Many of the shops in the Grove Arcade have found ways to rise to the occasion of their ornate digs. From the beautiful Wake Foot Sanctuary spa to lovely jewelry and artisanal craft shops, the Grove Arcade is just so lovely to look at that it makes sense to put luxurious products into the shops inside.
The name is famous for a reason: the same E.W. Grove who brought his tonic fortune to Asheville and created the Grove Park Inn commissioned this large building to begin construction in 1920.
When Charles Parker first designed this opulent space, he envisioned a five-story base and a 14-story tower, a true testament to the wealth and potential of Asheville, but after E.W. Grove passed away in 1927, the base was the only portion that had been completed. No one would see the Grove Arcade as incomplete now, though – it’s got a many-decade history of being a spot full of excellent shops and impressive architecture.
I have to say that none have quite embraced the fancy atmosphere of this shopping center quite so wholeheartedly as Battery Park Book Exchange. Yes, it’s a champagne bar, and yes, it’s a used bookstore, but neither of these names is quite enough to understand this destination.
Not everyone has a nostalgic association with bookstores, and even I can’t really wax poetic about the “old book smell” as much as some more dyed-in-the-wool readers, but I do hope that bookstores survive the move to so many screens for reading.
They are so aesthetically pleasing, and the idea of a shop where so much knowledge and adventure and discovery is shelved will always be a great comfort to me. Getting to soak up that environment is such a lovely feature, and making it a place to also converse with a glass of champagne makes enjoying the atmosphere even more possible.
I wandered over to the shop mid-afternoon, looking for a little pick-me-up spritzer and a peruse of the bookshelves. At the door, the courteous hostess checks whether you’re looking for a table for a meal or want to just shop for books, and after I mentioned just wanting a drink and a wander, she sent me in through the front doors to find the upstairs bar.
This is not a straightforward process, however, which anyone will understand when they first walk in. Small stair sets up into rooms and around corners lead from the front entrance through rooms and rooms of books and up to the upper story, which is only partial and looks out over the rest of the bookstore and dining area.
The space is decorated the way I’d imagine a wealthy uncle or aunt would decorate their mansion after years of travel and study: portraits, art deco posters, and photography cover the walls, alongside a mounted moose head of all things.
The furniture adds to the feeling of stumbling into someone’s home – there’s a large section of actual tables for meals, but throughout the rooms of books, there are couches with low tables where groups sip a variety of bubbly drinks. A circuitous path leads you up and through the various rooms of books.
And what rooms. Large sections devoted to art of all kinds and to fiction start your journey, but the farther into the upper level you get, the more niche sections emerge: a section on essays, one on philosophy, one on science, and one on fishing! One of the masterpieces of the space is a set of glass-front cabinets protecting a huge collection of signed first editions, with greats like local legend Thomas Wolfe’s books featured prominently.
It’s wise to know there are some rules here, nothing onerous, but it’s definitely possible to commit faux pas, just like if you were visiting a wealthy person’s incredible mansion library. This isn’t the spot for laptop computers – there’s a rule against them, and I imagine it’s driven by a few things.
One is that they are a jarring presence in a place so clearly focused on conversation and the present atmosphere. The other is simply practical: laptop users have a tendency to order once (or not at all, in some cases!) and then use precious table space for a long time after that. While I get that no-laptop and even no-Wi-Fi businesses are a bit controversial, it stands to reason to me that, if having the open Wi-Fi and the freedom to pull out a laptop is bad for business and messes with the atmosphere for others, it makes sense to be clear on that policy.
The menu offers a pretty wide range of options for making an afternoon of it at the Book Exchange – while they close fashionably early (8 pm at the time of writing) most days, so not a late-night haunt, the menu means you can have a light lunch or dinner here. They source locally where they can and find punny literary names for all their foods, both of which I find charming.
You’ll find sandwiches accompanied by house salad or fruit, with names like the Goat Expectations (goat cheese, blackberry mash, and bacon on bread that is panini-pressed and baked locally), the Mal-Cheese Falcon (burrata pesto, roasted garlic, balsamic glaze, pickled onion, tomato, and arugula), or the Count of Monte Croissant (full of tuna salad, pickles, cheese, tomato, and arugula).
There are also flavorful salads with house-made dressings and an array of dips – I saw many of the groups who were sitting around a coffee table enjoying a creamy burrata and bruschetta or a trout dip or a pimento cheese dish. All the food that comes with bread also has the option for a gluten-free focaccia bread, a nice option for accommodating varied tastes and dietary needs.
Some of the most sumptuous offerings, however, are the charcuterie boards. Each one features some combination of preserved meats, cheeses, olives, almonds, pickles, dips, figs, and other flavorful accoutrement, allowing a whole group to nibble their way through the rich and filling options. There’s also a desserts and pastries case that means you don’t have to end on a savory note unless that’s what you want.
I personally wanted to try one of their many wine cocktails – while you can get champagne by the glass or the bottle or order a flight of wines, I was in the mood for the Secret Garden, a perfumy elderflower-themed cocktail that is still mostly champagne, keeping in the spirit of the experience. Other options on the menu looked equally decadent, like the Death in the Afternoon, with a strong anise extract and star anise added to champagne, or the tasty mimosa menu.
I was able to sip by a balcony and peer down into the dining room below, enjoying some good people-watching, but eventually, I was able to wander with my drink, reviewing the many bookshelves and seeing whether I recognized any favorite authors among the many different tomes.
You won’t just find classics, fiction, and business books here, though you will definitely find those. Sections on animals, science, psychology, spirituality, self-help, and foreign language books are all available if you take the twisty path through the shelves and look carefully.
With decor like vintage calendars and many types of sculptures around to keep your visual interest always piqued, you might not notice all the smaller sections on transportation, short stories, and fishing, but you’ll definitely note portraits on the wall, mirrors, unique lamps, and so much more.
Now, there are plenty of book lovers of all ages, but be aware that because this bookstore is also a bar and maintains a particularly full space, they stay 21+ from Friday through Sunday. I imagine that the space changes a bit when the younger set is around, and I certainly wouldn’t trust my own little one not to break something breakable in there.
For younger book lovers that can manage their way around a lamp, though, you can probably make the most of the weekdays when it is less crowded – unless that policy changes at some point and it becomes 21+ at all times.
So, what would I recommend as the best reasons to come to Battery Park Book Exchange? Well, a friend with good taste who is having a birthday get-together would love the combination of an activity like book shopping and a light, flavorful lunch or dinner. It’s a great place for a date with someone who knows a lot of interesting facts and with whom you want to share a great conversation.
Finally, I’d say it’s an unusually good spot to come to by yourself on a quieter afternoon – I personally loved choosing a spot to drink my elderflower-infused champagne and read a book with all those other books watching, impressed. It’s a great place to remember one’s roots, even if, like me, your life typically puts you in more of a space to read audiobooks than antique first editions these days.
Battery Park Book Exchange: 1 Page Ave #101, Asheville
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