A Q&A With Will Schwalbe, Author of Books for Living

Anyone can recommend a book, but it’s rare that someone can fully articulate its lifelong impact. Will Schwalbe has the rarest of written voices–both intimate and universal–and with deep care and reflection he offers readers the most personal and heartfelt parts of himself in his latest, Books for Living. This memoir of sorts is not a list of Will’s favorite books, but instead an explanation of how certain books and authors taught him timeless lessons about our deepest longings. The night after I finished the chapter on Stuart Little and searching, I was so inspired I started reading it aloud to my children. Will’s voice leaps off the page and fills the room as only the most lively of conversations can. I can’t stop thinking about this book and wanting to read every title he mentions, if only to keep the conversation going with him.

You can come and meet Will in person at Island Books on Saturday, January 28th at 5pm. In anticipation of his appearance at the store, we’ve asked him some questions here. Click through to learn more about him.

But be warned: further interaction might send you home with more book recommendations than you can carry ... continued

Share Your Story: A Contest

More than one person approached us last week, wondering if it wasn’t time for us to sponsor a short story contest. Yes, we thought, that’s a thing we do. How long has it been? Six months? Eighteen months?

Come to find out, it’s been 48. We’re a mite overdue. So we hereby announce the opening of our Quadrennial Short Story Contest. What do you need to know to enter? Not much. Here’s the short version:

  • There are prizes!
  • The deadline is March 12, 2017.
  • Stories should be 1000 words or fewer.

Same basic deal as last time around. If you want to read the winning entries from that contest, you can hop over to the blog post that announced them. Well worth doing, we think. Oh, there is one new wrinkle: we have a celebrity judge! Mark Holtzen, author of the bestselling picture book A Ticket to the Pennant and the middle-grade novel The Pig War, will be sifting through the submissions and making the ultimate decision. So you can bribe us all you like, but the process will remain corruption-free.

If you want further details ... continued

January 2017 eNewsletter

"Bookstores always remind me that there are good things in this world."
—Vincent Van Gogh

In our business, the last few frenzied weeks of shopping in December are often what makes the rest of the year possible. With one bookseller on the bench with a broken foot, we were down but not out. (If you see Cindy, ask her what happened. She's been inventing creative stories).

This year seemed particularly hectic with the first night of Hanukkah falling on the same night as Christmas Eve. As the holidays closed in, we rushed joyously through the days, recommending and restocking, welcoming and wrapping. Our feet hurt but our hearts were full as we furiously rang up customers and crammed shoulder-to-shoulder at the wrapping table, cutting paper and knotting bows. We sold enough greeting cards so that every man, woman, and child on the island could have one. You should be warned that we sold over 6,000 candy items in 2016, and we're proud that most of them were made by our favorite local chocolatier, Ann Peterson and her team at Island Treats. We suspect reducing candy consumption might turn up on many a Mercer Islander's lists of New Year's resolutions. Or not. We've restocked, after all.

Besides the plethora of gifts, cards, and chocolate that flew out the door this holiday season, we kept a close eye on the books. We always use this time of year to take note of our annual bestselling titles. No one is more curious than we are about what our customers loved the most over the past year. Despite its October release, Maria Semple's hilarious new novel Today Will Be Different topped the list, and our hometown boy Joel McHale came in at #4 with Thanks for the Money. The real mover was The Undoing Project by Michael Lewis, which had only three or four weeks in release to make it all the way to #14.  And it should come as a surprise to no one that Harry Potter and the Cursed Child was the top-selling title for children and teens.

We're looking forward to getting back into the groove this month with the return of our weekly Storybook Corners, PJ Story TimeOpen Book Club, Cookbook Book Club, and a special author event with Will Schwalbe you won't want to miss. 

We feel blessed to kick off another year of commerce and community. Thanks for making it possible.

Your Booksellers,

Laurie, Marni, Cindy, Marilyn, Lillian, James, Miriam, Lori, and Nancy

... continued

Goodbye to All That

2016 wasn’t quite two weeks old when I first heard that it was cursed. On top of the usual bad news (Sharaban tea shop, bombing) came the announcement of David Bowie’s death, and something about it, hard on the heels of his most acclaimed record in years, songs that were released on his birthday, seemed especially shocking and unjust. Public celebration of the music quickly turned into lamentation for the man, inverting Hamlet’s sardonic lines about how “the funeral bak’d meats / Did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables.”

Given Bowie’s lifelong example of ironic detachment, it felt right to make black jokes about a curse, but as the months went by more and more celebrities died (Alan Rickman, Umberto Eco, C. D. Wright, Harper Lee, Prince, W.P. Kinsella, Muhammad Ali, Pat Conroy, Jim Harrison, Katherine Dunn, Gloria Naylor, to name a few) and so did a crowd of dancers in an Orlando nightclub, and the talk of curses started sounding serious. It became a commonplace that 2016 was the Worst Year Ever.

Not being a superstitious sort, I chalked this up to normal variation. The year may have brewed up an atypical amount of trouble, but there were also some high spots. Scientists identified the gene responsible for ALS and the Cubs came from behind to break a century-long string of bad luck. Things could have been worse.

But then came a one-two punch–well, more like a chin tap and a train collision. Within a couple of days in early November, Daylight Saving Time came to and end and so did my faith in democracy ... continued

A Reader’s 2016 Diary

Back in January I wrote a blog post called On This Day, lamenting the fact that I couldn’t remember half the books I read in 2015. I made a public resolution to keep a spreadsheet throughout the year chronicling what I’d read. Apparently a published declaration of intentions worked for me, because here it is the end of December and I’m proud to say I kept that list throughout the year (a monthly reminder on my Google calendar helped).

Five years ago I wrote another post, Memories of Reading, and I suppose this time of year always brings me back to that train of thought. How does what we read when represent a particular time in our life? Looking back can be telling. And oh, 2016. Books provided a good deal of solace.

I kept the list to books I read with my full attention, from first to last page. Because my job requires a wide range of book knowledge, there are plenty of books I skim, speed read, or quit after 50 pages. I didn’t put those on the list. For this project I only included books I read like a layperson, for my own curiosity and pleasure and not out of obligation (although I included our Island Books Open Book Club titles, since I get to choose those anyway so it wasn’t just work driving me).  I’ve decided maintaining this reading list is as close to keeping a diary as I’m going to get at my age, and oddly, looking it over jogs more emotional memories of 2016 than what I was actually doing at the time. So what did I read? ... continued

Odd Couple Challenge Reading: Winter Solstice & Peace

To people who aren’t avid readers, my colleague Lori and I probably look a lot alike. We’re both equally likely to be found with a book in hand at any given time, that is. To people who pay attention to what we’re reading, though, we couldn’t be more different. I tease her by saying the worst literary crisis she’s willing to face is a dropped teacup, and she gets me back by asking which obscure historical tragedy in a minuscule country that no longer exists inspired the work of my latest favorite novelist with an unpronounceable name.

To test the true extent of our differences, we decided to make ourselves guinea pigs in a sophisticated, highly-controlled scientific experiment. To wit, we’d each choose a book we love and the other would read it. Her selection for me was Winter Solstice by Rosamunde Pilcher, the story of five lonely characters buffeted by life, all of whom wind up in an abandoned mansion in a coastal British village as the shortest day of the year approaches. Mine for her was Peace by Gene Wolfe, a novel narrated by a confused old man whose memories hint at far darker and stranger things than he’s willing to reveal.

To paraphrase the intro to an old TV show, can two dedicated readers share recommendations without driving each other crazy? ... continued

Our Most Popular Blog Posts of 2016

You can find our blog posts printed and peppered around the store throughout the year, but it’s rare we have a chance to look back at what we’ve produced. We know what books our customers like by the sales numbers and over-the-counter chatter, but our own original content is mostly published into a void. Aside from the occasional guest posts, James and I have been diligently writing at least one “Message in a Bottle” store journal entry every week for over 5 years. We are always grateful for your comments, email responses, and in-person feedback. It’s our way of reaching out even when you don’t make it in to the store in person. We want you to know we’re still thinking of you.

I spent some time this week looking over what we published in 2016. Our most useful metrics come from our Facebook response, so calculating in the number of likes, comments, and shares, I was able to put together a list of our top ten most popular posts. If you feel like strolling down memory lane with me, here they are ... continued

December 2016 eNewsletter

December is all about lists. Not just for presents, cards, parties, and food, but BOOKS. Our December newsletter is filled with Top Ten Book lists for adults and kids to help you with your holiday shopping. In the spirit of lists I decided to create one myself.

My Top 10 Moments at Island Books in 2016

  1.  Joel McHale entering the store with the MIHS Marching Band for his welcome home visit.
  2. Maria Semple's anticipated visit for Today Will Be Different.
  3. Hiding books around the Mercer Island community for people to find.
  4.  James' blog being mentioned in the New York Times Review Books online page.
  5. Wednesday morning Storybook Corners with Nancy Stewart and other local friends.
  6. The Mercer Island jute bags supporting the Bangladesh Project.
  7. Finally adding casters to the large bookshelves in the front of the store for maximum event space.
  8. Bringing in Crazy Aaron's Thinking Putty!
  9. My husband Victor creating our Cookbook Book Club.
  10. Seeing each of your faces in the store every day, week or month. It's always a treat!

Remember we are here to help you with all your shopping needs this holiday season. You can bring your list in, or send it via email info@mercerislandbooks.com or call us at (206) 232-6920. You can even fill out our old school gift/book registry, an actual box where you can keep a wish list so we can tell your friends and relatives what to give you when they come in. Also note, we will be open from 9am to 8pm the week of Christmas and open until 4pm on Christmas Eve. We will be closed on Christmas Day, New Year's Eve, and New Year's Day.

Whatever brings you into the store this month, all your energy and questions bring a special joy to our store during the holidays. Thank you for shopping and being a part of our lives.

Happy holidays from all of us!


Laurie Raisys


Island Books Readers, Lend Me Your Ears

If, like so many of us, your commute takes up too much of the time you wish you could spend turning pages, fret no more. Island Books has your audiobook hookup. Thanks to our partners at Libro.fm, you can use our website to download your favorite titles and listen to them at home or on the go.

Whether you’re on iOS or Android, you can feed your audiobook habit and support your local independent bookstore at the same time. Just click the Libro.fm link on our home page (or do it right here) to set up the app and start listening ... continued

Pay It Forward

Thanksgiving should be a time of gratitude and coming together, and your friendly neighborhood Island Books staff is getting into the spirit. As we planned our pie recipes and anticipated one of our favorite holidays of the year, we felt moved to infuse some extra community love into the atmosphere. 

There were two recent pieces of news that inspired us. The first one is an older local story from the summer, about the Mercer Island Rocks movement. In case you missed it, the Ronald family began painting hundreds of rocks and hiding them around the island for others to find and pass on. “The idea is to spread little gems of happiness around the island — to create and share creations celebrating our wonderful community,” Rich Ronald wrote on the Mercer Island Rocks! Facebook page. “And maybe even get folks hunting for objects that don’t require an app to be seen (though we love Pokemon Go as much as the next family!).”

The other story was about the actress, U.N. Women Goodwill Ambassador, and real-life Hermione Granger Emma Watson, who recently hid books by Maya Angelou around the London tube and the New York City subway. 

With those uplifting ideas in mind, we hand-picked some books we’ve personally enjoyed from around the store, wrapped them up with a personal note, and drove around the island to hide our own gems of happiness ... continued


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