We recently got to visit with the owner/manager team Chris O’Harra and Melissa Opel at Auntie’s Bookstore in downtown Spokane. The pair and many of their 24 staff members regard each other like family members (the kind that like each other) and it adds to Auntie’s warm, old-fashioned department store feel. This is echoed in the space, which is wide open and surrounded by windows—and in the downtown, a quietly busy mix of offices and retail businesses in 100-plus-year-old brick buildings.
It’s a popular store, both a destination for tourists and the go-to spot for locals on their lunch breaks. Readers of Spokane’s alternative paper, The Inlander, have voted the store the best in the valley for 17 years in a row.
O’Harra, the eponymous Auntie, opened Auntie’s in 1978 in the Spokane Flour Mill. She and her then business partner, Shannon Ahern, had thought about naming the store O’Harra & Ahern but feared it sounded too much like an Irish pub. Since the store was Oharra’s dream and she was (and is) a doting Aunt to Ahern’s three sons, they decided to name the store Auntie’s with the thought of re-naming it later. Nothing better came along and soon they found that the name had stuck.
Auntie’s opened a satellite in Spokane’s Riverpark Square last summer in a space that used to belong to the longtime kids’ store Children’s Corner, and the staff is still working to find the right mix of books and sidelines for that space.
Opel, who is 31 and has an MFA in creative writing from Eastern Washington University, has managed the store for just a year and a half but talks sales, ebooks, personnel and events like she’s been in the position for a dozen years. “I feel really privileged at being here for such a short time and getting to manage the store,” she says. “I just love the atmosphere.”
Opel and her partner, Becca Holman (now Opel), were married in the store last fall. Jill Malone, a former Auntie’s manager, officiated and most of the staff attended the event. In addition to providing the space, O’Harra hosted the couple’s rehearsal dinner. Auntie, indeed!
Opel answered some questions for us.
One of the great things about indie stores is how they take on the flavor of their communities. What’s uniquely Spokane about Auntie’s? We feel our wide-open, friendly atmosphere really sets us apart. Our building is more than a hundred years old and combines the Eastern Washington sky with a hometown feel. Additionally, we are the only bookstore in the area that has reading programs, author events and a fantastic new AND used inventory. Most importantly for us, though, is we truly allow our staff and our customers to shape our stock. Chris has really made Auntie’s a cornerstone of the community and we value the role.
What’s selling well right now? Our children’s and fiction sections always do really well for us. Auntie’s is located kitty-corner to the town’s Opera House and Wicked was here for ten days. Not only did we see a boost in sales but we sold a good chunk of Gregory Maguire and The Wizard of Oz.
Our outside sales program is doing really well right now as well. Auntie’s just participated in a comic book convention and saw many of our loyal science fiction fans and also got to flex a bit of our graphic novel expertise. It was exciting to do because our participation happened because of a staff member who is neither a part of management or our outside sales.
Children’s is one of the strongest sections at Auntie’s. Why is that? Auntie’s has always had dynamite children’s managers that know the books and handsell to customers. We also dedicate a lot of space and money to that section. As a manager, my favorite thing is to watch is how excited our staff gets for teen novels.
Will you (or your children’s buyer) recommend a few kids books for us? Divergent by Veronica Roth. A lot of my staff has enjoyed it even more than Hunger Games. Clink by Kelly Dipucchio and a GREAT handsell isPress Here by Herve Tullet. Watch your customers face as you demonstrate the book to them!
What have you read lately that you’re excited about and want to recommend? Chris would like to recommend The Help by Kathryn Stockett (she was really amazed by it), The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa and Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese.
She and I read completely different books so my recommendations are the Eisner-award winning Chew by John Layman. It’s riveting and will change the way you feel about graphic novels. (volume 1-3 are currently out and volume 4 is on its way); Geek Wisdom by Stephen Segal (due out in August) and Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell.
What are some sidelines you love selling? We really love selling local items and have found some amazing ones. Jayme Jane lip moisturizer and hand lotion and Bumble Bars, a fair-trade, organic, vegan energy bar both made here in Spokane. Our staff and customers are also in love with Theo Chocolate bars. A staff member and I recently made it to Seattle for a factory tour and I feel even more proud to sell such a great product. There is no other chocolate out there that is like Theo. We recommend the salted almond bar!
Will you describe an author event highlight during your career at Auntie’s? Chris and I had a really hard time with this one. She thinks back to her first major event when Douglas Adams came. They were just moving into the new building and the floors and lighting weren’t even finished. They just patched stuff together, threw out a bunch of chairs and had an amazing time.
We both agree having David Sedaris was fantastic. He was a really nice guy, and, afterward, he sent a postcard thanking us. Apparently he rates bookstores on a star system and we received his elusive 4-star rating. It was sheer bliss.
One of our all-time favorites though was a dual (duel?) reading with Jess Walter and Sherman Alexie. For those that don’t know, the two authors are really great friends and are both basketball fanatics. The sold-out crowd was on pins and needles as they each read stories back and forth, asked each other questions and teased one another endlessly. I walked away with a very important lesson: never let Jess Walter and Sherman Alexie each have a microphone at the same time. The two tend to get a bit of a potty mouth when they are allowed to interrupt the other. We laughed so hard many of us had tears streaming down our cheeks.
Being in business for 33+ years has allowed Chris to watch some amazing writing careers grow and a particular favorite has been watching Sherman Alexie turn into the man he is today.
Now that everyone wants to visit Auntie’s, what’s the best lunch within walking distance? Chris’ is Cyrus O’Leary’s where she enjoys her favorite Chicken Marinara sandwich and I favor The Steelhead where you can get an amazing hand-pressed bleu cheese burger.
Where else do you shop in your neighborhood? Local, local, local! Huppin’s, a great electronics store, Dutch’s, which is technically a pawn shop but truly a musicians best friend, and we also love Boo Radley’s, The Flour Mill and a ton of the downtown restaurants.
There are Auntie’s alums all over Spokane. Will you tell us about a few of them and what they’re doing? We’ve had some amazing talent come through Auntie’s and many of them have learned the ropes of business from Chris. Jill Malone, a former manager, is an Lambda Award-winning author. She is currently working on her third novel, due out in 2012 and is getting married to her partner this summer.
John Waite managed Auntie’s Sci-Fi store Merlyn’s where he eventually bought the store from Chris and Shannon. He continues to run his store, now full of comic books as well as Sci-Fi and he is currently running for City Council.
Andy Dennison, also a former manager, is the owner of one of Spokane’s favorite gift shops, the very quirky Boo Radley’s. He opened a second store, Atticus, where you can purchase an espresso while shopping wine, unique décor and that same eye for the unusual gifts you just can’t find anywhere else.
Hans Isaacson, another former manager of Auntie’s, went on to purchase Uncle’s Games (part of Auntie’s original Book and Game Company). He is currently the co-owner and general manager. Uncle’s, a store specializing in board games, continues to thrive in multiple locations in Spokane and Seattle.
Mitch Finley, one of Auntie’s Events Coordinators, is also a well-established author with over 20 religious and inspirational titles.
Shannon Ahern, Chris’ former business partner, is our building owner. He also works with Third World countries, fostering business and fair trade opportunities. He is currently working with some groups in South Africa and brings back one-of-a-kind products that Auntie’s buys and sells.