When I first moved to the Triangle from Santa Cruz, I carried with me wonderful memories of a fantastic bookstore, Bookshop Santa Cruz. When I went to school at U.C. Santa Cruz, Bookshop Santa Cruz was in front of the Santa Cruz Coffee Roasting Company, where I fell under the spell of the magic combination of books and coffee. It wasn’t the only bookstore in town, but it was the best. I came to view a vibrant, independent, bookstore as an essential ingredient for a university town, an off-campus meeting place where on-campus learning continues.
When I left Santa Cruz for North Carolina, I was pleased to find that essential ingredient alive and well in Chapel Hill. As the state’s flagship university, U.N.C. had plenty of well-read students to keep book stores hopping. Franklin St. had the venerable Intimate Bookshop, its flagship store and a two-story treasure trove of books. Around the corner, the caffeinated crowd could enjoy a book at the Hardback Cafe, with its smaller but more eclectic collection of good reads. On Rosemary, the Internationalist served up revolutionary reads, along with a good dose of left-of-center humor and special interest books. There were, and still are, other used book stores in the area, but for new books, these three bookstores were everything.
But in the early nineties the Hardback Café closed, and after a fire, an expensive rebuild, and financial troubles, the Intimate folded in 1998. Another bookstore, Branch’s Books, opened in 2002, and closed in 2005. The Internationalist is still around, though in a smaller location on Franklin St., beneath, of all things, a massage parlor, and, yes, that kind of massage parlor! But, while it is a great little store, it isn’t a good general audience bookstore. After Branch’s closed, Chapel Hill-Carrboro had no general interest independent bookstores. Borders had opened up just within the Orange County line, and Barnes & Noble opened up just past the county line in Durham. Both stores made the prospect of opening another independent bookstore daunting.
It was therefore quite a pleasant surprise when in 2009, in the midst of an economic tailspin, Flyleaf Books opened on Martin Luther King Boulevard. This is the bookstore that Chapel Hill has hoped for. Situated not too far from campus, next door to Fowler’s popular local coffee shop, and near Flying Burrito, a very popular Tex-Mex restaurant, Flyleaf has a great location. While it doesn’t get a lot of walk-by traffic, having Fowler’s next door provides some traffic, of just the right demographic for a bookstore. Plus, as the bookstore-coffee shop combo is de rigeur these days, Flyleaf gets all the benefits of having a coffee shop next door, without the hassle of actually running a coffee shop. There is plenty of parking out front, and the store is on a bus line along the popular NS, NU, HS, and T routes.
Inside, the store is surprisingly spacious, with much of the inventory on carefully laid out tables for comfortable browsing. In the back is a wonderful kids section, with comfortable furniture for reading to kids. About one-third of the space is devoted to a meeting room for book readings and signings, and Flyleaf keeps this back room busy with lots of readings. A recent newsletter from the store had events planned for every night of the week, with some days having two events. With this kind of energetic event planning, who needs walk-by traffic?
Best of all, the owners seem to focus on an eclectic choice of books, not just the latest bestsellers. On every visit to Flyleaf, I’ve come across a book or two that I’ve never seen at the big box chain stores. Or maybe they are at the big stores, but one can never find them because of the stacks of Dan Brown books and weighty tables full of remainders. That is the beauty of a small store, the selection is more, well, selective.
Flyleaf also has a good selection of used books, and with that they are equally selective. You won’t find the higgledy-piggledy selection of used books that you usually expect from a used bookstore, but instead a collection of good condition books, many of them out-of-print. The kids section is also a treat, nestled in the back of the store with comfortable chairs for reading. My daughters only complaint: they don’t have a train table, like the big box stores always do.
My advice to Chapel Hill-Carrboro book lovers, before driving out to the mall to B&N, stop in at Flyleaf, and support a great local business. If history is any guide, it will take a lot of support to keep its doors open. I’m sure you’ll find a book you’ll love.