New generation takes over at City Lights BooksWritten by Giles Morris
What is a bookstore?
The question was unimaginable when Joyce Moore bought City Lights Books in Sylva from Gary Carden in 1986. But as Moore calls time on her career, e-books and online booksellers have challenged bricks and mortar bookstores to re-justify their existence. Moore announced just before Christmas that she would sell her business to long-time employee Chris Wilcox. The transaction took place last Friday, and now Wilcox has the task of taking City Lights Books forward in a difficult climate for independent booksellers.
Moore has left him with a recipe for success that has nothing to do with technology.
“If you don’t have community support it’s impossible to succeed,” Moore said. “Sometimes you have to build that support and nurture it and keep letting people know why it’s important.”
It’s important because Sylva’s downtown and City Lights have grown together and, in many ways, their futures are intertwined. Moore can look back on a successful career running the store, during which time she was one of the leaders of the downtown’s revitalization movement.
Wilcox meanwhile looks forward to a new challenge in an atmosphere he has known intimately since he was a child.
The other City Lights
Sylva didn’t have a bookstore when Gary Carden opened up City Lights in the vacant front of the old Carolina Hotel on Main Street. Carden had operated a bookstore in an abandoned barbershop in Cullowhee before, and he saw the chance to start something the town needed without a lot of upfront investment.
“I stocked the shelves from my own books (mostly paperbacks), rented a coffee-maker and bought a stock of New Age cassettes, which turned out to sell better than the books,” Carden said. “I added a video section which was mostly foreign films and early American classics and hung a poster of Charlie Chaplin’s ‘City Lights’ over the door.”
The name City Lights, then, didn’t come from Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s iconic bookshop in San Francisco, but from Carden’s eclectic decorating style. Carden only ran the shop for a little over a year before he realized he didn’t have the money to make it what he wanted. Joyce Moore, a mother of two with a degree in library science, had just received a lump sum of money as compensation for her childhood home being re-located for an interstate right of way.
Moore bought the store, kept the name, and began making incremental improvements.
“The world was really a lot smaller in 1986,” Moore said. “The idea that anyone could ever confuse City Lights in San Francisco and City Lights in Sylva was inconceivable. It has happened though.”
Downtown Sylva was smaller then, too. Virtually nothing was open after 5 p.m. Running a business on Main Street allowed Moore to imagine what Sylva might look like with a vibrant downtown.
“As it grew, it just sort of began to fit into a bigger picture of what Sylva might possibly be,” said Moore. “At that time Meatballs was the only restaurant in town.”
Moore realized that if her shop was to succeed, it would do so as part of a new business district.
“You sort of realize there needs to be a few businesses that say, ‘I make a commitment to the community and if you join us we’ll have success,’ and I think that’s still true now,” Moore said.
Sylva got its Main Street designation from Raleigh and Moore became a pillar of Sylva Partners for Renewal, the precursor to today’s Downtown Sylva Association, which enjoyed the support of Mayor Brenda Oliver and the Jackson County Board of Commissioners. Moore credits that nexus of support for giving the business owners the support they needed to survive and, ultimately, to thrive.
“I think one of the important things in any economic development effort is that you can’t do it yourself,” Moore said. “We were fortunate in the early 90s that we had all the right players on board.”
The business grew, in part because of its connections with Western Carolina University, which not only meant that high-quality used books were available, but also that there were people around to read them, and, more importantly, people around who wrote them. Alan Moore, Joyce’s husband, was a biology professor at WCU and many of the store’s supporters, patrons, and personalities over the years have had some connection with the university.
Moore scheduled readings and discussions and City Lights really became the intellectual fountainhead of Sylva.
“Often times bookstores are a focus in a community,” Moore said. “We aren’t the only small town in which the bookstore is a kind of nucleus.”
After a few years on Main Street, Moore saw an opportunity to move City Lights into Dr. Ralph Morgan’s office on the corner of Schuman and Jackson Streets. The move meant that Moore could eventually run a business out of a building she owned, but it also gave the store a homey feeling, a sense of place.
With the advent of bigbox book retailers and then on-line booksellers, small bookstores around the country began closing their doors. But City Lights didn’t. Moore is clear about the reason. The community, she said, chose to keep her store alive.
“In many respects I think we weathered the big box stores and Amazon.com. I think those were battles we fought and didn’t lose,” Moore said. “ You can’t win, but the reality is the community has been behind us and helped keep us alive.”
Now Moore is a grandmother and she doesn’t want to pour her heart and soul into making sure City Lights stays above water.
“Change is a part of life. I don’t know if I have the energy at this point in my life to take on those changes. I think it really does come down to energy,” Moore said.
A community of readers
Gary Carden looks at the store he created with amazement, wonder, and a humble sense of a amusement.
“I see very little in the store that has survived from my ownership,” Carden said. “The movable shelves are still in the stores ‘used paperback’ section, but the music, the videos, the underground comics and the girlie magazines are gone. What has happened to the store is marvelous. Never in my wildest dreams did I envision what City Lights has become.”
Carden is just one of the many “regulars” that makes the store tick. Visit City Lights on a Friday afternoon and you’ll find readers of all ages and purposes perusing one of the stores sections.
Susannah Patty, who works for a local non-profit and helps manage the Sylva farmer’s market, was there visiting with friends.
“City Lights is more than an indie bookstore –– it serves as a vibrant meeting place that makes our community in Sylva both unique and cohesive,” Patty said.
Dan Schaeffer, Sylva’s public works director, had come to exchange mystery novels. Schaeffer, who just bought an e-reader, doesn’t like to waste paper, so he visits the store regularly and swaps out the novels he steams through at the rate of four per month.
“I mainly just exchange books here. I think it’s a great service because it kind of recycles the books,” Schaeffer said.
Blaine Eldridge, a retired professor who taught at WCU and SCC, has been patronizing the store since Gary Carden started it. Blaine was at City Lights with his wife Fitzallen, poring over the non-fiction rack.
“For an independent store they have a wide selection, and if they don’t have it they’ll order it for you,” he said. “The used books are really good. There are always some surprises back there.”
Fitzallen summed up the store’s charm.
“It’s friendly. The staff is fun. There’s always someone who knows what’s going on in the bookworld and they know what you like,” she said.
Lisa Lefler, a professor of medical anthropology at WCU, said City Light’s online ordering feature brings together the staff’s knowledge and the personal service that characterizes small businesses.
“It’s the attention to personal service. All of the people who work here have a useful and intense knowledge of various subject matter,” Lefler said.
If Lefler is looking for a book, any book, she can order it through the store after she has vetted it with the staff to make sure she’s not getting hoodwinked by a flowery review.
In the end, though, Lefler said her connection to the store is personal.
“You know that you’re going to be seeing the same people. There’s not a lot of turnover here. And you know that they will know your name and to me that’s really valuable,” Lefler said.
Raised in a bookstore
Chris Wilcox knows what he has, both in terms of City Lights’ reading community and in terms of Sylva’s place as an intellectual hub in the region.
“Sylva is a special town in that it’s just about the right size and it’s situated as a hub in a rural region,” Wilcox said. “We’re small enough that we’re not currently fighting off a big box retailer and we’ve got a community that values local business and backs it up with their pocketbooks.”
Wilcox was born and raised in Jackson County and remembers being in Joyce’s store from an early age.
“I really started hanging out at the bookstore before she bought it and a lot after it,” Wilcox said. “I just about grew up in the store.”
After a stint as a paramedic, Wilcox was considering going back to school for a master’s degree in library science. Moore needed extra help at the store and the rest is history. Wilcox has helped manage the store for years but he doesn’t take the transition in front of him for granted.
“I’m going to be in a new job. I’ve been doing what I’ve been doing as an assistant manager for a lot of years, but there a lot of things that Joyce has done on her own,” Wilcox said. “My focus initially is to keep my nose above water and then I’ll look to improve the business incrementally as I see the opportunities.”
Wilcox, whose mother Margot has also worked with Moore for years, doesn’t see himself as a child of the Web generation as much as he sees himself a child of City Lights.
“My growing up parallels the store, so my reference isn’t that different from Joyce and my parents. Maybe I take for granted a little bit the community of letters that City Lights is responsible for, but I certainly try not to,” Wilcox said.
At the same time, he understands the realities of the business climate. At a time when the vast majority of book sales take place on the Web, even the name City Lights, which began with Carden’s Charlie Chaplin poster, presents challenges. People who search for City Lights San Francisco can end up in virtual Appalachia, which can be confusing for everyone involved.
“It’s a double-edged sword. I don’t have any immediate plans to change it. It’s a great institution Ferlinghetti built, and if we get some resonance off of it that’s OK with me,” Wilcox said.
Ultimately, though, Wilcox believes City Lights has what it takes to survive. Having grown up in the store, he understands that the bookstore isn’t about the building or even the books, it’s about a community that shares stories.
“It’s conceivable that this is the last stand of the printed book as an object,” Wilcox said. “But people are still going to be telling stories and we want to be a part of that in whatever form it takes. We’ve always been a place for sharing stories. That’s what Joyce has always emphasized.”