(Editor’s Note: We’re re-posting this interview with veteran Bainbridge Island bookseller Mary Gleysteen on the occasion of her retirement from Eagle Harbor Book Company. The store’s staff posted a tribute and farewell to her here and we talked with some other unhappy people here.)
Mary Gleysteen says it was reading Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison in the early 1980’s that convinced her to switch careers from law to books. She’s been a bookseller ever since. Gleysteen first worked at Edmonds Bookshop and then at both Edmonds and Eagle Harbor Book Company on Bainbridge Island for one crazy year in 1989, and then settled in at Eagle Harbor for good in 1991.
Did you buy any books in DC? The best sightseeing I did was to visit Busboys and Poets near Howard University, where we had lunch and I bought three books. I got the Paul Farmer book, Uses of Haiti; a book for my nephew the exact title of which I don’t recall but it involves multiculturalism in the classroom beyond observance of prescribed holidays; and, since we were in the neighborhood, one of those Arcade books on Ben’s Chili Bowl for a young musician friend.
Let’s talk about Eagle Harbor. What makes your neighborhood and customers unique? We’re on Bainbridge Island, a short walk from the ferry and we are insulated from big box stores. Paul Hanson once described it as a place where the City Mouse and Country Mouse would meet for lunch. Other destinations on the island include the Bloedel Reserve Gardens, the Bainbridge Winery and lots of tasting rooms that have sprung up, art galleries, bakeries, the Kiddie Museum, Bainbridge Gardens and the new Japanese American Exclusion Memorial.
Is there anything in your store that we wouldn’t find anywhere else? Bainbridge has more than 200 published authors, including David Guterson, Jack Prelutsky, Kristin Hannah, Susan Wiggs, Rebecca Wells, Carol Cassella, Barbara Berger, George Shannon, Ann Lovejoy, Bruce Barcott and a host of others.
We carry as many of their books as we are able, as well as lots of sailing, Northwest and Native American titles, and we cater to and display the selections of more than 50 local book groups, so there’s lots of good browsing. Plus we have a generator, so that when the power goes out on the island as it did the Tuesday and Wednesday before Thanksgiving, we can offer our customers a refuge with lights, good books, conversation and hot drinks. I think what makes our store unique is the diversity of our booksellers and the expertise, experience and sense of humor each brings to the store. No matter what your reading preferences, there is probably someone here on the staff who shares your taste and is anxious to talk books with you.
What have you read recently that you want to press into the hands of your customers? Right now I am especially enjoying sharing Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War by Karl Marlantes, The Hour: A Cocktail Manifesto by Bernard DeVoto with foreword by Daniel Handler and The Uses of Haiti by Paul Farmer. (Trust me, I read women authors, lots, but these are the books that are on my mind currently.)
Can you recommend a book that might be off the radar? A couple of my favorites are Winter Wheat by Mildred Walker and Curve of Time by M. Wylie Blanchet. And of course I’d have to recommend Minnie Rose Lovgreen’s Recipe for Raising Chickens, a classic first published on the island in the 70’s that has sold many thousand of copies and was re-released last year.
What’s the best thing about being a bookseller? I love the collegiality of bookselling—the interchange of ideas among and between booksellers and customers. I love the books themselves and knowing what’s new and exciting, and getting to hear authors read from and talk about their work. I love the community that develops around a bookstore. It’s fun to work somewhere that a colleague will loan tourists her car so they can see the island, or tell a customer that I have the perfect book for her and, since she needs it right now, she can go get it off the sunporch, just walk in the front door, the dog won’t bite.
What’s the most memorable book event or most entertaining author that you have hosted? Greg Mortenson and Barabara Kingsolver drew huge crowds and gave inspiring talks, but the standouts for me are Terry Tempest Williams and then Yann Martel and Tomislav Torjanac, who presented their Illustrated Life of Pi to very appreciative audiences. My all-time favorites are Howard Norman, whose audiences are small and discussions intimate; and David James Duncan, who drew a very diverse audience, including kids who stayed late into the night, sat on the floor and poured their hearts out to an author who clearly understood them.
Did you find someone to marry them? No, the folks on the boat were pretty dysfunctional; they weren’t off to a great start.
What are your favorite sidelines in the store? My perennial favorite is the Atomic book headlight—great for reading and the perfect fashion accessory for any power outage. They are great for taking the dog for a walk at night, digging clams and piano tuning, I am told.