Laurie and Victor Raisys bought Island Books in July 2015 and became the fourth owners since the store opened in 1973. They are both accomplished Microsoft alumni, but don't let that fool you into thinking they've had an easy road. Underneath that busy exterior are community builders and devoted parents of four. For our final 50 Years of Island Books installment, I sat down with Laurie in the back of the store. Here’s our conversation:
Miriam: Let's start with your favorite book category.
Laurie: I’m a total fiction person. Not historical, but thrillers, current fiction and romance. I love messy, dysfunctional families — I am a Lisa Jewell person all the way.
Miriam: Ha! OK. Tell me about your proudest accomplishment.
Laurie: Making it through COVID. It was so incredibly hard and I felt the pressure as an owner with employees, responsible for their livelihood. I remember seeing all these bookstores closing, watching it happen on social media and talking with Victor about being so sad and scared about what would happen. Nobody knew what was going to happen. And then Victor wrote that [Laurie points at a sign on the wall in the back room] and stopped by the bookstore and gave it to me. It says “Believe, make it happen. We will make it.” And we did.
Miriam: That sign is from during COVID.
Laurie: That's from during COVID.
Miriam: And you drove books around to individuals all over the island. To me, that was incredible.
Laurie: Sofija [Laurie’s oldest daughter] and I did a lot of that. Victor and Erik [Laurie’s son] did some too. Everybody helped. By the end, we knew the island like the back of our hand.
Miriam: It was awesome. Tell me about what it was like when you started running the bookstore. I remember when you took over in the back.
Laurie: When I bought the bookstore eight and half years ago, I didn’t know anything about books other than how to read them. And Garry [the longtime receiver] was leaving. I said, “Hey, receiving the books is a perfect entry point for me.” And what a great thing to learn, because you see everything coming in. I’m forever grateful that I got to do that. Of course, I made mistakes, and Garry was so incredibly patient. He was the best teacher. And then, when the store became mine, I still handled receiving for a long time. Just the other day I thought, I can’t believe what I know now versus what I knew then. I never knew that books come out on the Tuesday or that we have a lot of hardcovers because libraries demand them. And I’ve learned so much from the publisher’s reps who moved from Roger to me. We’ve all taken on new responsibilities and learned a lot. It’s been an enormous education.
Miriam: Tell me how you all work together.
Laurie: As a team, we are solid. I appreciate the fact that the longer a staff member has worked here, the more they know how to do a lot of things. When we don’t know, we ask others. It’s a team effort and that synergy feels like a huge accomplishment.
Miriam: It is. That’s how a small business keeps running. You support each other. How would you say your staff would describe you?
Miriam: Can I put that in, because it's funny?
Laurie: [Laughs and nods] Grumpy, kind, and generous. It can be a challenge, as a private business, to do a lot of the things we do for the team, but I do it because they all work really hard. I don’t waste a lot of time when I’m here because, for a long time, I spent sixty hours a week working in the store. When I needed to step back and ensure I had a little more home-life balance, that’s where the trust came in, giving people more responsibility. When I’m here I just get stuff done, although I love talking to the customers. And I do really appreciate my staff.
Miriam: You’re never sitting! I would say many of your efforts are invisible to the outside world. You work with other small businesses, put on author events, book clubs, school fundraisers, and story times and it only happens because you do so much outreach. Organizing and planning takes so much time. Did that surprise you?
Laurie: There are a lot of people that reach out to you. You can’t say yes to everyone. And it’s not because you don’t want to, but it’s a lot of effort to set up for an event. And when you do it and the turnout is low, it’s disheartening for everyone involved. Now we are very thoughtful about our events. In October we have a great lineup. It’s a month of really interesting and diverse books.
Miriam: I was going to say you do an excellent job of curating toward local interest.
Laurie: I mean, for us, when we do an event, we can only promote to the people who follow us at Island Books. So authors need to let the people who follow them know, “Hey, I'm going to be in this place. Come see me.” And then more people know where to see that author because they may not follow our store. The major Seattle indie bookstores have an easier time getting people to attend their event. But we’re in an off-the-beaten-path location, even with the draw of parking.
And not all of our community involvement happens in the store. We sponsor the farmers market. I’ve given support to the high school band for years, and I always place an ad in the high school newspaper during graduation season to say congratulations. I’m the chamber board’s current interim president.
Miriam: You've hosted weddings.
Laurie: That was so exciting. We just had our second senior take pictures here. She is a local swimmer, and I supported the high school swim team this year. It's just a great community. They have supported us for fifty years, and in my eight years, especially during COVID, they kept us alive. We would not have survived without them. It’s not just the people on this island. People who grew up here and moved away read the Slate story or heard from their parents that we were struggling. They called in and ordered not only tons of books but gift cards. People talk about their community bookstore being their third place, and I’m proud that Island Books is at the top of the list in terms of representing what a community bookstore means. It’s a very reciprocal relationship.
Miriam: Island Books is a hub on Mercer Island. You get a unique look at the community.
Laurie: My husband grew up here, and all my kids have been raised here. When you’re that involved in the schools and raising kids here, you see how the community works.
Miriam: That’s so true. What does 50 Years of Island Books mean to you?
Laurie: I just think it's incredible that it's 50 years. It's 50 years in one place. And not without challenges. But to be in one physical space for 50 years is incredible. It's amazing to me. There are customers who still shop here that can say, I was here on the first day. Lola Deane, who opened the store, is still here. We’re so lucky. People are funny. They'll come in sometimes and ask, “Is this an independent bookstore? There's so few left.” Which always surprises me, because we have around 28 independent bookstores in the greater Seattle area. We are so fortunate as an entire Pacific Northwest community because there are many independent bookstores. It's ridiculous. We're rich beyond rich.
Miriam: And we have fascinating individuals who own and run them.
Laurie: The owners are the coolest people with a unique perspective. It's so vibrant and a great community, too. Hey, did you see we just had the first Asian bookstore open? [mam’s books]
Miriam: It’s so wonderful.
Laurie: I love to welcome new community into our bookstore universe. I was fortunate to inherit a store that already existed. I don't know how I would feel if it was brand new and I had to do it myself. The fact that the store was already running lowered my learning curve. Our network is how indie bookstores will survive: if we have a community and we have each other.
Miriam: Helping each other is essential. Is there anything else you'd like to say to finish up?
Laurie: We're excited to celebrate our Golden Jubilee and hope the community comes to the store! We're going to have little things happening all day on November 4th. The typewriters will be out. We'll have story time in the morning. There will be a blind wrapping contest. We’ll have cookies and cool stickers that say, “I've been booking it at Island Book since…” so people can write down how many years they've been here. We’ll give away gift cards every hour or so. And then we'll have cake and champagne at five o'clock and say thank you.
Miriam: Well, first, thank you, Laurie. Congratulations. I’ve enjoyed creating this 50 Years of Island Books blog series and feel honored to share it with you.
To our Island Books community: Lori Robinson will be back on the blog next week with an invitation to the party! Stop by the store on November 4th and join the celebration. It wouldn’t be happening without you!