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Indie Booksellers: Personality, passion, knowledge and a sense of community define these local business owners.

Jamie Layton loves helping customers pick books. It’s like being a detective. Give her some clues – a few titles you’ve enjoyed lately – and she can pull a new book off the shelf for you. You then can grab a specialty latte and biscotti and read your book in the circa 1920s building. Layton does the book buying at Duck’s Cottage in Duck, where coffee and pastry go hand in hand with acquiring a good read.

Layton is one of a number of independent booksellers operating from Corolla west to Manteo and south to Ocracoke. Each has carved out a unique niche in the sandy clime. Creating warm atmospheres and hand picking books are a few of the personal touches offered. It is a way to stay competitive in a world of Internet sales and big stores.

“What I really work hard at is just providing a really wide, eclectic selection of paperbacks – paperbacks you’ve never seen,” says Layton. “I hand picked every book on the shelves.” Her customers tend to wait and buy bestsellers in a bigger store where they can get discounted prices. “They’ll end up buying five paperbacks instead of one bestseller,” she says. “I really try and put my everything into the stuff that’s not necessarily on the front page.”

The Outer Banks was hand picked by Bill Rickman of The Island Bookstores in Corolla, Duck and Kitty Hawk. A former Chicago book merchant, Rickman and his wife, Ursula, came to the area specifically to sell books because there were no big-box book stores here. “We looked for places to go that they [the big retailers] wouldn’t go,” says Rickman. “They don’t presently have a model for seasonal stores.”

Where Layton zeroes in on paperbacks for the beach reader, the Rickmans oversee jam-packed stores that have books overflowing to stacks on the floors. It’s like walking through an unpretentious, deliciously stuffed used bookstore, but the stock is all new. Rickman actually has customers from Washington, D.C. and Maryland tell him that they can’t find certain items – like a Jewish calendar – in their locales.

“We try to buy almost one of everything by a major publisher in the U.S. as it’s published,” says Rickman. “We do think more is better.”

About the only kind of books you won’t find at the Rickmans’ stores are textbooks and professional reference titles. But they will special order them for you.

Special orders are one of the hallmarks of Manteo Booksellers on Roanoke Island. While they have a hearty collection of books, from regional works to bestsellers, cookbooks, reference, juvenile, self help, literature and more, they do a good business in ordering the exact book that you need if it’s not stocked. Couple this service with the learned yet casual personality of owner Steve Brumfield, and you have a shop where the cushioned chairs by the front door are rarely empty. Special touches include gift wrapping books and personal e-mail notes to those ordering from their Web site.

Independent bookstores appeal not just to customers, but writers as well, including bestselling author Homer Hickman. The author of Torpedo Junction and Rocket Boys, which was made into the movie October Sky, does the majority of his signings in independent stores because they are so supportive, says Brumfield.

A bookseller’s personality also affects what is stocked on an independent bookseller’s shelves.

With history as one of Layton’s majors in college, she can rattle off some great picks for those looking for non-fiction biographies. She’s also noted that her book club is hot on historical fiction; you’ll find a smattering on the shelves. Layton has a 12-year-old son in the sixth grade; she pays a lot of attention to youth fiction as a result. Add in that she appreciates food writing and is close to a local restaurant with chefs who are avid readers, and you have a decent selection of specialty books on food.

Sarah Keating at Beach Bag Books & Music in Corolla is into creating a family stomping ground. Keating and her husband, Ken, left New York City in 2003 to come to the beach. They had felt the city change after 2001. “It got to be a much more serious place, less carefree,” says Keating.

The Keatings are creative people who set the scene at the shop. She has a degree in music and a Master’s degree in education, and he is a screenwriter. She has a passion for young adult literature, music and children. Roll it all up and you have a venue that offers crafts and story-time programming, new and used CDs and DVDs, and a woman who can wax poetic about Harry Potter and the Arthurian legends of Susan Cooper. The shop is expanding to include games and puzzles.

“We’ve created a little entertainment hub,” Keating says. “Anything your family likes to do, you can come in here and find it.” That includes beachcomber dress-up and ship-building kits for the kids. Adults will find a decent selection of books to include the top 15 to 30 bestsellers and books by local authors – both fiction and non-fiction. The store dog is Finnegan, a Newfoundland who excels at his job of making customers feel welcomed.

Kids are special customers at Books To Be Red in Ocracoke. Owner Leslie Lanier offers a full-service bookstore that includes story time for school kids. They listen to tales in the 110-year-old house with enjoyment being Lanier’s goal. “I just want to have fun,” she says, spouting off kid’s book topics from car mechanics to dolphins and dragons. “There’s a book here for you and we hope it will lead to reading other books,” she says.

Lanier is happy to search the Internet for special orders. Unlike big-box stores, says Lanier, you don’t have to pay for the book to be shipped to the shop.

Adult readers will find a selection of fiction, non-fiction and local-interest books. Lanier enjoys promoting local authors, such as Ocracoke storyteller Donald Davis. And she keeps a section on sea stories. “That will keep the men interested,” she says.

If visitors are not into books –“God forbid,” says Lanier – they can browse around the gift shop section of the business.

Gee Gee Rosell at Buxton Village Books on Hatteras Island is a fan of Southern fiction. “Southern lives are just so rich, and they cover generations,” she says. But the shelves in the small shop are stocked with an eclectic mix. “I carry everything,” says Rosell. “I am highly, heavily, strongly against censorship. We don’t conform to a standard the way the chains do.”

Knowing books is her way of competing against the big stores. “I try to read something by every author I carry,” she explains, “every book by authors I love.” This includes Reynolds Price, May Sarton and David Payne. She even can quote some passages from favorite books.

The independent bookseller on the Outer Banks has carved out a niche that weathers the wakes of the big-box stores. Add in those personal touches, and visitors will discover coastal experiences as unique as blue sea glass found on a sandy beach.

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