We recently honored Alaskan author/bookseller Eowyn Ivey with a 2013 PNBA Award for her novel The Snow Child. Thanks to Ivey for sharing this essay with us in celebration of the award (See posts from Jonathan Evison and G. Willow Wilson and look for essays from the other three winners in the coming weeks). Palmer, Alaska readers are invited to join Ivey for an award ceremony at Fireside Books in the coming weeks. We’ll let you know the date when they have one.
In the fall of 2001, a sign appeared in a storefront in Palmer, Alaska. “Bookstore . . . Coming Soon.” Whenever I drove by, I would slow down and try to peek in the windows, and over several weeks I watched boxes being stacked and unpacked and bare wooden shelves installed. I can’t remember ever being so excited about something in my hometown. But as much as I anticipated its opening, I never could have imagined how this little bookstore would change my fate.
Fireside Books opened its doors during Colony Christmas, an annual local celebration with a parade, ice sculptures and craft fairs. To be honest, the pickings in the bookstore were somewhat slim to start off – mostly used books and a lot of empty shelf space. But the selection gave me hope. I found poetry and classics, novels and modern philosophy, children’s picture books and Alaskan titles. The owners said many of the books for sale were from their own collection, and I thought, “I like these people.”
Over the next couple of years, I became a regular customer. The shelves filled in with more and more books, both new and used, and there was often a line of customers at the counter. Fireside Books quickly became a center for the arts in Palmer, not just for poetry readings and book clubs but for creative spirits of all sorts.
In 2003, I was restless. This is a rare occurrence. I don’t seek out change; I like stability and order. But I had been working as a reporter at the local newspaper for nearly a decade, and while this had been my area of study, it had never been my passion. I liked my coworkers, I enjoyed some of the articles I got to write, but increasingly I felt a frustrated boredom and the sense that something was passing me by.
When I walked into Fireside Books and asked owner David Cheezem if they were hiring, I feared it might be one of the more insane, foolish things I had done. I was giving up a career, and while the newspaper didn’t pay well, it provided benefits and the potential for moving up in the field. Instead of applying to be an editor or to work at a larger newspaper, I was going to be a retail clerk at a relatively new independent bookstore, never known for making or handing out piles of money.
Within a few weeks of getting the job, I no longer doubted myself – I was happy and inspired. My work days were about books and readers and literary discussions. I studied publisher catalogs, helped customers find and order books, dug through boxes of fascinating used books brought in for credit. Rather than draining me, my new occupation filled me with ideas and energy. Of course, every job has its downsides – the occasional rude customer, strippable returns, lost orders, damaged books. But all these are insignificant annoyances when you are doing something you love.
And then one winter evening, alone in the bookstore, I found it – a paperback children’s book that told the fairy tale of Snegurochka, the snow maiden.
It is difficult to describe how much has happened since that day. I read a fairy tale, I wrote a novel, I met an agent at an Alaska writing conference, he found a publisher, my world changed.
In the past year since The Snow Child was published, I have traveled with my family literally around the globe, to Australia, New Zealand, London, Paris, New York, Denver, New Orleans, Portland. I have shaken hands with some of my very favorite writers, and I have met strangers who have read my book in other languages. It has been a thrilling, emotional, often overwhelming experience.
Yet I always come back to my dear friends at Fireside Books. Owners David Cheezem and Melissa Behnke were among the first to read The Snow Child when it was still an unpublished manuscript. In February 2012, they hosted my book release party. Since then they have surely sold the most copies of The Snow Child of any single bookstore in the world – around 1500 copies to date. David openly jokes that The Snow Child financially saved Fireside Books last year. I hope it is true. It would barely scratch the surface of my debt to them.
So when I received the thrilling news from PNBA about this year’s book award, and they said I should choose a bookstore to host the presentation, of course I knew right where to turn. Down Main Street in Palmer, Alaska, just past the coffeeshop and the bank, to Fireside Books.