“There’s an independent bookstore
The last one that remains
All the others you might look for
Have been eaten by the chains
They soldier on…”
— Al Stewart
Mercer Island, a.k.a. the Rock, is an island in Lake Washington, once fully and still remarkably covered with tall Douglas firs, that has quick access to both Seattle and the east side of the lake (the Eastside) thanks to the fact that Interstate 90 runs right through it, connecting it with both shores. Most of the thousands of people who travel across the island every day never experience any part of it beyond the ivy that dribbles down over the grey freeway walls as they blast along on their commutes from the Eastside to Seattle and from Seattle to the Eastside.
Not that there’s much reason for non-residents to use the off-ramps. Mercer Island is what the Eastside used to be — a “bedroom community” to Seattle. The island has enough room for one small city, which has lately developed a ten-story skyline of thoughtfully executed apartments and condos, and a few thousand postwar residential homes (I guess it’s getting late enough in America that I should specify post-World War II homes — what realtors call “midcenturies”). There is no industry, just residences and the kinds of businesses that serve them — dry cleaners, restaurants, dentists, Starbuckses, teriyaki joints, nail salons, realty and law offices, a Hollywood Video store (now closed up — done in by Netflix and TiVo), a bridal and tux shop. I haven’t had a reason to set foot on the Rock since the last time I visited my friend Rich’s dad’s house, which is up the hill from the city somewhere in that somnolent and sylvan suburb.
That said, and oddly enough, my local independent neighborhood bookstore, Island Books, is nestled in this community. It has been my neighborhood bookstore for several months, even though it is not in the neighborhood I live in and even though I had never visited it until yesterday. Why this is is, my friend Marni is a bookseller there. She’s a bookseller in an honest-to-gosh mom-n-pop book store.
Marni is one of the many souls I failed to keep in touch with after Angela and I were married. I’ve known her since high school (Kip inducted her into our tiny crèche — she “got” our sense of humor). For years we knew she was working at Madison Park Books — which, alack!, went the way bookstores and even video stores tend to go, id est, away — but we didn’t keep much in touch. I ran into her a few years ago with Mara and learned that she was now at Island Books. She started sending Mara wonderful hardbound picture books for Christmas, which she herself admitted was sort of unexpected and over the top, but she couldn’t help it. The thing about booksellers like Marni is, they actually view their job, in its best realization, as shepherding new books to the people who should be owning them. A bookseller who loves books but dislikes people is not this kind of bookseller, and you won’t find any of those at Island Books, I’ll warrant. Marni likes people. She likes getting to know people in the ways that make them who they are. When books come into the store, she sees not only titles, but the faces of people she knows who MUST HAVE THIS BOOK. If those people don’t happen to be customers of Island Books, she finds other ways, such as birthdays and holidays, to get their books to them.
This is one sure way to make a customer out of Matt. Earlier this year, after Marni and I connected on Facebook (yeah, Facebook, is there a problem?) and after she started reading and commenting on this blog, and after an intertwining conversation arose about the Bullitt family’s old fireplace on Squak Mountain and the importance of supporting local independent bookstores, and especially after Louis, another reader of this blog and partaker in that very conversation, tracked down Marni through Island Books and ordered me a book on the Bullitt family of King Broadcasting fame and had them send it to me, all on the huggermugger, I decided that Island Books was my bookstore. Marni also was the one who recommended (and would have bought for me and sent to me if I’d let her) the book Shop Class as Soul Craft by Matthew Crawford, which I still intend to blog about someday.
Yesterday we used the occasion of the arrival of a biography of William Randolph Hearst (The Chief by David Nasaw), which I had ordered from Marni earlier in the week, as an excuse to cross the lake and finally visit the store. It was Marni’s day off, but she met us there with her dog, a beautiful and soulful russety Golden Retriever named Darby, and introduced us to her Island Books’ coworkers Cindy, who handled the search for the Bullitt book Louis bought me and found it in Tennessee or thereabouts; Lori, who was reigning benignly over the children’s department; and Roger, who co-owns the store with his wife Nancy (Roger took over the store in 1991 but it’s been here since 1973). We were welcomed as warmly as if we were family. Despite a rush that engulfed the store during our visit, Roger spoke with me at length about his experience with education and private schools, and also about why a book like Kin Platt’s Sinbad and Me, a favorite among a certain contingent of about my vintage, would go out of print and never be reprinted again, and about certain actions I as a concerned citizen of readerdom might take to nudge the book back into print (who knew you could DO stuff?).
Island Books is the only bookstore on the island, to my knowledge, and it’s an insular treasure. I hope the burghers of Mercer Island realize what they have there. It’s been a rough year for retail in general, and with the slim margins that booksellers must operate in even in the best of times (“the publisher prints the price right on the book,” says Marni, “so you can’t raise the price, you can only lower it”) this bookshop lives ever on the brink of extinction. Nevertheless, the atmosphere inside the store betrays no hint of economic anxiety or bitterness over the injustices of the publishing industry (Amazon gets a big break, yo, because they can buy each title by the zillions). The store is in a little strip mall and has a rather narrow front, but is marvelously lit by northern windowlight — the best bookish kind — all along its length. Sturdy old armchairs find themselves right behind you when you want to sit and thumb through some treasure you’ve discovered, and the place is all of unpainted wood shelves that Roger makes himself as though they were chicken coops and his books were prize hens.
And just about the time you are getting toward the back of the long space and realizing that the store is a LOT larger than it looks from the front, you come to the children’s section, which bends around behind the neighboring storefront and occupies almost as much space again as the rest of the store. Every picture book is “face out”, which from the perspective of a book is like being in paradise. People can see you when you’re face out. They can be lured by your title and by the engaging artwork on your cover. Face out is the only way to display picture books. From across the room, ten yards away from this wall of Caldecott winners, old favorites and new releases, I saw the cover of Robert McCloskey’s Time of Wonder, a book that had been a magical favorite of mine when I was a child. We bought it for Mara. (Full disclosure: we bought it for me.)
There’s also a playhouse that kids can climb into, which we expected Mara to be all over, but after one trip through that she was less interested in the playhouse or any of the books than in Darby, whom Marni let Mara walk around the store on her leash, and in Marni herself, whom Mara today came to regard as her own friend.
There is apparently a lot more that goes into being a bookseller than one might imagine at first. I think it involves a little spellcasting. Marni is one of the best, and to my lights, Island Books is an establishment worthy of her magic.
NOTE: The blogger at Surrounded By Water: A Mercer Island Blog, who might disagree with me about the island’s worthiness as a place to visit, has written an informative article on Island Books that does not suffer from solipsism.