Last Chapter for an Island Bookstore?
June 24, 2011
For the last three years, my family and I have spent a few days each summer on Lopez Island, one of the San Juan Islands in northwestern Washington state. Each visit, we would find time to browse at Islehaven Bookstore & Borzoi
– so called because of the Russian wolfhounds (Borzoi) who “work” as shopdogs there
[One guidebook said of Islehaven that “you can buy a book and feed a dog.”]
However, this year owner Phyllis M. Potter greeted us with bad news: this may be the bookstore’s last summer. Sales this winter and spring have been the worst in her 24 years of bookselling on Lopez, and she plans to offer the store for sale.
Though Lopez’s population is only 2,396 people year round (its numbers swell with tourists during the summer), it is home to a disproportionately large number of writers and artists.
But they, says Phyllis, are precisely the same people who now own an e-book reader like a Kindle or a Nook. While they may have purchased two or three hardcovers at a time before, they have now transferred some of that purchasing to Amazon and ebooks.
She knows that there are still people who appreciate printed books. But what even a small bookstore like hers needs, she says, is a degree of volume purchasing. People come to bookstores like hers, she says, because they know she will have a selection of the season’s bestsellers, but now she may only sell one or two copies a piece -– and that doesn’t pay the bills.
One of only two bookstores on the island (the other sells used books),Islehaven’s troubles also have specific local causes.
In 2010, Lopez Village Market, the island’s largest grocery store and most popular hangout, moved a few blocks away from Lopez Village’s tiny commercial strip to a location off by itself, surrounded by a large parking lot. It now occupies a much larger facility, offers a considerably greater selection of goods, and resembles a suburban supermarket on the mainland.
But its departure has reportedly decimated the other commercial operations on the strip, which had depended on the foot traffic generated by the market. Phyllis says most of the other businesses on Lopez Road have suffered a significant drop in sales.
Playing devil’s advocate, I consider asking her why Lopez even needs a local bookstore in the age of Amazon and the e-book. Can’t readers find their books in other ways these days?
But before I can even ask, in walks my answer.
An older gentleman enters the store and asks Phyllis which volumes of a particular series she has on hand. To my surprise, she knows which two volumes he has already read, and suggests a new one.
Being in the book business myself, I have rarely turned to booksellers to guide me through the world of print. Yet it strikes me that there’s probably no surer way for most people to navigate the ever-increasing number of books in print than to be led by a knowledgable guide like Phyllis. It’s a luxury one cannot find in a chain store, through the use of Internet algorithm-based book recommendations, or even through anonymous online reviews. It’s even unlikely at an independent bookstore in a larger town or city, too big to know the reading habits of its customers.
And with Islehaven up for sale, it will no longer be an option for the residents and visitors of tiny Lopez Island, Washington.