Message in a Bottle
Better to Read Bestsellers or Avoid Them?

imageA recent article by Shane Parrish in The Week posed this intriguing argument: that serious readers should avoid bestselling books. The reason being that most bestsellers are forgotten in a few years, and offer minimal help educating us on long-term issues. They also encourage us to think like the masses, potentially smothering our creativity.

I have mixed feelings about his argument. On the one hand, I strongly believe that people should read for pleasure as much as for education. If reading is a chore, it can take on a negative association and feel like one more thing on our endless to-do lists. There’s a great deal of joy to be found in reading what others are reading. A good book can be the seed of meaningful conversation; the kind of conversation that builds relationships and brings people together. It can also help us understand multiple viewpoints and know each other in a way that just living daily life along side someone doesn’t always reveal.

In favor of Parrish’s argument is my dread for those who read only to announce their reading list to others. I agree that reading should be an internal pursuit. And people are different. My father, for instance, reads the most obscure books on religious history and philosophy. Often he can’t even find the titles he wants to read because they are so obscure they go out of print sooner rather than later. I read plenty of bestsellers, but you can also find my nose in a ballet book or an advanced copy of a first novel that someone I know in publishing is excited about. Those often don’t become bestsellers, but some, like The Weight of Blood (which I discussed here awhile back) register on my list of recommendations for years. 

imageParrish agrees that reading what others are reading feels good, but he claims that’s a terrible way to build knowledge, especially since many hits are a flash in the pan. I don’t agree. There are plenty of bestsellers that impart meaningful knowledge that endures. Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin, for instant, is a spectacular history lesson about crucial moments in Abraham Lincoln’s presidency. And how about What To Expect When You’re Expecting? I wouldn’t pass on Goodnight Moon just because others are reading it. No to The Joy of Sex? The Joy of Cooking?

I’ll just modify the argument to “read whatever you want, bestseller or not.” Articles suggesting what to read are always welcome and will reach their intended audience even if the suggestions aren’t for everyone. But articles telling people what not to read? Not my cup of tea. Read for education; yes. Read for conversation pieces; yes. Read for pleasure; yes. Read to pass time; yes.

If it interests you, read it.

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—Miriam

Organizing Your Home Library

imageNo, this is not a picture of Island Books (thank goodness). This, my friends, is what happens when you tackle some home reorganization. Far too many of your possessions get shoved into the home office.

Don’t be misled by the bookshelves. That’s only a fraction of the books in my house. The rest are in boxes or scattered randomly across the room. But my purpose today is not to complain about the mess that is my house, because eventually we’ll get it put back together again. Instead, I’m here to pose a question. How do you organize your bookshelves?

As I watched this mess pile up, I took note of where my books have been living. When we originally moved in in 2010, it made some sense. My husband’s books were mostly separated from mine. His were mostly medical journals, history, classics, narrative nonfiction, and science. Mine were mostly literary fiction, thrillers, more classics, ballet books, and some young adult. By keeping our books separate we had some categorical clarity.

I did try to keep books by the same author together, so we had sections for  Stephen King, Shakespeare, Virginia Woolf, and the Nancy Drew set from my mother-in-law’s childhood. But that’s where the organization ends. As the years went by things disintegrated. Gardening books were tossed sideways on top of Tana French psychological thrillers. Advanced copies of books I’ve never gotten to were crammed in by memoirs like A Beautiful Mind and The Glass Castle. Worst of all were the bottom shelves, which you can’t see in the picture. My two innocent-looking poodles had gotten to those books. Besides the various chew marks, there was a giant urine stain on the side of Three Cups of Tea. They must have been mad about the inaccuracies and financial impropriety that tainted Mortenson and Relin’s bestseller.

The state of my home library is causing more guilt and distress than the state of my house (it’s a disaster). Island Books is a haven. At the store, books are lovingly and beautifully organized, deliberately placed on shelves according to category and the alphabet. While these books aren’t in their final home, they are there waiting as nicely as a groomed puppy in a pet store window. (Confession: It’s not just my books’ lives that degraded after leaving the store. My dogs need a haircut too.)

So, fellow book lovers, I need some feedback. The time is coming to clean up this mess, and this time I want to do it right. How do you organize your home library? Alphabetically? By subject? Cover color (just kidding)? If this mess ever gets organized again, I swear I’ll keep putting things back where they came from and add new books appropriately. But don’t hold me to it.

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—Miriam

Making the News

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Journalism (excepting that branch of it that involves reporting from war zones while ducking sniper fire) doesn’t appear to be especially difficult. Most of the time it seems fairly straightforward, but it’s actually a tricky business. Even if you’ve figured out which questions to ask which people to find out what you want to know, you have to assemble the answers like puzzle pieces. You can tell how hard it is to make the picture come out right when you read an article about a subject you know well. That’s what happened last week when little old Island Books popped up in the New York Times.

We saw a noticeable spike in traffic on our website and blog after the story first ran (above the fold on the NYT home page, no less). Roger likes to make fun of my extremely esoteric essayistic excursions into experimentalism, but he said he was grateful I’d gone highbrow that weekend. It sounds apocryphal to me, but he swears at least a half-dozen bearded, tweedy professor types strolled in looking for the obscure Italian books I’d just covered. For a change, he was proud that we’d showed off our intellectual bona fides to those snobby east coast elites who read the Times. He’s secretly one of those, of course.

All in all, it was a great piece that brought deserved attention to a number of positive developments in the local book scene. The general point was that indie retailers are thriving, and the central evidence was what’s happening over in the Greenwood neighborhood of Seattle, where former Amazon editor (and current friend of Island Books) Tom Nissley is taking the reins from longtime bookseller Carol Santoro, who’s retiring next month. “Tech Exec Reinvents Self, Reinvigorates Phinney-Area Retail,” in other words. True enough, and news worth sharing. Somehow, though, this information, along with passing remarks from an Elliott Bay Book Company manager and our own Roger Page, was spun into a suggestion that Amazon itself is aiding the indie resurgence. Huh? The reporter correctly identified all the trees, but missed the forest entirely.

Yes, it’s true that some Amazon employees shop with us and with other small businesses, and we appreciate them for their support as we do all of our beloved customers. But frankly, best estimates indicate that Amazon employs about 15,000 people in a metropolitan area with a population north of 3.5 million. Even considering that Amazon workers may be more bookish than average, the numbers don’t add up to more than a drop in the bucket. The idea that Amazon is helping “bolster” our coffers in any significant way is ludicrous even before you factor in all the negative effects of their practices. However tempted I might be, I won’t go into detail about those. As an ex-Amazonian myself, I can get pretty exercised on the subject, unlike my boss, who’s quite evenhanded when he discusses it. I was surprised to see the Times reporter incorrectly refer to the way Roger “fulminated,” but with all the cutbacks newspapers have to deal with these days, maybe I shouldn’t have been. They might not be as concerned about misusing words as we are on our blog.

At least one media outlet gets it. Just this morning NPR broadcast a piece about how mom-and-pop shops are successfully competing against the big-box behemoths. They do it the way we do, by providing things the big guys can’t: “Local flavor,” “wisdom,” a staff that’s “knowledgeable … passionate,” service that’s “personalized.” It sounds like marketing talk, but it’s really just what you get when you do something you love for the benefit of the human beings in your own community. The best books and the best people on both sides of the counter—that’s the real bottom line.

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—James

Photo credits: Sage old bookseller by Yelp contributor Edy K., energetic new bookseller by Matthew Ryan Williams for the New York Times

Nancy Talks Story Time at Island Books

Nancy Page sent the email below to James and me yesterday morning. And yes, now I feel lame for staying in last Saturday night and missing all the fun.

—Miriam

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Hi James and Miriam,

Not only are you the great wordsmiths of Island Books, but you are most importantly the parents of young children and I thought how much you all would have enjoyed the storyteller event last night at the store.

You know that we have been hosting the Seattle Storytellers Guild members for more years than I can remember; I’ve come across 30-year-old story time flyers with some of the same tellers that come around today. I inherited the job of scheduling the tellers about 10 years ago, but long before that, I brought my babies, Emma and Lewis, to sit at the knees of some of the same tellers who are the mainstay of our program. To this day, Emma still recalls Pat Peterson in her colorful pinafore pulling felt animals from her pockets. But over time there has entered a new generation, like Norm Brecke, a guitar-toting kindergarten teacher from Renton, who last night brought yet the next generation of tellers to entertain the little ones and all of the adults too.

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Norm’s after school storytelling club has been chugging along for over 3 years and these kids ages 9-11 can tell a story like the best of them, using dramatic hand gestures, changing their voice inflection, and engaging the audience to participate. Each and every one walked off to laughter and hearty applause from the audience. It was one of those moments at Island Books that money can’t buy. In an organic way, in my mind that started back with baby Emma in the circle. Now we find ourselves hosting a young generation of storytellers who have picked up the mantle and carry on the storyteller’s tradition. In part we have continued to host storytellers just because we believe in it and value it, hoping to do our part to keep it alive. I can see that it isn’t going away any time soon. Roger asked if we can have them return some time this spring, so you may have a chance to see them too.

I’ll send you a photo from my phone of the grand finale with Norm and the kids singing.

See ya,
Nancy

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One Sugar Plum Too Many?

In the next month, two ballerinas are making their debuts off the stage, as authors. Jenifer Ringer, who is about to retire from an illustrious career as a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet, will actually be at Town Hall in Seattle on Wednesday, March 5th. Peter Boal, the artistic director of Pacific Northwest Ballet and her former colleague, will be interviewing her. Although going out these days is a rarity, my beloved husband will tend the home fires so I can go hear her speak.

Misty Copeland is the other ballerina, and she’s a soloist with American Ballet Theatre. So what makes Ringer and Copeland unique enough to merit their own autobiographies? There are a number of reasons both of them are taking the spotlight in a whole new way.

imageRinger was an up-and-coming dancer at New York City Ballet back when I was a student at the company-affiliated School of American Ballet in the mid-1990s. Everyone admired her because she was impossible to miss onstage. Her personality sparkled unlike anyone else. But even back then her weight was a topic of conversation, simply because she wasn’t as painfully thin as most of her colleagues. Behind her spectacular stage smile hid a great deal of insecurity and the threat of eating disorders. The company let her go for a time because of her weight, but eventually she returned and advanced to principal rank. She was a true star there.

In 2010, the notoriously cranky dance critic from the New York Times essentially called her fat when he implied Ringer looked like she’d eaten “one sugar plum too many” as the lead in the Nutcracker. That review set off a firestorm of controversy and put her at the center of a charged public conversation about eating disorders. The buzz led to an appearance on Oprah. While performing principal roles with the New York City Ballet for over twenty years may not merit a book contract, an Oprah stint almost always does.

This is not to say that Ringer doesn’t deserve every accolade. She’s earned her stripes and is truly a role model. Her book, Dancing Through It, goes inside the ballet world and chronicles her career, struggles with eating disorders, falling in love and marrying one of her dance partners, the epic sugar plum comment, and how her faith helped her overcome her challenges.

Unlike many of her dancing colleagues, Ringer is also a mother of two young children. Her life took a bizarre and tragic turn last fall when her husband and son were attacked in a stabbing spree in Riverside Park (everyone is okay now). This month, she’ll take her final bow onstage and retire from New York City Ballet after two decades of memorable performances.

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Misty Copeland’s memoir, Life in Motion, is a different kind of ballet story. Aside from her dancing, Copeland is the third African-American soloist and first in two decades with American Ballet Theatre in New York. She’s been called the Jackie Robinson of ballet. Despite a late start in dance, at age thirteen (most professional ballerinas start by seven at the latest), she advanced quickly and by age fifteen had won several awards and began fielding professional offers. She joined American Ballet Theatre in 2001.

Copeland’s teen years were fraught with drama, as she became the center of a custody battle between her mother and her ballet teacher. Despite her economic challenges and the almost non-existent presence of African Americans in classical ballet, Copeland’s talent and perseverance turned her into a role model and a success story. She’s become a strong advocate for opening up ballet to minorities and the underprivileged.

I suspect both these memoirs will portray the dance world in a certain exalted light, which is to be expected from two women who have committed their lives to the art form. What’s important to keep in mind is that while Ringer and Copeland’s stories are inspiring, the vast majority of African American dancers, and those who struggle with their weight, will never become professionals. That said, anyone who loves dance or appreciates against-all-odds stories will find plenty to enjoy within both memoirs.

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—Miriam

We Pulled Our Head Out of the Sand

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Last week the American Bookseller Association’s Winter Institute took place right here in Seattle. Elliott Bay Book Company hosted Tuesday night’s Opening Reception and the place was swarming. There was so much excitement over what we do that the books nearly fell off their shelves with self-importance.

When we weren’t tending the home fires at our store, we had the good fortune to join about 500 of our independent bookselling colleagues for three days of educational seminars, networking, and special events. We even had the opportunity to host visitors at our store during the Institute’s local bookstore tour. It was a pleasure to see ourselves through the eyes of our colleagues, who work as hard as we do to keep the independent bookselling community thriving across the country.

Roger looked positively bright-eyed and bushy-tailed hustling between seminars, and when I met up with him before a presentation about social media he had a twinkle in his eye. Those who know Roger will laugh, since we all know that Roger and the word “twinkle” don’t exactly mesh, but I swear on a stack of Shakespeare our favorite bookstore owner had the look of an inspired man. “Watch out,” he said, “I might just raise my hand during this session and make you get up and brag about our blog.”

I rolled my eyes at him. The truth is we’ve been making up this online presence thing as we go along. To finally confront what we’re doing stacked up against the nation’s best intimidated both of us. Often we feel like we’re throwing spaghetti at the wall.

The panel included Whitney Keyes, author and marketing expert, Pete Mulvihill of Green Apple Books in San Francisco, and Amanda Bullock of Housing Works Bookstore in New York. What resulted was a lively discussion on the merits of Facebook vs. Tumblr vs. Twitter vs. Pinterest vs. Vine vs. Instagram. Roger didn’t make me brag, but he did comment on our commitment to making our online experience an extension of what you find behind the counter at our store. I have to say I was very proud to be his employee after that. It was evident that his philosophy resonated with the others in the room.

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One thing we noticed was that the most social media savvy bookstores seem to have mastered the short form, like quick links and pictures on Tumblr, or a steady stream of tweets. Here’s an example of the cool stuff other stores are doing: Housing Works bookstore in New York has this great Pinterest board with pictures of authors in shorts. Yes, our colleagues are just that creative. How do they come up with this stuff?

Upon hearing some of these inspiring examples, Roger and I looked at each other, raised our eyebrows, and started scribbling various illegible notes. We know that the short form hasn’t been our style. While most other bookstores confessed to running out of ideas for their blog, that’s something we know we do well. In fact, our blog seems to be a particularly unique and well cultivated aspect of our online presence. If only more people knew about it! But the lighter, more youthful chatter of Twitter and many Tumblr users still eludes us.

In 2014, we want to expand and serve our community better in the online arena. So please, give us your feedback regarding our virtual presence here, on Facebook or Twitter, or when you stop in to say hello. We want to give you what you will use and enjoy. Our customers don’t tweet us, and in fact, most of our Twitter followers come from the publishing and bookselling community rather than our beloved locals. How can we change that? Tweet us! Facebook us! Be our friends, both in person and online, because we are yours, 40 years and counting.

—Miriam

Northwest Pride

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We’re well into the new year, but we never say goodbye to the old one without a last look back. Those of you who subscribe to our email newsletter will already know that our farewell to 2013 involved a little number-crunching—we compiled a list of our bestselling books, a Top 40 of customer favorites. In addition to publishing the list on our website and sharing it via email, we currently have all the listed titles on display in the store. Gathered together as they are, something about the collection jumped out at me. I won’t say what that was right now, but it’ll become obvious as I highlight a few of the books.

The top pick is an Island Books exclusive, Mercer Island History: From Haunted Wilderness to Coveted Community. As the only book of its kind, it didn’t need to be great for people to want it, but author Jane Meyer Brahm went the extra mile in putting it together and produced something pretty spectacular. From the account of original settler Vitus Schmid to reporting on the dramatic snowstorms of recent years, the full record of the island is laid bare, and set off by copious photography, too. This is as much art volume as history.

imageJust below at number two is Daniel James Brown’s The Boys in the Boat, which tells about the plucky crew from the University of Washington that took their racing shell all the way to Berlin for the 1936 Olympics and defeated all comers. As the list extends we find Maria Semple’s satire on Seattle, Where’d You Go, Bernadette, Amanda Coplin’s tale of hard times in the Wenatchee Valley, The Orchardist, and Tim Egan’s Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher, a biography of famed photographer Edwin Curtis, whose studio once stood in Pioneer Square. Not to mention books by Spokane writer Jess Walter, Portland’s Cheryl Strayed, and Alaskan Eowyn Ivey.

By now you’ve figured out what these titles, and the many others like them on our Top 40, have in common. They’re all by Northwesterners. By my count, 37.5% of last year’s bestsellers (for you English majors, that’s fifteen out of forty) hail from this region, twelve from right here in Washington. Almost all of these books are about Northwest subjects, too.

imageWe’ve always been big believers in fostering community and supporting neighborhood interests, so it’s not unexpected to find some local talent on our annual list, but I can’t remember a year in which our region was so dominant. This isn’t a situation where we pushed a few of our friends to the forefront, but one where powerhouse authors with major reputations happen to live on our doorstep. OK, something like Mercer Island, Priscilla Padgett’s contribution to the Images of America series, wasn’t likely to make a splash in too many other places, but most of the books I’m talking about were national hits. Take Tara Conklin’s The House Girl, which won rave reviews and high sales across the country. Dealing with Southern slavery and its legacy, it has no particular relevance to our region except that its author is a Seattleite. Maria Semple’s novel was of special interest to us because of its setting, but readers around the world admired its humor; Semple was nominated for the international Women’s Prize for Fiction, as we noted on the blog some months ago.

image Not that our list is any kind of comprehensive study, but it goes some way in showing the kind of literary standard we expect around here. Stores in other parts of the US may not have two-fifths of their Top 40 lists filled by Northwest books, but it’s likely that our authors earn more than the five percent share our population would indicate. They’re a force to be reckoned with. Just like our football team. Go, Seahawks!

—James

Our Year of Eclectic Reading Suggestions

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It’s best of the year time, so let’s take a moment and review some of the best book lists we assembled in 2013. We’re in the home stretch for holiday gift-giving now, and if a straightforward best-of list hasn’t satisfied all your needs, these eclectic and typical-Island-Books-quirky collections might be of some help.

Tell Me A Story: Even if you don’t have time to read an entire book, you can still escape to other worlds with these stirring short story collections.

The Library of Forgotten Books: To commemorate the International Day of the Book on April 23rd, we shed a light on some titles that had been hiding in the corners of the store, waiting patiently to share their stories with you. As they say in Catalonia, “a rose for love, but a book forever.”

Self-Help: Who Needs It?: Every January, a chorus of voices, including our own consciences, tell us it’s time to renew, reassess, and remodel ourselves. That gets tedious. At a certain point, you have to take Popeye’s motto—“I yam what I yam and that’s all what I yam”—to heart. You’re not so bad the way you are, you know?

For Fans of Where’d You Go, Bernadette: We know a book succeeds when the ending comes far too soon and all we want to do is keep reading. It’s like driving at full speed straight off a cliff. Better to find another scenic road rather than fall into the abyss, because when readers get that kind of momentum going it would be a shame to stop. So if you read the delightful Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple and are already hungering for something with the same witty flair, here are some suggestions.

(You might also want to explore our recommendations for fans of Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher by Timothy Egan and Winter of the World by Ken Follett.)

Book Club Combos: A good novel often piques interest that extends past its back cover, like when a war novel inspires you to pick up a history book. We think you’ll want to read these pairs together.

James and Miriam Read Chocolates For Breakfast: It wasn’t a book list, but James and I read and discussed this shocking coming-of-age novel written in 1956 by then-eighteen-year-old Pamela Moore. (Part II of the discussion is here.)

A Dance To the Music of Time: For denser book club reading, James led the way for a massive literary undertaking this year. There’s a book, or series of books, by Anthony Powell that he’d had his eye on for a while. Collectively the work is known as A Dance to the Music of Time, and it consists of twelve books that were published separately between 1951 and 1975. It’s all designed to hang together as one long story, and looked at in that light, it’s one of the longest novels ever written. Powell surveys the London social scene between the world wars in such amusing style that Time magazine referred to his opus as “brilliant literary comedy” when adding Dance to its list of the best fiction of the 20th century. He has the sophisticated eye for manners of an English Proust, but also a masterly sense of episodic pacing—the eagerness to find out what happens next in his writing is as pronounced as it is for fans of cultish, cliffhanger-filled TV shows such as Mad Men or Game of Thrones. If that doesn’t sell you, how about this? An acquaintance at another bookstore described her time with the series as “the greatest reading experience of [her] life.”

James’s 2013 Anthony Powell marathon will wrap up with a final installment on Boxing Day, so it’s not over yet.

—Miriam

A History To Be Thankful For

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The traditional Thanksgiving menu is the same every year: turkey, stuffing, sweet potatoes, pie. This year, instead of my usual apple pie, I tried to spice things up with a salted caramel apple pie. The recipe sounded amazing, but at the end of the day it didn’t taste all that different from my usual version (which is always good to begin with). Next year will be much of the same, whether I try a new recipe or not. When I think of that menu, I think of the store, which also remains a constant with only slight variations.

We’ve been guilty of putting a great deal of store nostalgia on the blog this fall, so I solemnly promise this will be the end of it for awhile. But as everyone poured out their hearts on social media this past weekend, waxing poetic about the things they’re thankful for, I couldn’t help but resist sharing three last pictures that sum up our gratitude at Island Books.

Above you’ll see a photo of our children’s section, and if you look in the upper right hand corner you’ll see this picture is circa 1985. It doesn’t look all that different, does it? Today, some of the books on the shelves have gone from apple pie to salted caramel apple pie, but basically it’s the same slice now as it was back then.

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Here’s the chalkboard we prepared for our recent anniversary celebration. On it, you’ll see the names of every Island Books employee over the last 40 years. It’s not that big of a list, and what’s particularly unusual in today’s work world is how long most of these people worked for Island Books. When you don’t have much turnover, the list of employees remains small.

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Here’s my favorite picture. Do you recognize these characters? The menu of booksellers hasn’t changed much. I don’t know the exact year offhand, but Roger’s hair is significantly less gray. This is not a recent picture. Does anyone else know the year and can you name them all?

This year, we’re thankful for making it through 40 years of doing what we love best. The books that flow through our shelves may change, but our passion for reading and bookselling remains as steadfast as ever.

We hope you had a warm and memorable Thanksgiving.

—Miriam

Stitching a Community Together

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.

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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.

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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.

Roger

Signs and Wonders

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Occasionally we get customers who leave home, go to college, spend a couple decades working elsewhere, and return to Island Books saying, “It looks just the same as did when I was a kid.” This is a little like the high school reunion phenomenon in which you and your pals have all aged 40 years but you can’t quite see it or you’d rather squint and just see the past. The bookstore has changed, many times and in many ways. Sure, we have tried to preserve the cedar shelves, the playhouse, warm atmosphere, and strong selection, but 1974 is a long ways back and the store has always been one to change with the times.

A snapshot of the history can be seen in the store signage. The first store sign was a lovely hand-carved, painted cedar sign designed probably by Andrea Lorig who was responsible for so much of the store’s early art and ads. The dark wood and image of a book as an island suited the feeling on downtown Mercer Island at the time. It was a woodsy country place. There were some big trees downtown, many shops were small wood frame houses, and across the street there was a big vacant lot with raccoons. We sold macrame, stained glass, and candles. Hair was long and swoopy.

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Three years later, Lola Deane opened up the expansive “Children’s Books Etc.” addition. It was advertised as the largest children’s bookstore in Puget Sound. (Oddly after many years we may have returned to that perch, at least in terms of titles). A new sign was created with a charming bookworm and the store operated under dual personalities for at least a decade. Fam Bayless was the co-owner and kids’ book buyer then, ably assisted by a much loved bookseller, Meb Paxson. Teachers and parents made the trek from far and wide to shop from our huge wall of picture books.

Sometime in the late eighties, I worried that these lovely signs (pieces of art really) were too small, and I had an objection to the book-in-water image, so I constructed a new and rather plain sign in my garage and rehung the old signs in the store where they are today. I am not particularly proud of this sign (or any of my carpentry) but you can see it when you’re driving down 78th and it has only blown down once.

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As we fooled around looking for a replacement logo we often made new bookmarks with images and quotes to match the seasons. One time I found a very old woodcut from England of two men in a boat and used it to advertise our new service of “Free shipping.” For some reason (which defies logic) this image took and has become our advertising icon. A fellow bookseller and beloved art teacher, Poo Putsch, painted a sidewalk sign for us with this image broadcasting our Sunday hours. It was a heavy old sign and we got tired of hauling it out after ten years and retired it to my garage. Poo also painted the murals in the playhouse and the signs for “Picture Books” and “Old Favorites” in the kids section. Check them out. They are wonderful and easy to overlook.

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Lastly, perhaps my personal favorite sign was made a couple years ago by a talented, under-occupied, retired investment adviser/gadfly who humbly refers to himself as “Mayor Jim.” Jim has limitless creative energy and sometimes I just have to give him something to do so I can get back to work. I was brainstorming with him one day and I told him how I mourned the passing of a famous New York bookstore, the Gotham Book Mart. It had a somewhat similar sign with an image of men in a boat accompanied by the slogan “Wise Men Fish Here.” It was cut out of copper and hung on a side street in the diamond district of Manhattan for 70 years. Jim went off with his gears engaged and came back with this gorgeous sign. The revived slogan combined with our image makes me feel that at 40 we are becoming a part of an older tradition of bookstore places in the country. And that, perhaps, we are keeping something important alive …

Roger

The Wrapping Table

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My first job at Island Books in 1984 was as a “Holiday Gift Wrapper.” I was the the junior member of the staff by twenty years or so and my bosses and co-workers had very particular feelings about bows and tape and felt duty bound to instruct me. It seems like all I did that fall was receive instruction … sometimes conflicting instruction depending on whether it was Lissa, Elinor, Stacey, Marge, Fam, or Sally at my elbow that day.

I like to think I became at least a fast gift wrapper that fall. The skills I learned have given me a certain job security and are in use every day here at the store. The wrapping table where I and everyone who works here practice our “art” has an interesting origin. The store was started by Lola Deane with some assistance from her husband Phil. Phil was, I think, the first pediatrician on the island and Lola was a nurse. They had (and Lola still has) a long life of service here and overseas, and Island Books was just a train stop for them. But they got an awful lot done in a short amount of time. The way I heard the story was that Lolaa smart reader and book lovercomplained one day about the lack of a bookstore on the island and five months later she had the shelves up and full and the doors open. The initial design of the store was by a local architect but Phil made the shelves and tables himself in his garage. They were built well and still stand although we have remodeled dozens of times.

It seems that right before the opening Lola commandeered a pediatric examination table that was used in their home emergency medical office. In those early days if your child got an earache at 2:00 am you called Phil Deane and took your child to the house for relief and guidance. Phil would wrestle your bawling little one onto his big sanitary white table and see to the problem. I think of those kicking little legs every Christmastime when the ribbon becomes unruly and we are going at the wrapping hammer and tongs.

imageWhen Lola was ready to move on to new challenges (something she did often and well) she invited three of her friends for a sail in Lake Washington. When they were a good ways off shore she told them they were going to buy the bookstore (or swim?) and that was the beginning of a happy chapter two of Island Books.

Eventually Phil and Lola moved to Shaw Island and  had a another career in retirement as overseas medical missionaries. Phil got sick a few years ago and sadly passed away but before he did he drove around in an old station wagon with some of his Shaw Island watercolor paintings to sell to old remembered friends. We were fortunate to get one and it hangs next to his old examination table today.

Roger

Typewriters

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At any one time there are usually 50 old typewriters on display at Island Books. It always amazes us when a customer who has been shopping at the store for years looks up and asks, “How long have those typewriters been up there?” The answer is a little over twenty years. The next question is, “Do you collect them?”

Surprisingly, the answer is, “No, not really.” The story of how the typewriters got here goes something like this: When I was in my teens and twenties I studied poetry and wrote on my mother’s WW2 Royal. I was trying very hard to be bohemian and over time collected about five typewriters including one red one that is still in the store. My now-wife refused to go out with me the first time I asked for a date but (honest!) when I told her she could see my typewriter collection she gave in and the rest is history. After we had been married for a while and after I stopped writing poetry I decided to get rid of the old heavy beasts and put two of them up on a bookcase in the bookstore. After that customers would come into the store and offer us old typewriters that they were clearing out of the basement. We would add them to what became our “orphanage.” Now we are full but occasionally one or two come in and one or two go out (usually gifts to young bohemians).

Last year we had some real fun with a Type-A-Thon which you can read about here. At  the holidays we put lights on them and make the “electric” typewriters. Mostly we love to have them because of all the stories and memories that they played a part in. One typewriter has a baseball novel written on it, a couple are WW1 foreign correspondent typewriters, one sat in a family general store in Minnesota for decades, one accompanied an young girl as she immigrated to the West. Some are a hundred years old.

Parents often stop with their children, point out the typewriters, and sagely ask, “Do you know what those are, Johnny?” But my favorite moment was the seven-year-old walking through the store with his dad, who stopped and said, “Hey, dad, do you know about those things? They print as soon as you hit the key! You don’t have to wait for a printer.”

And so it goes…

—Roger

The Smallest Room in the Shop

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The store has often served as a refuge of sorts for local folks. Dozens and dozens of customers who were struggling through bad days or grave illnesses have used the store as a place to quietly spend time and find distraction from their troubles. Newcomers, unanchored in their new home, also seem to seek out the bookstore. Island Books always seems to be a good place to ask directions, make a first friend, feel a little bit at home. One day 15 years ago, a young woman named Jamie Austad stopped into the store and said she was an artist looking for work.

She was escaping her Dakota small town roots and had arrived on Mercer Island and was staying in someone’s basement. There was something appealing about this twenty-year-old stray looking for a home, something that I wanted to shelter and support.

She said she painted murals and we walked around until we got to the bathroom and I impulsively suggested she paint it. She said yes, and came back the next day and shut the door and spent two days in there painting. We had no idea what to expect but when it was revealed there was a delightful underwater northwest seal and orca scene adorning the walls. 

From that point on Jamie was a “friend of the store” for a few years and she helped in a variety of ways doing odd jobs, babysitting my kids, painting Harry Potter props. Sometime later when money was tight she painted another mural on the wall and the top of the ramp. Eventually she drifted away to Whidbey Island and we now only see or hear from her rarely.

We miss her.

A postscript: Another local artist, a wonderful wild woman, Chris Conklin-Ray who has many informal ties to the store was working one night at the store with her husband, Tom. They were helping me with one of my crazy all night carpentry projects. At some point Chris drifted off for an hour and came back and said she had made an addition to our bathroom. The great Portuguese man o’war jellyfish is hers.

—Roger

The Front Door

imageThe editors (Miriam and James) suggested that I use objects or fixtures in the store as a jumping off point for some stories. Sort of a History of Island Books in Twenty Objects. Seems ambitious and beyond my capabilities, so I welcome guest appearances. But in the meantime, I will begin with a short chapter on the front door.

You may notice that Island Books has a unique, heavy, glass front door with a large cast iron (cold!) antique door handle. I don’t know exactly how that came to be, but it is original to the store. I know this because it is written into all the leases that the store has ever had that the landlord is responsible for everything on the outside of the building except for the front door. For thirty years or so, our landlord was Gladys Alsin, who had her home and orchard where Island Books now sits and built the center back in the sixties. Gladys lived to be over a hundred and she was a sharp, tough, and sweet operator. I remember her in her nineties, scraping paint drips off the windows and directing a forlorn landscaper on how to spread bark. No one pulled the wool over her eyes. She thought that if the bookstore wants to put in a ridiculous and heavy custom door, then they are going have to live with it and take care of it.

imageIt hasn’t been all that easy. To begin with there are the bratty kids. Once a week or so, some charming little tyke comes along and discovers that this door handle can make a really loud noise. So he stands outside the store, beating the cast iron knocker on the steel plate until we all cry uncle and hand him a lollipop or bookmark. Once a week for forty years. It leaves a mark.

Then there is the challenge of keeping an eye out for the approach of the old and infirm. The door is not remotely ADA compliant. In fact, we have seen a few small or frail customers launch into the parking lot by opening the huge door when a stiff southerly wind is blowing. The wind catches it and out they fly. Because there is no handle on the inside, some people turn the deadbolt accidentally upon leaving. If left out, the next person will bang the door on the deadbolt when closing it. If this happens repeatedly, as it did one Christmas Eve at 4pm in the 1990s, the deadbolt will break and there is no way to lock the door. I just nailed the door shut with some great big nails that night (the hardware store was closed) and went home to my roast beef.

But the real drama happened on a sunny afternoon in August about twenty years ago. A mother and a teenage son were out running errands and practicing driving on the Island. They had concluded their business at Island Books, and the “learner” put the car into drive instead of reverse just outside our front door. The shock of jumping the curb and coming through our front door was such that the kid froze with his foot on the pedal for a good ten seconds.

The whole building shook and I thought the ceiling was going to collapse. No one was hurt. But when we talked to the insurance, they said we needed to look at the lease. And when we looked at the lease, well…we paid a fair sum to rebuild that silly door. So let’s just say we are invested in it now. Hope you like it.

—Roger

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