Around Town with… Irv Coats of Reader’s Corner

Irv Coats turned a love of reading into a lifelong career with his beloved store on Hillsborough Street.
Writing and photographs by Addie Ladner

“Anything you need for your head and soul you can find in a good book,” says Irv Coats. At age 85, the owner of local bibliophiles’ favorite spot, Reader’s Corner still rides his bike into work nearly every day. “It’s a good bike from the pawnshop. You don’t want that fancy of a bike because you get more exercise from a bad bike,” he says, laughing. 

A resourceful man, Coats frequently hits up a local liquor store—but not for the drinks. He collects their boxes to ship his mail orders in what he calls, “the world’s best book packaging.” I’ve seen it for myself, and it’s pretty impressive: each book packed and mailed, nice and snug.

Readers Corner is a Raleigh institution, well-known for its quarter book shelves that line the exterior of the store that are sold based on an honor system. It’s not unusual to see someone lingering around, reading in the middle of the night there. Coats donates the profits from the outside books to NPR, and to date, that amount has exceeded $100,000. Below, the humble man shares a few of his favorite spots in town and a few stories behind the city’s last standing used book shop.

What’s your favorite spot downtown? 

I like the 42nd Street Oyster Bar. I’ve gone there since it was a hole in the wall on the side street. It’s my favorite restaurant. You go in there and you feel like you’re in a big city, or maybe it’s the name that makes it feel that way.

What’s your favorite hidden gem in Raleigh?

The JC Raulston Arboretum. JC Raulston was a friend of my wife’s and I, and a regular customer. He was a great horticulturist.  

Where do you go for lunch?

I bring a bagged lunch. I don’t have time to go out to lunch! 

Tough decision, Char-Grill or Snoopy’s?

Char-Grill. I like the way they started the business. I was here about the time they started.  

Where do you spend your spare time?

I don’t have any spare time. I work all the time! By the time I read the New York Times and catch up on political events, it’s time to go to bed.

What’s your go-to coffee shop and usual order?

Oh, I use instant coffee. I keep it right by my desk. It tastes just as good as Cup of Joe. But at 3 p.m. the whole Readers Corner team goes to Cup of Joe and they can get any beverage they want. We keep them in business.

Did you really collect books for your inventory while in the military for 20 years?

Yes. I had this plan. I was going to retire and open a used bookstore. Just for this purpose, I would go to the post office auctions three times a year in big cities like Cincinnati and Washington, D.C., and I’d buy hampers of books that would get lost in the mail. One time I went to DC and there were about 500 hampers of books. The post office put in these new machines to handle packages and the machines were ruining the packages. They shot all the books to DC. There I was, with all the books I could buy. It took me two years to haul them all down from DC to Raleigh. I had a station wagon with a trailer behind it. After I bought the book store I’d go up every two weeks and get a load of books.

Why Raleigh?

I was a graduate student here and liked it. I like the town so much. I had thought about San Francisco and D.C. but they had tons of used book stores. This was the only one, and I told Mrs. Clark, who opened the shop in 1975, to sell it to me… and she did (in 1980).

Where does your inventory come from?

People bring their books to us. We buy about 1,000 a day. I don’t have to go hunting for books like I used to. I used to come in every morning and then have to leave to go hunting for books at thrift stores and yard sales on the weekends to keep the store open but I don’t have to do that anymore.

Have you seen a change in business or your customers since the re-development of Hillsborough Street?

I don’t put it on just on the changes in Hillsborough; I put it down to the internet. People can find us now. You used to have to advertise, but people can find us now. And with the roundabout on Hillsborough, we’re now more visible. Technology and development have helped our business.

Is it true you get offers every week to sell the bookstore?

Just about. I used to get offers every week. I like the development but I have no interest in selling. I tell them to see my widow and maybe they can work it out.

What made you want to open up a used bookstore? 

I’ve always been crazy about books. I had done lots of things being a physicist. I worked on atomic bomb testing and nuclear projects, x-ray machines, and microwave ovens. I did this and my mother said, “Finally, you’re doing something that suits you!” 

What’s your favorite book? 

“The Wind in the Willows,” I’ve read it maybe 30 times.

How do you choose what to sell? 

We buy things we think people would want to buy from us. You get a feel over the years of what people are looking for.

The sides of the bookshelves and walls of the store are filled with random photos, notes, foreign currency, etc. Where are all these things from?

All of it is from the insides of books we get from over the years. 

So the books themselves must have come with their own stories accompanying them. Any books you’ve received over the years that stand out in your memory?

I have a signed 1st edition “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” by Hemingway. A guy brought it in. It was his mothers and I paid him for it. It’s very authentic. It was published in 1940 and Hemingway signed it in 1944 so it was early in his career. There is a note in it on how the original owner got Hemingway to sign it. I also once found an old Curious George book outside on the quarter shelf that Hans Augusto Rey (the author of the Curious George books) signed before coming to the Bread Loaf Writers Conference in the U.S. There was a little monkey sketched next to his signature. I sold the book for $1,100.