Sitting at a booth in the back of her store on recent morning, Allison Lee remembers the days long ago when her father ran a small-town business.
“My father was an independent store owner, a dime store, then later a hardware store,” she recalled. “I grew up on a Main Street in a small town, and when I was young I worked for my parents. I learned to count back change, ring things up on the old register. And it always meant a lot to my family about who the customers were, and how you serve the community. When he passed away some 17 years ago, some of the first people to land on my mother’s door were longtime customers.”
Waynesville residents may soon notice the sign on Main Street’s Blue Ridge Books & Café switched out for a new one that says just Blue Ridge Books.
The name change will be the most conspicuous sign of the switch in ownership that occurred this week.
On Tuesday, co-owners Robert and Betsy Baggett officially handed the reins over to general manager Jo Gilley and children’s buyer Allison Best-Teague.
Gilley was the first employee hired when Blue Ridge Books opened its doors in 2007, while Best-Teague transitioned into the store after it merged with Osondu Booksellers last November.
Robert Baggett, majority owner of Blue Ridge, said after spending many years running a 225-employee printing company in Atlanta along with Blue Ridge Books, he was more than ready for retirement.
Baggett sold his Atlanta business in March but retained the Waynesville bookstore. It was only in May that he decided to retire completely from business and sell the store.
At 61, Robert Baggett plans on spending most of the year in North Carolina while boating in Florida in the winter. His sister Betsy will relocate to Florida, where her twin daughters and granddaughters reside.
Also in May, Margaret Osondu, former owner of Osondu Booksellers and director of operations at Blue Ridge books, announced that she was no longer employed at the bookstore. The terse email she sent out to her newsletter subscribers on May 10 did not provide further explanation.
The Baggetts had earlier purchased property on the corner of Boundary and Walnut streets intending to move Blue Ridge to a new location with more parking. However, the store will remain in its current location due to “cost reasons.”
Robert Baggett has torn down two houses on the property and plans to put the land up for sale. “It’ll make a nice three-unit shopping center,” Robert Baggett said.
After deciding to retire, Robert Baggett concluded that Gilley and Best-Teague and Gilley would comprise the best team moving forward. The two were thrilled with Baggett’s offer.
“It was a dream job to work in a bookstore, but owning one is beyond a dream,” said Gilley.
Best-Teague said she has thought about owning a bookstore ever since she worked at Sloan’s Bookstore in Waynesville, which transformed into the Waynesville Book Company before once again morphing into Osondu Booksellers.
Best-Teague fondly remembers that her son literally took his first steps in that bookstore and how she and her husband dreamed of one day owning the business.
Gilley has experience as office manager in a Charlotte bookstore, while Best-Teague has worked in bookstores since the early ‘90s, including at a women’s bookstore in Durham and a large independent bookstore in Raleigh, Book buying responsibilities will be shared, though each co-owner will bring her own specialty.
Gilley is an avid reader of murder mystery authors and adores handing out biscuits to dogs that walk in with their owners.
Meanwhile, Best-Teague is passionate about children’s books and enjoys holding readings for babies under 3 on Tuesday mornings. When Best-Teague reads on her own, she chooses memoirs of people who aren’t famous.
Both learned a great deal about their new business while doing a throughout inventory of the bookstore recently.
“When you have to put your hand on every book in the store, then you come up with ‘We need more of this and less of that,’” said Best-Teague.
With all the upheavals this past year in the Waynesville bookstore world, both Best-Teague and Gilley are ready to go forward with their new venture and settle into a new routine.
“We’re just excited about focusing on the books,” said Best-Teague.
“We can make the store our own and fine-tune things,” added Gilley.
Even with the lingering threats of e-books and online retailers, both are hopeful that the personal contact that only a local bookstore can offer will help carry the business for years to come.
The merger of Osondu Booksellers and Blue Ridge Books and Café will eventually bring under one roof the long legacy of two beloved Waynesville institutions catering to readers and etched in the memory of the downtown community
A legacy of books
Osondu Booksellers is a direct descendant of the original Waynesville Book Co., which opened on Waynesville’s Main Street in 1870. That store fell victim to the Depression. In the 1970s, Charlie and Edie Sloan opened Sloan’s Book Shop in a building just a few doors away from where Osondu is now located. They eventually moved one block off Main Street.
Kent Stewart bought Sloan’s in 1997, and in 2002 moved it back to Main Street, renaming it The Waynesville Book Company. On a visit to Waynesville in 2003, Margaret Osondu was visiting Stewart’s store and mentioned she wanted to open a bookstore of her own. He offered to sell The Waynesville Book Company, and the deal was completed in September 2004.
Curb Market memories
While Blue Ridge Books and Café is now the town’s largest seller of magazines and newspapers, that title was held by the Open Air Curb Market from 1946 until 2004.
The store, with its old wooden floors and farm paraphernalia nailed to its walls, was a general store, newsstand, and superette combined, never switching to bar codes and scanners and still carrying Nehi sodas and boiled peanuts. But it was the voluminous daily delivery of newspapers and other periodicals that brought people in every day.
When its owner Adeline Patrick died, her daughters kept it going for a couple of years before selling the building, which became High Country Style. Three years passed before Blue Ridge Books and Café opened a storefront on Main Street and filled the void of somewhere to buy magazines and papers.
Waynesville’s two independent bookstores — Osondu Booksellers and Blue Ridge Books & Cafe — have merged.
The economics of independent bookstores have made it nearly impossible for a town of Waynesville’s size to support two stores. Squeezed by the discount prices of online booksellers and the limitless inventories of national chains, the local bookstore has become a niche market.
“It’s not just this economy. Most places in the country, a town the size of ours is pretty fortunate to have one independent bookstore, and two is always going to be a struggle,” said Margaret Osondu, owner of Osondu Booksellers.
Robert Baggett, owner of Blue Ridge Books & Café, closed a deal with Osondu last Friday that makes her store part of Blue Ridge Books and News, Inc., a newly formed entity. Osondu will act as director of operations, with responsibilities ranging from ordering books to hosting authors, while Baggett will head the new venture as president.
The two stores will retain separate names and locations for now, but Baggett plans to consolidate the two storefronts at a new downtown location some time in the next 18 months.
The two stores are currently separated by just three blocks at opposite ends of Main Street. Neither one has sufficient parking, Baggett said.
“We are aware parking is a problem for both stores but we are determined to remain within the vicinity of the downtown Waynesville area,” Baggett said.
Baggett opened Blue Ridge Books with his sister Betsy in summer 2007. The store carries a wide selection of newspapers and magazines and houses a coffee bar and Wi-Fi café, often crowded with people tapping away on their laptops. The well-lit open store design features clearly-marked book sections and the type of display kiosks familiarized by major chains like Barnes & Nobles. But the store has, according to its customers, retained a family feel.
“Book chains are impersonal. You’re just one amongst thousands,” said Tony Antonino, a Blue Ridge Books regular. “This is like a true family atmosphere with relationships that go beyond, ‘How much is it?’”
While Blue Ridge Books has made its name largely on its inventory of periodicals and successful café, Osondu Booksellers caters to the true booklover.
Margaret Osondu has created a community of readers centered on the books she orders, the authors she brings in, and the recommendations her staff provides. She said she will bring all of her skills to the new company and the result will be a better, stronger independent bookstore in Waynesville.
Osondu said she learned of Baggett’s interest in her business through a third party and was immediately receptive. Baggett said the deal happened fast.
“The whole thing was eight days from the negotiating table to the closing table,” Baggett said.
Pam Kearney, who volunteers at Osondu Booksellers and considers herself a loyal customer, expressed her relief that the merger will ensure that Waynesville will have an independent bookstore going forward.
“I’m a book lover so I’m just thankful we still have an independent bookstore in town,” Kearney said. “I’m actually a customer of both, and I think they each have positive things they bring to the marketplace.”
Kearney said consolidating two stores with complementary strengths should produce a better business.
“Blue Ridge brings the magazines and newspapers, which from my perspective are important to the community,” she said. “Margaret brings the knowledge of getting authors to come and read. She knows the local history well. I don’t think we’ll be losing anything. I think we’ll probably be gaining.”
Betsy Baggett, who co-owns Blue Ridge Books with her brother, said she was excited about the prospect of working with Osondu.
“I just feel together we can be more of a force,” Betsy said. “We’ve got the magazines and the coffee bar and Margaret has the book signings and the knowledge, and it’s a win-win situation.”
Under the new arrangement, Osondu will order the books for both stores and control the inventories. Robert Baggett said he had no plans to cut staff and both stores would be able to grow their inventories as a result of the deal.
“It will be a positive thing for the book-lovers of Haywood County,” Baggett said. “Both stores will offer a wider variety and a larger inventory. We have some exciting long-term plans to serve the community better.”