Here, by the side of U.S. 74 as you start up the Balsams after leaving Sylva, isn’t exactly the place you’d expect to stumble onto a bookstore with some 20,000 volumes of select, vintage books.
A photography shop bookends one side of this tiny, easily missed strip mall. Harry Alter’s used, scholarly and rare bookstore serves to bookend the other. And a thrift store and furniture store fills out the middle of this odd juxtaposition of businesses.
Be that as it may, Alton, 43, is here with his bookstore, and has been for about three years. The Pittsburgh native ended up in Jackson County six years ago after his wife, Elizabeth Heffelfinger, took a position in the English Department at Western Carolina University as director of motion picture studies.
Alter’s book selection in the store is tremendous — particularly choice in the political science and history venues, such as the Civil War, but there is also plenty to peruse for those who want books on gardening and the environment, or philosophy and psychology.
That Alter would grow up to own and operate a bookstore seems entirely natural if you can persuade this shy man to talk about himself. He was born of a book-loving and book-reading family. Alter started his business with about 3,000 books in a spare bedroom of his mother’s house. By the time he actually moved out of her home, he had 6,000 books and had drifted into the mail-order book business.
Go online today, and you’ll find the remnants of that original core business. Alter keeps busy selling through Amazon, and at more select book Internet sites such as Alibris.
“I spend a lot of time in front of the computer,” Alton said. “That’s not the fun, glamorous part of it. That’s a lot data entry.”
In fact, this self-described “passionate” reader is finding it hard to make the time to actually read. Being a small bookseller in a big, shark-eating bookseller world is hard work. Most booksellers these days are into quantity, not by quality — they are making money by selling hundreds and thousands of volumes at low prices, not by selling just a few, rare books at higher prices, as independent booksellers generally do, Alter said.
Business isn’t exactly booming at the bookstore on U.S. 74, which is nice for the book browser in his store but not so good for the bookseller himself. Alter keeps irregular hours, or is available by appointment. His time is often absorbed elsewhere packaging and sending books to fulfill online orders.
Most of Alter’s drop-by customers are searching for Westerns, general fiction or theology, not necessarily what he has to offer them in the more select, scholarly fields.
“They want to go back to original sources,” Alter said in explanation of the unexpected hunger he’s found in this region for theology texts. “Older versions of the Bible, mostly King James. Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress and other old Protestant classics.”
Gary Carden of Sylva has been down the road Alter is now traveling. Some years ago, he opened a bookstore in Cullowhee called The Down and Out.
“I didn’t do very well at all and yes, I suffered under the illusion that college students read,” Carden said. “Instead, I got a steady stream of ladies addicted to those romance novels that are so generic, they are sold by numbers, not titles: ‘I’ve got a No. 65, but I can’t find a No. 78.’”
Then Carden opened a store in downtown Sylva, where he “dreamed of spending my life … with a thriving crowd of eccentrics who would sit and drink coffee while we talked about Thomas Wolfe, Fitzgerald and maybe Hemingway. The coffee-drinking eccentrics never arrived. Instead, what I got was teenagers: boys looking for soft porn (which he finally stocked) and girls who read the fashion magazines but never bought anything.”
Joyce Moore bought Carden out, keeping the name City Lights — the name comes from a Charlie Chaplin movie of that name, not the famous bookstore in San Francisco. Chris Wilcox, who worked for Moore, now owns and operates City Lights in Sylva.
Carden likes to drop by Alter’s bookstore. Alter, with a grin, said he is suspicious that Carden is somewhat “relieved that I’m not doing a booming business with academics, either.”
Carden — a voracious reader — is certainly a huge supporter, however. He said he would love to get locked up in the store for a couple nights.
“He has a fantastic store,” Carden said.
Alter isn’t down on the bookselling businesses, though it’s a tough time to be an independent bookseller — contrarily, he believes this is an ideal time in history to be a book buyer, because the choices of what and where to buy are virtually endless. And he’s been impressed with how many people in these mountains truly love to read.
“There is so much access to books and information,” Alter said. “This is truly a great time to be a buyer.”