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It's trivia night at Falls River Books, and a half-dozen competitors await their first question in fat red easy chairs pulled around a table piled with books, wine and Easy Cheese.
There's a $20 gift certificate at stake, but the competition is far from fierce. Mostly, there's a lot of laughter.
"This is more than just a store," loyal customer and trivia participant Diane Soriano said. "This is like I'm walking into somebody's living room and they're letting me read their books."
Tuesday night is trivia night at Falls River Books, from 7 to 8 p.m. at the North Raleigh store, located at 1141 Falls River Ave. For details, call 919-870-9800.
That "living room" belongs to Falls River Books owner Steven Elliot, and that atmosphere is exactly what he's aiming for.
"Bookstore people have a reputation for being curmudgeons - liking the books, but not liking the people," Elliot said. "We love the books here, but we like the people more."
From the employees - most of whom were customers first - to the farmer's market Elliot founded and continues to run in the parking lot behind the shop, Elliot's dedication to creating a community shows in each choice he's made for the store. The store is both kid-friendly and pet-friendly. His goal is to make each customer who enters feel as welcome and comfortable as possible.
That extends to the shop's decor and layout. Hardwood floors run the length of the store, through the wide, browsable aisles of Elliot's meticulously alphabetized 70,000-book inventory. There's free coffee and cookies in the front, and a plastic treasure chest stuffed with free children's books, one per customer per visit.
And, of course, there are the easy chairs.
"Those chairs are the most comfortable chairs in Raleigh," Elliot said. "People fight for the chance to sit in those chairs."
Last week, three members of the Kindsvatter family were perched on the edge of some of those chairs as dad Rob Kindsvatter racked his brain, trying to recall the original author of "I Am Legend" while daughters Emma, 10, and Lily, 5, cheered him on.
Emma had her eye on the store's copy of the fourth Twilight novel, "Breaking Dawn." Correct answers were crucial.
As the questions got harder - what year was "Gulliver's Travels" published? - Kindsvatter shook his head and laughed. Emma bit her lip.
But when the winners were announced, Kindsvatter's knowledge of the author of "American Psycho" brought him the victory. Emma got her book. Dad got a hug.
"It's better than the library because you actually get to keep the books," Emma said.
Like the Kindsvatters, Elliot came from a family of readers - "Where other kids might have talked about owning candy stores, we talked about owning book stores." - and when he first entered the business, he knew he wanted to build a different kind of book shop.
Start in Miami
Elliot's first book store was in Miami, where he stocked his shelves with books bought from garage sales and sublet space from a fortune-teller. Elliot got there early and stayed late seven days a week, napping on the floor between shifts. The store was broken into shortly after it opened, and the cost of replacing the broken window ate up the first week's profits - but there were actual profits to pay for it. A few years later, Elliot was able to purchase a second store in Miami and expand his stock from 10,000 books to 70,000.
Five years ago, tired of the hectic pace of Miami, Elliot decided to relocate to Raleigh. With the success of Falls River Books, Elliot opened another used book store two months ago, in Durham's Northgate Mall.
There are some regional differences in the book business, Elliot said. Mysteries are big sellers here, while romances were more popular in Miami. Some used book stores in Florida turn up their noses at stocking romance novels, but Elliot carries a full supply.
"Our feeling is that we don't judge what people read," Elliot said. "My mom read a lot of historical romances, and she knows so much about British history from that."
During his time as a bookseller, Elliot has watched children grow up browsing his shelves. He has seen couples meet at his book stores, fall in love and get married. "It's like a bar without liquor, a bar for book lovers," Elliot said.
Customer Joyce Patalano uses a different comparison.
"It almost is a throwback to the days when we were kids," Patalano said. "People know your name when you walk in here."