In reality this is a modern space the size of a warehouse that has been transformed and dressed to feel old, even club-like, with dark wooden shelving, vintage lighting, mahogany tables. This place sells literary decadence and it’s pretty irresistible. There is, as you might imagine, a downside. It’s the books. Let’s be fair; they’re not uninteresting but they’re not first rate. I have no idea how many books they sell but they clearly do a good trade as a bar – I really can’t imagine that it would be viable or successful were this just a bookshop reliant on its stock alone. But judging it as a traditional bookshop is to entirely miss the point because this is, in the real sense of the phrase, a book experience and everyone should try it at least once.

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Finally on to the jewel in the crown of Asheville bookshops – The Captain’s Bookshelf.  I have no idea who the captain is or was but his bookshelf must have been a humdinger. The shop has an unremarkable frontage and is a comfortable medium size – big enough to hold a good range of stock and give you plenty of room to move. The stock and its quality is genuinely outstanding. I don’t think the shop trades on-line and so nothing is being held back from the shelves. There’s virtually no tat or filler here – every book deserves its place. There are some genuinely collectible items here too. A low series of cabinets running the length of the shop’s central portion houses the best fiction and other objects of desire and I could have easily emptied my bank account. It’s not cheap; it’s not even the middle of the top end; it’s not crazily expensive; the prices are right for what you’re getting. I would happily move in here and take up residence. Perhaps the only weakness is in the children’s books – not enough of them and what was there could have been stronger. There are top-end classic illustrated and antiquarian children’s books but not what I would call the modern classics that will define children’s book studies in the future. But that’s really nit-picking. I’d love to be able to come to this shop on a regular basis but I will have to live with the fact that if I do see it again it wont be for a couple of years and who knows what will happen to it in that time? I think it’s your duty to go there on my behalf and make sure it survives until I get back.

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Terry Potter

September 2015