On a quiet hill overlooking Main Street in Sylva is City Lights Bookstore. In the distance are numerous mountain ridges cradling the small, picturesque town. Inside the beloved shop, there are numerous bookshelves, each nurturing the hearts and minds of this community.
“Even before I owned City Lights, I’d been a bookseller most of my working life—it’s what I love doing,” said Chris Wilcox, owner of City Lights. “There’s a lot of goodwill in our business, which is at the core of our reputation. We’re part of the community, and we want to remain a part of the community.”
Now in its 35th year, City Lights was initially opened by Gary Carden. Carden is a Jackson County native, acclaimed Southern Appalachian writer and storyteller, and a recipient of the North Carolina Heritage Award. Wilcox is the third owner of the shop. After working as an employee there from 1997 until 2010, he bought the business.
“This was a solid business to step into,” Wilcox said. “The previous owners had established such a foundation of loyal readers and customers, all of whom enjoy coming into the store and feeling welcomed.”
Not long ago, it seemed the end of the road for local, independent bookstores because of the rise of big-box booksellers, online ordering, and electronic reading devices. And yet, in recent years, there has been a pushback by the general public. Readers realized you can’t replace the feeling, whether physical or emotional, of actually holding and reading a book.
“From my perspective, just like vinyl records and record stores, independent bookstores are being valued again, and in a way that they should be,” Wilcox said. “People have put value in the local bookstore, and they support us by opening up their pockets and choosing to make their purchases here.”
Wilcox has been a voracious reader his entire life. Holding a book and consuming its contents are some of his earliest and most cherished memories. He carries these deeply-held sentiments through to today.
“I was born and raised a reader. It was something that was modeled by my parents and grandparents,” Wilcox smiled. “So, that’s always been important to me. I love talking books with people. I love talking about books that I personally enjoy reading. I think it’s so great that during my workday, I get to talk to people about what fascinates them and what they’re curious about.”
With the sound of another customer entering the store, Wilcox gets up from his chair in the back—amid endless shelves of books covering as many topics as there are words in the English language—and heads for the counter to greet them.
“Books are a valuable counterpoint to this era we’re currently in, wherein all we feel is acceleration, but with less time for reflection,” Wilcox said. “The community here continues to proudly support us, and we’re grateful for that. For me, it comes down to interacting with people about books, making that connection.”
This post is adapted from our annual Welcome to Western North Carolina magazine. Click here to read more online, or click here to request your free copy.