Some independent bookstores are known for their variety of events, rare book collections, or cozy cafes. My local bookstore and employer for the last year, Island Books, has always been about comfort and connecting. There are other qualities that make the place special, like the knowledgeable and friendly staff, the curated selection, cozy décor, and stellar children’s section complete with playhouse, but the first thing that comes to most local customers’ minds when they think of Island Books is the atmosphere of the place.
I’ve been in the publishing business for eight years and worn many hats, from assistant editor to a major publishing house in New York to a merchandising/editing role on the Books team at that online-bookstore-that-will-not-be-named to an author of two self-published ballet novels (Girl in Motion and Breaking Pointe) after years of trying to conquer the agent/editor mountain. The one area of the book business I didn’t know from the inside? Ironically, it was the heart of everything, the brick-and-mortar independent bookstore.
When I left my corporate job about a year ago, I was a little bit lost. An essential element of my work life was missing. I needed to be around books, and even more, I wanted to be around book people.
After all, it was the folks who love books that convinced me to pursue a career in book publishing. I first realized it after a summer internship at a publishing house. Every day I joyously made endless photocopies, eager for every snippet of conversation with the editors I could glean. I loved these people. The breadth of their knowledge and their curiosity about the world amazed me. I had never known people with such a wide range of interests, and I knew I wanted to spend my life working around that breed of people. The surroundings would make me a better person, I was sure of it.
Something got lost along the way, as the further I went in my career the books got buried underneath politics and business considerations. Eventually, I was just tired. All I wanted was the freedom to read and discuss books with the same love and enthusiasm I’d felt as a kid.
My husband and I had recently moved to Mercer Island, and I drove by Island Books every day on my way home. One day, I worked up the courage to walk in and asked to talk to the owner.
“I’m the owner,” said Roger Page, and yes, he was the guy right behind the front counter. “What can I do for you?”
It was that very question that grabbed me, and even now, I associate it with the essence of Island Books. When I asked about a job, Roger didn’t give me a real answer that day. He said they didn’t need any more booksellers, but what they really needed was some help growing their online presence. Then he told me to come back in a month since he wasn’t ready to think about it yet. After all, there was another customer behind me who needed help finding a novel to give her mother.
Roger never once said, “What can you do for me?” After all, that isn’t what books are about. Books are about giving, and authors do their utmost to please, entertain, and educate their readers. All a good book requires is someone to show up with a willing and open mind. The same is true for a good bookstore, and that’s why the minute I first walked into Island Books, the thing that struck me the most was the feeling of comfort and connection. I hope the book world will continue to be about those feelings, despite the digital trend. That’s the feeling my partners in crime, Roger Page and web guru James Crossley, have strived for with me as we’ve built Island Books’ online presence in the last year. What we really want at the end of the day is for customers to come into the store in person and connect with a book. Nothing makes people fall in love with books more than being able to share the experience of them with other people, and that’s what makes the enduring existence of physical bookstores so essential.
My new column for NW Book Lovers, Reading-Related Rambles, is going to continue that mission. We’re going to talk about a lot of things in the months to come. Titles and authors to love, experiences of reading and bookselling, and all the ways that books touch our lives. I intend to remind you why you love to read, and, if you have thoughts to share, I hope you’ll join in the conversation. After all, if my role models are the books I read and the bookstores I love, then the question here has to be, “What can I do for you?” Let’s start by getting excited about books together.