The Country Bookshop in Southern Pines, North Carolina, not far from the world famous Pinehurst No. 2 golf course, has an expert stocking its shelves. Bill Maher, a retired history professor, gets people coming back to the shop for one reason: He knows his stuff.
Antiquarian book collectors sometimes forget that there is another class of book collector. These collectors do not collect books for their beauty or rarity but rather attempt to assemble a collection that represents mankind’s current state of understanding of a particular topic. Sometimes misidentified as readers, these collectors do not find their treasures in the dusty and dim shops of the antiquarian collector. Their books often come off the “new releases” table at their local lively and hip bookstore.
Although declining in numbers, many bibliophiles say indie bookstores offer the best way to buy new books because indie stores have the best staff. Being able to be recommended books and talk about books with a knowledgeable person makes indie customers feel that their shopping experience is unique and fun.
Maher, 69, is recently retired from a 25-year career teaching history and political science at Montgomery Community College. He now divides his time between his home in Charlotte, North Carolina and The Country Bookshop in Southern Pines. Maher makes recommendations to the owner as to what history books to buy, and he chooses some books to be featured in his “Bill’s Picks” section.
Maher is able to refresh his section often because he reads an average of three to five books a week. “I’ve always liked to read,” says Maher. “I don’t golf. The only sports I like are baseball and boxing. The great thing about those two sports is you can read and listen at the same time.”
Maher chooses books for his section the same way he tried to choose books for the courses he taught. He picks books that “reach out and grab you by the throat.” He believes that there are two ways to write history, from the top down or the bottom up. The majority of the books in his section are of the second variety. They are about the almost forgotten gems of history, the small stories of personal heroism and folly that give color to the grander “top” events.
A collector of modern books on the War on Terror, Maher finds that part of the fun of his job is guiding both collectors and readers in their purchases. He does not “push” books onto his customers if he feels the works are not first-class. “I want to be able to put in my customers hands books that I am totally sure arrive at the truth as close as possible,” he says.
Maher acknowledges that the independent bookselling trade is hurting. He says that the large retiree population of military, diplomats, and businessmen around his store is a big secret to its success. “Southern Pines is the perfect place for an independent bookstore,” says Maher.
When asked about how website and warehouse booksellers compete with his business, Maher says, “Warehouse stores are good for warehousing. The ideas sit on shelves, but the majority of the employees have no idea what the books are.”
Maher talks about his store with tremendous enthusiasm. “There isn’t an employee in here who doesn’t know their sections. They talk about them with customers and among themselves. In here, ideas aren’t just stored on a shelf. They float around in the air, like tennis balls bouncing off the walls.”
The Country Bookshop is the kind of store where one goes in looking for a book and leaves with five. This is, of course, the plight of the bibliomane, but not every book sells itself. It is up to people like Maher to gently guide the collector and casual reader in making a good purchase. “When you walk into our front door,” says Maher, “you’re going to have an experience.”
Three years have passed since Maher began working in the bookshop. “They treat me very nicely to come down three times a week. They pay me well, and I get a cut rate price on books,” Maher says. He seems to have no intention of stopping any time soon.
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Reprinted with permission from Fine Books & Collections, author