Archived Mountain Voices

Iconic drugstore to interesting bookstore

We’re been considering books and related matters like shelving, bookplates, home libraries, favorite books, and (last week’s topic) — “How do we go about discovering the next book we’re going to read?”

This week we’re going to do something worthwhile by introducing you to the new Friends of the Marianna Black Library Book Store. It’s located on Everett Street in Bryson City, just south of the town square, on the right, before you get to the bridge, right next to Calby’s Antiques. If you’re old enough to recall where Bennett’s Drugstore was situated, that’s the place.

The word “unique” is almost always misused, but the new bookstore probably qualifies. Is there another one anywhere that features a marbled-topped counter from Italy and five stools with spinning seats that graced one of the most famous soda fountains in North Carolina? People traveled to Bryson City just to order a peanut butter milkshake at Bennett’s and sit in one of the old-time booths while drinking it.

For 10 long years, the library bookstore was a 14-by-20-foot shed perched next to the main library that featured a jumble of “unalphabatized” books. Revenues generated for the library via book sales were minimal. Calling it inadequate would have been praise.

Within the last six months, that situation has been altered. The change was initiated when Friends president Gail Findlay, who was director of the Fontana Regional Library system before “retiring,” decided to look for a new location that was large enough, relatively inexpensive, well-situated within walking distance of the main library and downtown areas, and could be leased for at least two years.

Findlay looked closely at four or five locations that didn’t pan out. She mentioned her project to Peggy Duncan, an artist who leased the old Bennett’s soda fountain and luncheonette room as gallery space. Duncan no longer wanted to maintain a downtown gallery — but she did want to retain rights to the wall space as a place to display her work.

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Findlay and Duncan went next door to Calby’s and talked things over with Ivan Gibby, present owner of the soda fountain room. While growing up, Gibby had known Doc Bennett and his daughters, and maintains fond recollections of a pharmacy and soda fountain operation that once served as the social and political center of Swain County. They had no difficulty with working out a three-way lease suitable to all. And that’s the story of how the new Friends of the Marianna Black Library came to be.

I can report that when you come to Bryson City to check out the stock, you will find it meets the requirements established by author Larry McMurtry, who owns a bookstore himself, that all books be neatly shelved, arranged alphabetically, make a nice appearance, and be interesting to peruse, whether or not you buy anything. Chances are you will find something to read.

I knew the Bennetts, too. Years ago, I wrote a feature article about Doc Bennett, his daughter, Mary Alice, and the day she closed the drugstore’s doors after almost a century of service. Mary Alice was a great reader who always stocked regional books. She would be pleased with the recent turn of events. For the record, here are some excerpts from that article:

Sorry folks, no more ice cream cones, milkshakes, or sundaes at the marble-topped counters and tables. No more old-fashioned hospitality at the drug counter. No more advice on what to do for a foundered horse or poison ivy. Bennett’s Drug Store — a landmark in Western North Carolina for nearly a century — recently closed its doors for the last time when pharmacist Mary Alice (Bennett) Greyer decided to retire.

The closing marks the end of a single family’s century-long medical service in a rural mountain county, and brings back memories of a remarkable man whose influence extended far beyond his profession as a pharmacist.

Bennett’s Drug Store was founded in 1905 by Greyer’s father, Kelly Bennett (1890-1974), whose father, Dr. A.M. Bennett, was registered as a pharmacist by the state of North Carolina in 1888. Kelly was registered in 1912. His daughter, Mary Alice, was registered in 1936, being the first woman pharmacist in North Carolina. Accordingly, three generations of the Bennett family served Swain County as pharmacists for more than 100 years, with 86 of those years being in the same location.

For his part in promoting the movement that culminated in the establishment of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Kelly became known as “The Apostle of the Smokies.” Shortly after his death, a peak just south of Bryson City in the park was named Mount Bennett. If something took place in Swain County during Doc Kelly’s lifetime, there was more than an even chance he either started it or had a hand in supporting or opposing it. A billboard sign in Bryson City that read “Ask Bennett, He Knows” was more often right than wrong. The closing of Bennett’s Drug Store marks the end of an era.”

Someone needs to find that sign and hang it over the marble counter in the old soda fountain room that, almost overnight, has been transformed into a library bookstore.

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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