by Lewis Beale
photographs by Nick Pironio
It’s not easy following a legend. Think about it: How much pressure will there be on the person who succeeds Mike Krzyzewski at Duke?
When Lisa Poole decided to buy Quail Ridge Books and Music from Nancy Olson, the beloved indie store’s founder and owner, Poole admits to being a little unnerved. “Oh, yeah, absolutely,” says the Raleigh native and Meredith College graduate. “I’m freaked out every day. I do feel I have large shoes to fill.”
That’s because Olson, who founded the store in 1984, had turned it into a $3- million business nationally known for its customer service, author readings, extensive children’s section, and community outreach. She is also beloved, a woman known for her warmth, whose personality could charm the bark off a tree.
When Olson put the store up for sale last year, she wanted someone who would carry on the tradition.
“I wanted someone who could continue what we had been doing,” says Olson, “and I wanted whoever bought the store to understand that. You have to make yourself special and distinctive from all the other bookstores.”
Enter Poole, 49, a mother of three daughters. She had always dreamed of owning a bookstore. A big reader who gobbles up authors like Jane Austen and David Sedaris, she saw the movie You’ve Got Mail – starring Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks as rival bookstore owners – and thought, “I would love to do that.” But she had no retail background and was one of 20 candidates vying to own Quail Ridge.
Yet Poole’s lack of business expertise didn’t seem to matter. “Lisa stood out for several reasons, and her family was part of it,” says the store’s general manager, Sarah Goddin, who has been at the Wade Avenue location for 18 years. “Her family loved books, and they saw it as a community venture; they were interested in continuing it as a family business for a long time.” The Poole family has deep roots in Raleigh and a tradition of meaningful philanthropy here. Lisa’s husband Ven Poole, chief executive of Waste Industries, is the son of Lonnie C. Poole Jr., whose $40-million bequest to N.C. State is the largest in its history.
“There were a lot of people who wanted [the store],” says Lisa Poole, “But not be in the store. And Nancy and I just clicked. We were on a very friendly level, like I had known her all the time.”
Poole took over the Quail Ridge reins last August. First, she attended The Bookstore Training Group, a Florida seminar for prospective book store owners where she learned that she “was in way over my head.” Luckily, Quail Ridge’s veteran staff is capable of running the store on its own. It meant that Poole was “able to come in and not be overwhelmed with ‘you’ve gotta do this, you’ve gotta do that.’ ”
“She’s been very careful not to really change anything until she understands it thoroughly,” says Goddin about Poole’s first few months as owner. “She’s been learning and observing, not imposing decisions.”
Part of this learning curve was Poole’s first visit to the American Booksellers Association’s annual convention, held this year in Seattle. With Goddin and Carol Moyer, the store’s children’s book manager, as her guides, Poole found the experience to be “overwhelming, but I picked up a lot of ideas, tips on how to work your store. I also toured eight local bookstores, and it was interesting to see how people do their stores, things like layout.”
Poole realizes she has stepped into a delicate situation. She wants to put her own brand on the store, but also recognizes that “it was very important to the customers when I came in, they said, ‘We hope you’re not going to change anything,’ and I said, ‘Of course, no,’ because I didn’t know any better. But I can see things I’d like to do to make it my own, a lot of them cosmetic – I think I could give the store a little more charm. There are old things that need to be replaced, things that are hodge-podge that could be a little more uniform.”
So much to learn. How to order books. Keeping up with new authors, learning more about Southern writers. Maintaining older customers, who are aging out, while attracting younger ones, the 20- and 30-somethings who often don’t patronize bookstores or prefer e-readers to print. Fighting off threats like Amazon.com. Plus, says Poole, “I want to keep my people happy (Quail Ridge has 25 employees), I want to take suggestions from them, make them feel it’s their store too.”
And then there’s finding her own niche in this smoothly operating machine. Poole is a smiling presence. She enjoys author readings at the store and big events featuring superstar writers like Pat Conroy, who can sell 300 tickets to a talk at nearby Meredith College. “The different events draw a lot of people,” says Poole, “and I just really like being around the people.”
It’s a huge learning curve. “I have so much that I don’t know,” she says.
But for Poole, this venture is as much about love as it is about business. Love of books, and all they mean. Love of the bookstore experience – the browsing, the comparing, the recommending, the conversations with other people about what they’re reading. “People still want to have something in their hands to read,” Poole says, “to be able to feel it, turn the pages. I don’t think books will ever go away.”
What I’m reading now:
Small Blessings, Martha Woodroof
A wonderfully written debut novel about a man and his wife, the son he never knew he had, a woman who works at a bookshop and how their lives intertwine.
It’s Not How Good You Are, It’s How Good You Want To Be, Paul Arden
“A concise guide to making the most of yourself.”
The latest issue of WALTER
What I’ve read recently:
This Dark Road to Mercy by Wiley Cash
A suspenseful novel about two young sisters, Ruby and Easter, from Gastonia, N.C., who are forced into the foster-care system when their mother dies. This story is a pageturner from the start, especially when the girls’ estranged father comes looking for them.
The Southerner’s Handbook: a Guide to Living the Good Life by the editors of Garden and Gun
A book describing all things Southern, most of which I already knew.
The Curiosity by Stephen P. Kiernan
A group of explorers in the Arctic discover a body frozen in ice, frozen in time. The project, fueled by Erastus Carthage, an egotistical power monger, comes to life when the decision is made to thaw the man and bring him back to life. A great story that makes the reader ask what is man, an experiment, tabloid fodder or a meaningful living being.
The Invention of Wings, Sue Monk Kidd
A beautifully written story about two sisters, a slave girl, and their quest for freedom.
What I want to read:
The Signature of All Things, Elizabeth Gilbert
Radiance of Tomorrow, Ishmael Beah
Unbroken, Laura Hillenbrand
And We Stay, Jenny Hubbard
Gone With the Wind, Margaret Mitchell
Some of my favorites:
Anything by Jane Austen
Anything by David Sedaris (I’ve read all of his works)
A Prayer for Owen Meany, John Irving
Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert
The Book Thief, Marcus Suzak
The Fault In Our Stars, John Green
The Borrowers, Mary Norton