By David Potorti, Literature Director
North Carolina Arts Council
Nancy Olson, avid reader, champion of North Carolina writers and proponent of literacy, who founded Raleigh’s influential Quail Ridge Books & Music, passed away March 27. She was 75.
Originally called Books at Quail Corners when it opened in 1984, Olson’s store nurtured a sense of community among readers and writers, and gave critical support and attention to emerging North Carolina authors such as Margaret Maron, Clyde Edgerton and Ron Rash.
“Nancy Olson played an essential role in promoting my work, as she did for hundreds of other writers,” said Rash, the John Parris Distinguished Professor of Appalachian Studies at Western Carolina University. “I called her my literary mom. She leaves a void that cannot be filled.” Rash is the author of the 2009 PEN/Faulkner finalist and New York Times bestseller Serena and Above the Waterfall, in addition to four prizewinning novels.
“With a love of books, people, readers and writers, Nancy Olson was a dear friend to multitudes,” added Clyde Edgerton, professor of creative writing at UNC-Wilmington. “She could sell the hell out of a book, and if there were a Nobel Prize for ‘Booksellers and Humble, Dear Persons,’ she would have won a hundred of them. We, who knew her, will now and forever experience a dark room where there was once bright light.” Edgerton is the author of ten novels, five of which have been named a New York Times Notable Book. He is also a Guggenheim Fellow.
Olson was a practitioner of “hand selling,” according to Hillsborough author Allan Gurganus. “This meant she didn’t just point a reader to a shelf; she put the perfect volume into that person’s very mitt.” Along with Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, Gurganus’s works include White People, (Los Angeles Times Book Prize, Pen-Faulkner Finalist) as well as the novel Plays Well With Others. His last book was The Practical Heart: Four Novellas (Lambda Literary Award). Gurganus’s short fiction appears in the New Yorker, Harper’s and other magazines.
“Nancy seemed a fountainhead of common sense, clear information and unending good energy,” Gurganus continued. “She educated her readers and encouraged local writers. In fact, she secretly loaned money to struggling novelists between books. Nancy and her loving husband/partner saw the writers of our state as extended family. Her sense of the local, her knowledge of her customers, gave Quail Ridge its relaxed sense of being everyone’s home away from home.”
Minnow Media’s Georgann Eubanks, who with the N.C. Arts Council and UNC Press, launched the first of a three-volume Literary Trails of North Carolina book series at Quail Ridge Books, said that “Nancy Olson was, and still is, the gold standard for booksellers.”
“She understood the importance of nurturing and guiding both writers and readers toward excellence,” Eubanks continued. “She knew how to pick a winner, too, urging agents and publishers to take a second look at new talents she uncovered. We will miss her, but we will not forget how she could create excitement around the release of a new book, especially those by North Carolina scribes.”
Indeed, Quail Ridge’s busy calendar of in-store readings ultimately made it a required stop for hundreds of touring authors including The Paris Review’s George Plimpton, former President Jimmy Carter, Susan Sontag and Mary Higgins Clark, as well as North Carolina luminaries like Gurganus, Reynolds Price, Charles Frazier, Lee Smith, Jill McCorkle and David Sedaris. Large crowds for authors like Sedaris often meant readings had to be relocated to nearby auditoriums.
Olson’s literacy efforts went beyond selling books. She launched Books for Kids, a non-profit foundation that gave books to needy children, instituted a Christmas Angel Tree program that gave books to kids and adults identified by social service agencies, and donated used books to prisons, mental health facilities, low-income day care centers and overseas programs. The store sponsored multiple reading groups and a book club for elementary school students.
Olson helped underwrite UNC-TV’s Bookwatch and supported programs that raised money for libraries. A proponent of the “Shop Local” movement, she was a 2007 inductee into the Raleigh Hall of Fame and was named “Bookseller of the Year” by Publishers Weekly in 2001.
“Nancy was serious about books, about literacy, about the tragedy of children who were not read to,” said Willow Springs writer Margaret Maron, author of 32 mystery novels, most recently Long Upon the Land, and recipient of the 2008 North Carolina Award for Literature. “Did she ever fully appreciate what a force of nature she was in this part of North Carolina? I doubt it. She was always so quick to credit others when the seeds she planted bore fruit. She leaves a huge hole in our hearts.”
Raleigh old-time musician Joe Newberry was the recipient of one of those “seeds.” Recalling Olson’s love not only of literature and North Carolina culture, but also North Carolina traditional music, he credits her with securing a slot on the radio program, A Prairie Home Companion.
“She asked a band that I performed in at the time, Big Medicine, to play for a book signing that Garrison Keillor was giving,” Newberry recalls. “He liked what he heard, and invited us to perform on a broadcast. So, thank you, Nancy Olson, for lighting the way down many paths.”
Olson sold Quail Ridge in 2013, discovering at the same time that she suffered from kidney disease. The store currently is beginning a new chapter at North Hills Mall in Raleigh.
“Nancy recognized that our state’s remarkable literary legacy, and the future of North Carolina literature, both depend on building community and supporting one another,” Eubanks said. “Fortunately, her model of encouragement and positive energy is being replicated across the state by many other bookshops that appreciate what she accomplished.”
“We need more forthright guides to books and life, folks who trust their ethics and therefore their taste,” Gurganus added. “In our bankrupt era, we need more moral certainty, more faith in decency and in the great curative mysteries art offers. Quail Ridge and Nancy Olson’s legacy live on. But, oh we miss, we need her now! ‘Nancy? What shall we read next? What should we DO next?’”