After managing a food coop for 25 years, Brad Smith moved to the small central Oregon tourist town of Sisters and bought its indie bookstore, Paulina Springs Books. “I wanted to enter into a new business industry, but I knew it would have to be something I could feel a palpable connection to the broader community,” Smith says. “The owners had done an outstanding job of building a very community-centric business with an enviable reputation.”
Since Paulina Springs was founded in 1992, Sisters has grown, but today it still has a population of less than 2,000. The town has a vibrant arts community, with a folk festival, a Quilt Show, and a community arts celebration called My Own Two Hands. The store has grown with the town, and, over the years it has changed its space multiple times, adding square footage, shrinking, and adding space again. Most recently it has added an additional 500 square feet, which improved its ability to display the Melissa & Doug toy line. “As a consequence,” Smith says, “the store has a somewhat eclectic, unpolished feel to it. The unique character is something many people appreciate about the store. It adds adventure to the browsing experience.”
Smith purchased the store in June 2003 and then opened a second location in Redmond in December 2007. We asked him a few questions
What are some of the differences between your Sisters and Redmond locations? The biggest difference is that the Redmond store pretty exclusively sells to local residents, whereas the Sisters store gets over half its sales volume from people who have a vacation home in the area, vacation in the area regularly, or are tourists. Another difference is that the Redmond store is all brand new fixtures and facility, as we pretty much started with a gutted building, whereas the Sisters store has morphed and evolved over time, so it has a more eclectic physical presence.
What other shops do you visit in your neighborhood? Sisters has many places to frequent for such a small town. I like to wander across the street to Sisters Coffee to get something warm to drink, or head down the street to Bedouin to shop for jewelry or clothing for my wife.
What’s a CD that would make a great soundtrack for your store—or one that you play over and over? A couple of us wear out the grooves on the various Weepies albums.
What’s the best thing about being a bookseller? I love engaging with people on something they feel passionate about. This is what I loved about managing the food coop. Our member owners were zealous about the foods they ate, and the relationship they had with their food supply. Readers who shop independent bookstores tend to be similarly impassioned with the print they consume. They care about the quality of storytelling, the integrity of information contained with the pages, and they are interested in the authors producing the work.
The worst? I would have to say the worst part of being a bookseller is one that would not have been stated by many people just a short eight years ago, and that is the intangible future of bookselling. I’m certainly no Luddite, but I do fear for a species that loses the intimacy of spoken and written language to the ephemeral nature of texting and tweeting.
As an indie bookseller selling books and talking about them, you battle that culture every day. In our stores we do our best to engage with people, provide service to create surprising satisfaction, and hope that people value the experience enough to return.
On a related note, I just served a mother and her daughter, who was perhaps 15 or so. The mother was purchasing a couple Christopher Moore books for her daughter (clearly the kind of reader who would appreciate an independent book store). As they were checking out, the mother was exclaiming that she just didn’t understand why her daughter wouldn’t make the switch to a Kindle. She loved being able to get a book at the push of a button and not have to carry them around. The daughter exclaimed that it was simply not the same to her, “A book is meant to hold, flip through, and pass on,” she said. Plus, she enjoyed coming into an actual store! Perhaps there is hope for the future.
What have you read recently that you want to press into the hands of your customers? That depends completely on the person, and the reading interest he or she has. I just started reading a fascinating new book by Martin Nowak titled SuperCooperators: Altruism, Evolution, and Why We Need Each Other to Succeed.
Sisters is a pretty unique place. Will you talk about some of the books that have been hits in Sisters that might not have registered elsewhere? Some books that have sold well in the last six months that are not bestsellers or Central Oregon- specific (like hiking books) include: Heart of a Shepherd by Rosanne Parry, River House by Sarahlee Lawrence, Kapitoil by Teddy Wayne and Mink River by Brian Doyle.
What are some of your best-selling gift items in your store? Melissa & Doug toys.
Name three Northwest authors you’d like to invite to dinner. I would love to have dinner again with Pete Fromm because he makes me laugh hysterically. I would love to have dinner with Sherman Alexie because I just think he is incredibly smart and possesses a keen perception of US culture. The last one that comes to mind is John Kroger. Again, I think he’s very sharp and I would love to hear a personal accounting from him on Oregon politics.