The Small Bookstores

April 13th, 2015

Editor Ray McAllister writes about the small bookstores on the OBX.

When I wrote my first book on the North Carolina coast, about Topsail Island, the owner of the island’s only bookstore seemed, well, quite possibly crazy.


She said the book would sell for 30 years.


Thirty years?! I remember Mark Twain’s assessment that, for a book to be read forever, everything had to be perfect.


And by “forever” he meant … 30 years.


What I hadn’t counted on, what I didn’t know yet, was that the bookstore owner knew what she was talking about. She knew books, she knew readers, she knew likes and dislikes, she knew her island customers. The Topsail book has a long way to 30, but it’s barely slowed since being published.




It’s a phenomenon I’ve seen throughout the Outer Banks, as well. Small bookstores on the banks are gathering places – places of camaraderie, shared experiences and owner expertise. And trust. Customers are fiercely loyal.


Gee Gee Roselle, owner of Buxton Village Books, built her store from next to nothing. No, I mean she actually built her store. I interviewed her for my Hatteras Island book and found she had started with a little 300-square-foot building. She was a forestry major who wanted to stay on Hatteras – where, you have to admit, forestry options are limited. A bookstore was as good an idea as any, especially for someone who loved literature. Through the years, she quadrupled the shop by building on rooms herself, learning carpentry and electricity along the way.


Leslie Lanier is owner of the Ocracoke bookstore, Books to be Red. (Yes, she does know the past tense of “read”; the name is an allusion to her hair color.) She visited Ocracoke – and “got stuck,” she said when I talked to her for Ocracoke. She loved the island, even in winter, and began Books to be Red as a half-store in an old cotttage. Now she has the entire cottage, which was built in 1898. Living on Ocracoke can be even more difficult than living on Hatteras; it’s even harder to get to and sometimes has worse flooding. Then there’s winter, after everyone has left.


If you ever need to hide in the Witness Protection Program one winter, I suggest Hatteras or Ocracoke.




Independent bookstores – indies, they’re sometimes called – have never had it all that easy anywhere. It wasn’t that long ago they worried about the behemoths: Barnes & Noble, Books-A-Million and Borders. Only Barnes & Noble remains a real presence these days, however, and it’s a lessened one. But along comes With less overhead, massive numbers and the desire to lure people through cheaper books, the web monster can always undersell bricks-and-mortar operations.


But small bookstore owners have something Amazon can never match: Passion.


At Buxton Village Books, Roselle knows many of the customers – even if she hasn’t seen them since the same vacation week the previous year. The place is a steady parade of reunions. Roselle remembers what they’ve bought, as well, and has smart recommendations.


Or take the three Island Bookstores. Bill Rickman, a book executive from Chicago, and his wife, Ursula, bought a bookstore in Duck in 1996, which they would expand. They added a second one five years later in Corolla. They added the third just five years later in Kitty Hawk.


Each stocks as many titles as it can squeeze in. That’s passion.


Jamie Layton’s Duck’s Cottage, also in Duck, is a happening place. Readers and coffee drinkers gravitate there, especially when an author comes in on a Friday morning in summer. Duck’s has taken over a second store, in Manteo, now called Duck’s Cottage Downtown Books. The story is typical Outer Banks: The owner decided to sell after severe flooding from Hurricane Irene in 2011 wiped out the shop. Now shelves are built higher on the wall.


Books to be Red features events throughout the year, even in December for such favorites as Take Your Child to a Bookstore Day and No Football Zone Bash, complete with giveaways, refreshments and even champagne.


They’re no Amazon, but the locals have their online presences, too, to stay connected with their customers. Duck’s Cottage and Buxton Village Books, for instance, engage their visitors year-round online. Books to be Red has an active Facebook page.




Reading books on the beach, of course, is a centuries-old pastime. So why do many vacationers wait to buy them at the beach?


Visit these small stores and you’ll get it: friendliness, expertise and a common love of books. And just as important: no pressure. Stay for an hour or stay for two. You’re on island time. Buy one book – or none at all.


You’ll be back.


Ray McAllister is editor of BOOMER and author of four awarding-winning books on the North Carolina coast. Visit him at

More from Boomer