Written by Jim Murphy | Photos by Anthony Harden
The Battle of Asheville was an insignificant skirmish in the waning days of the Civil War. And even less significant is the role of an artillery battery that sat on the high ground overlooking the battle. But that tangential relation to that inconsequential battle gave the hill and its neighborhood a name. The place became —and still remains— Battery Park. The origin of the name has grown obscure, but the term Battery Park has made a recent comeback in the Asheville lexicon thanks to the arrival of an unusual —even quirky— commercial establishment: The Battery Park Book Exchange.
The used bookstore has become something of a landmark for both tourists and locals, and in the process it has put Battery Park back on the map. A bookstore? A used bookstore? Yes. But it is more than that. It is the cozy library of a highly literate and somewhat eccentric uncle who never met a book he didn’t like. But it’s more than that. It is a wine and champagne bar, serving more than 100 varieties of domestic and imported reds, whites and bubblies. But it’s still more than that. It is an espresso bar with a menu detailed enough to intrigue the most sophisticated caffeine connoisseur. And, yes, it is even more than that. One need only observe the amazed, slack-jawed look of a tourist as he begins to explore the narrow, twisting maze of bookshelves to realize the place is greater than the sum of its divergent parts.
Those parts were brought together by Thomas Wright, who grins when it is suggested that a used bookstore cum wine bar cum coffee bar is not likely to win an endorsement from the Harvard Business School. “Then the people at Harvard are dumber than they look,” he said. Later he explains the logic of this unusual combination. “People ask how I came up with the idea. I ask them, do you have books in your house? Yes. Do you have wine in your house? Yes. So I’m just doing what you do at home.” He grins a mischievous “gotcha.”
Grins come easy to Thomas and the staff at Battery Park. Indeed, sometimes it’s hard to tell who’s having more fun here, the patrons or the workers. “I don’t have much turnover at all here,” said General Manager Emily Krainik. “We’re kind of family. Everybody gets along really well.”
She is sitting at a large table covered end-to-end in a thick layer of busy looking papers and an enormous loose-leaf binder. Wine lists, schedules, supplies and all the niggling details of a complicated three-pronged business compete for her attention as she settles down for an afternoon of catching up on the paperwork that “should have been done a month ago.” But despite the burden of clerical details she said, “I didn’t know this would be my dream job, but if I could have designed my dream job this would have been it.”
Among the many duties in her dream job, Emily is in charge of the extensive wine list. A certified sommelier first grade, she tastes every wine that makes the list–and hundred of others that don’t. When asked how many wines she tastes, she leafs through the loose-leaf binder, finally reaching the tabbed section on wine. The pages are cluttered with handwritten notes on hundreds of wines. “That’s just from this year,” she said. The hardest part of choosing the wines, she said, “is not buying for my palate but buying for the general public.”
The cluttered table sits in front of a La Marzocco espresso machine with two double-shot filters, which sends out its characteristic whine as it serves up hot and strong brews for a healthy stream of customers. Behind the coffee bar, Tess Martin helps customers navigate the menu of espresso selections with names like Thomas Wolfe, Carl Sandburg, and Zelda Fitzgerald. (“I’d like a Zelda, easy on the whipped cream.”) Tess makes recommendations, takes orders and flips the nozzles, levers and handles on the espresso machine with an expertise than makes it all look simple.
After more than two years here she has the routine down like second nature. She provides the proverbial service with a smile, and it’s soon apparent that the smile is genuine. “I love it here. It’s a great job.” Why? What makes this place different? She pauses and finally offers, “It’s Thomas and Emily. They’re just good people.”
(article continues on page 2 & more photographs are at the end)