At the outset of this series of little essays about the store I said I how I didn’t feel like the owner. Not responsible for its birth, its evolution, or even its ongoing vitality. There have been a handful of owners, a bushel basket of employees, and thousands of generous, thoughtful patrons who have gone out of there way to help.
And we have needed all that help to get this far. The quiet business of running a bookshop has been an exceptionally dynamic affair the last 30 years with the arrival of big box stores, personal computers, internet shopping, and e-readers. On top of that there are the usual vagaries of small business with leaky roofs, landlord hassles, changing terms and technology, narrowing margins. There were a half-dozen moments when I thought the end was near (it wasn’t but you do worry) or moments when I really didn’t feel I had the energy for another challenge. Each time the island folks have come to our aid. Each time they have made the store stronger and more supported.
A couple of mementos of these supportive gestures are on display in the store although the stories behind them may be less well known. The first has to do with the carpet. About twenty years ago I spent a couple evenings with a young moonlighting carpet layer and we installed new carpet throughout the store. I was younger then but it was still a huge project for two guys and we sweated and strained late into the early mornings. I swore the next time Island Books needed carpet I’d be gone. As the years passed, the evening book fair ladies would spill their wine, and we would buy Oriental rugs to cover the stains and duct tape to patch the fraying seams. Finally our landlord put down her foot and said if we wanted to renew the lease we had to do something. Faced with this prospect, I thought briefly of heading out the door, but then floated a plea out into the community and it was heard. Over three nights in the summer of 2012 many hands lifted bookshelves, tables and card racks, and magically the store was resurfaced. The team was made up of young and old, capable and willing, fast and fun. Everyone who helped signed the beam in the office. We look at it gratefully everyday.
A more difficult and less happy episode in the bookstore past resulted in an even finer memento of community support. It’s a long, complicated story which I will only outline here, but about eight years ago a young Amazon executive decided to beta test a shopping rewards program here on his home island. The idea was to get the parents at all the schools to do their shopping through a special Mercer Island Schools Foundation portal and then Amazon would give back a small percentage to the foundation. This was not a new idea, and in fact, Island Books had already raised over $200,000 for local schools by doing special book fair evenings over the years. But to advertise this concept, the foundation hung big banners outside every school saying something like “Shop Amazon.com/mercerislandschools.” This happened right when we were doing our evenings for the schools and I felt spurned, conflicted, worried, and dismal. Parents are the beating heart of our store and they drove by those banners every day. I don’t know exactly what happened, but there was a quiet, powerful groundswell of support for our store and the banners and the program went away that winter, while we went on to business as usual.
Sometime in the early spring, a wonderful longtime customer who would prefer to remain nameless brought us a gift that left us speechless. It’s a quilt that hangs behind the children’s counter. It bears the boldly stitched slogan “Read Globally, Buy Locally,” and shows books with amusing titles surrounding an image of Island Books. It is a superb piece of fabric art which had to take many, many hours and it was a lovely gesture of affection. We could never thank her enough for this surprising act of generosity. We look at it each day as a reminder of the community that we serve and that stands around us.