Stitching a Community Together

At the outset of this series of little essays about the store I said I how I didn’t feel like the owner. Not responsible for its birth, its evolution, or even its ongoing vitality. There have been a handful of owners, a bushel basket of employees, and thousands of generous, thoughtful patrons who have gone out of there way to help.

And we have needed all that help to get this far. The quiet business of running a bookshop has been an exceptionally dynamic affair the last 30 years with the arrival of big box stores, personal computers, internet shopping, and e-readers. On top of that there are the usual vagaries of small business with leaky roofs, landlord hassles, changing terms and technology, narrowing margins. There were a half-dozen moments when I thought the end was near (it wasn’t but you do worry) or moments when I really didn’t feel I had the energy for another challenge. Each time the island folks have come to our aid. Each time they have made the store stronger and more supported.

A couple of mementos of these supportive gestures are on display in the store although the stories behind them may be less well known....Read More

(Our store journal keeps you posted on books we're excited about, our literary musings, and other reading-related rambles. Remember, you can sign up to receive our posts by email.)

Signs and Wonders

Occasionally we get customers who leave home, go to college, spend a couple decades working elsewhere, and return to Island Books saying, “It looks just the same as did when I was a kid.” This is a little like the high school reunion phenomenon in which you and your pals have all aged 40 years but you can’t quite see it or you’d rather squint and just see the past. The bookstore has changed, many times and in many ways. Sure, we have tried to preserve the cedar shelves, the playhouse, warm atmosphere, and strong selection, but 1974 is a long ways back and the store has always been one to change with the times.

A snapshot of the history can be seen in the store signage. The first store sign was a lovely hand-carved, painted cedar sign designed probably by Andrea Lorig who was responsible for so much of the store’s early art and ads. The dark wood and image of a book as an island suited the feeling on downtown Mercer Island at the time. It was a woodsy country place. There were some big trees downtown, many shops were small wood frame houses, and across the street there was a big vacant lot with raccoons. We sold macrame, stained glass, and candles. Hair was long and swoopy....Read More

The Wrapping Table

My first job at Island Books in 1984 was as a “Holiday Gift Wrapper.” I was the the junior member of the staff by twenty years or so and my bosses and co-workers had very particular feelings about bows and tape and felt duty bound to instruct me. It seems like all I did that fall was receive instruction … sometimes conflicting instruction depending on whether it was Lissa, Elinor, Stacey, Marge, Fam, or Sally at my elbow that day.

I like to think I became at least a fast gift wrapper that fall. The skills I learned have given me a certain job security and are in use every day here at the store. The wrapping table where I and everyone who works here practice our “art” has an interesting origin. The store was started by Lola Deane with some assistance from her husband Phil. Phil was, I think, the first pediatrician on the island and Lola was a nurse. They had (and Lola still has) a long life of service here and overseas, and Island Books was just a train stop for them. But they got an awful lot done in a short amount of time. The way I heard the story was that Lolaa smart reader and book lovercomplained one day about the lack of a bookstore on the island and five months later she had the shelves up and full and the doors open....Read More

Typewriters

At any one time there are usually 50 old typewriters on display at Island Books. It always amazes us when a customer who has been shopping at the store for years looks up and asks, “How long have those typewriters been up there?” The answer is a little over twenty years. The next question is, “Do you collect them?”

Surprisingly, the answer is, “No, not really.” The story of how the typewriters got here goes something like this: When I was in my teens and twenties I studied poetry and wrote on my mother’s WW2 Royal. I was trying very hard to be bohemian and over time collected about five typewriters including one red one that is still in the store. My now-wife refused to go out with me the first time I asked for a date but (honest!) when I told her she could see my typewriter collection she gave in and the rest is history....Read More

Pride and Prejudice, The Maid’s Version

October brings us an interesting effort to capitalize on the magic of both Jane Austen and Downton Abbey. Author Jo Baker turns Pride and Prejudice on its head, offering a glimpse into the servants’ lives at the Bennet household.

Before you roll your eyes, pause and hear me out. I am not a fan of Austen reinventions. I am, however, a Downton Abbey watcher (thanks to James), although in my humble opinion the show jumped the shark after the first season or so. I also have this habit of sighing when offered a novel that so clearly has been written with the intention of catering to the market. When I worked as an editor, I can’t tell you how many times I reviewed book proposals billed as “Jurassic Park meets The Da Vinci Code" or "Romeo and Juliet retold as a western” or some other premise clearly riding the coattails of an earlier success. I understand how necessary it is for authors to appeal to a mass audience nowadays, but I always worry that a gimmick is just a pig with lipstick. Give me great writing and an original story any day over a book that’s trying too hard. So when I see a new novel billed as Pride and Prejudice meets Downton Abbey, I’m skeptical. The good news is, Longbourn is what it claims to be, and refreshingly so....Read More

The Smallest Room in the Shop

The store has often served as a refuge of sorts for local folks. Dozens and dozens of customers who were struggling through bad days or grave illnesses have used the store as a place to quietly spend time and find distraction from their troubles. Newcomers, unanchored in their new home, also seem to seek out the bookstore. Island Books always seems to be a good place to ask directions, make a first friend, feel a little bit at home.

One day 15 years ago, a young woman named Jamie Austad stopped into the store and said she was an artist looking for work. She was escaping her Dakota small town roots and had arrived on Mercer Island and was staying in someone’s basement. There was something appealing about this twenty-year-old stray looking for a home, something that I wanted to shelter and support. She said she painted murals and we walked around until we got to the bathroom and I impulsively suggested she paint it....Read More

The Front Door

The editors (Miriam and James) suggested that I use objects or fixtures in the store as a jumping off point for some stories. Sort of a History of Island Books in Twenty Objects. Seems ambitious and beyond my capabilities, so I welcome guest appearances. But in the meantime, I will begin with a short chapter on the front door.

You may notice that Island Books has a unique, heavy, glass front door with a large cast iron (cold!) antique door handle. I don’t know exactly how that came to be, but it is original to the store. I know this because it is written into all the leases that the store has ever had that the landlord is responsible for everything on the outside of the building except for the front door. For thirty years or so, our landlord was Gladys Alsin, who had her home and orchard where Island Books now sits and built the center back in the sixties. Gladys lived to be over a hundred and she was a sharp, tough, and sweet operator. I remember her in her nineties, scraping paint drips off the windows and directing a forlorn landscaper on how to spread bark. No one pulled the wool over her eyes. She thought that if the bookstore wants to put in a ridiculous and heavy custom door, then they are going have to live with it and take care of it....Read More

(Our store journal keeps you posted on books we're excited about, our literary musings, and other reading-related rambles. Remember, you can sign up to receive our posts by email.)

Counter Intelligence: Half the Kingdom by Lore Segal

As I’m sure you already know, we at Island Books send a monthly newsletter to subscribers via email—the latest issue went out last week. What you may not know is that month after month, the most-read section is the one we call Counter Intelligence. That’s where we share the current titles that our staff is reading and recommending. Since Counter Intelligence is so popular, it seemed like a good idea to devote a little more space to it in this forum. I promise in future to get my very knowledgeable colleagues to share their own favorites, but right now I’m the one with mike in hand, so you’ll have to listen to me talk about Lore Segal’s Half the Kingdom first.

Segal has had a long, eventful life that she’s drawn on for her fiction in the past (her 1964 novel Other People’s Houses, for example, recasts her experiences as one of the final Kindertransport children rescued from Austria before World War II) and she does so again in this, her most recent work. Half the Kingdom features various characters who collect together in a byzantinely bureaucratic hospital emergency room that appears to be ground zero for an Alzheimer’s epidemic. It is, as its publisher says, a “poignant, and profoundly moving portrait of life today—where terrorist paranoia and end-of-the-world hysteria mask deeper fears of mortality; where parents and their grown children vacillate between frustration and tenderness.” Segal turned eighty-five this year....Read More

Cindy Scares Me...

The days have been growing shorter, and now it’s dark by the time the kids go to bed. There’s a brisk chill in the air too. Fall is announcing itself.

Late the other night, I sat up working on our monthly newsletter. I was grasping for time in between my one-year-old daughter’s separation anxiety screaming fits. Her twin brother hasn’t exhibited her recent behavior, thank goodness, but she virtually howls.

Roger had asked Cindy to help me compile the Halloween booklist for adults. I love a good thriller and and have read far too many of them, but it’s been a long time since I’ve read a full-fledged horror novel. I was sifting through new titles to include when I opened Cindy’s email.

Cindy, as you know, has rung up hordes of titles at the front counter and always has her finger on the pulse of what customers like. She took Roger’s charge seriously, and her suggestions went above and beyond the scope of the list I was trying to cultivate. So I felt it was only appropriate to share her deeper thoughts on the blog as to what you should be reading for Halloween. Her list was so good that I nearly woke my peacefully sleeping husband just so I didn’t feel so alone in the house. With my daughter finally silent, I felt like shrieking myself. The very names of some of Cindy’s books sent chills up my spine, as I began to picture ghosts, murderers, and vampires roaming in my backyard....Read More

A Dance to the Music of Time: The Military Philosophers

The Military Philosophers begins in early 1942 with Jenkins as a liaison officer smoothing relations between Britain and its ally Poland, working as Pennistone’s assistant in Finn’s office. Substituting for Pennistone at a meeting, Jenkins encounters Widmerpool and an embittered Templer, as well as Sunny Farebrother, now organizing clandestine operations. Jenkins visits the headquarters of Polish forces in the UK, which turn out to be housed in the same hotel where his late Uncle Giles had long resided. The driver who takes him there is the surly but striking Pamela Flitton, a niece of Stringham now about twenty years of age, who reports that her uncle has been imprisoned by the Japanese in Singapore. Jenkins is promoted to Major and becomes liaison officer to the Belgian military. Templer, after a disappointing affair that Jenkins later learns was with Flitton, vanishes into Farebrother’s secret service. Flitton moves through a series of relationships; her partners include Odo Stevens and Norah Tolland. V-1 flying bombs pummel London, but the war progresses well and the Allies land troops in Normandy. Some months later, Jenkins tours France and Belgium, meeting first Field Marshal Montgomery and then Bob Duport, who relates Templer’s death on a mission in the Balkans. By summer of the following year, Flitton has attached herself to Widmerpool and the two are engaged. News comes that Stringham has died in Asia, and during an argument, Flitton accuses Widmerpool of murdering Templer through bureaucratic indifference. Despite their fight and the essential truth of her assertion, the two marry. The war ends, and at a victory ceremony Jenkins meets a South American colonel. The man introduces his wife, who is the former Jean Duport, Jenkins’ onetime lover.

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Tough sledding in the early stages of this one. As if we didn’t have enough names to keep straight in our heads already, now we’re supposed to sort out the internal politics of the Polish army in exile. The significance of it all escaped me for some time, but it eventually proved fascinating....Read More

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