In this installment, we’re seeing Island Books through the eyes of our sales reps. Dan Christiaens, Christine Foye, David Glenn and Kurtis Lowe all have decades-long relationships with Island Books, with lots of stories to share.
Miriam: Welcome Dan, Christine, David, and Kurtis! I'm excited to talk to all of you. As key sales reps for the big publishing houses, you've all had long-standing relationships with Island Books, and we wouldn't be the place we are today without your contributions. Tell me some stories! It can be about your first impression of the store, how you came to work with us, a particular title that did well at Island Books, or any other fond memories.
Dan Christiaens (Norton): I’ll start off. It was around 20 years ago that I started covering accounts in the PNW. I was still living in SoCal. Island Books was on my account list so on my first trip I stopped by and met Roger. He was pretty terse, made it clear that he didn’t see reps, but would review my stuff and send me an order for anything that he wanted. The store was lovely, well curated, with the typewriters all over and a small music section featuring CD’s, which caught my attention. I would stop by the store when I was in town, say hello, and always buy a CD or two.
When I moved up here in 2004, I started visiting the store more regularly, chatting with Cindy or Nancy, or even Roger—and would buy a CD or order some music that I wanted that they didn’t carry, and began to suggest music they should be aware of. Then our books became the topic of conversation, and I started recommending various books of ours. Roger slowly came to respect my knowledge of our books—and we became friendly, and then MAGIC HAPPENED! And he started ordering from me!
Christine Foye (Simon & Schuster): Here's one of my favorite photos of all time, a picture of Laurie, Taylor Jenkins Reid, and me on tour for the hardcover of The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo. Which leads me to....
A book that did especially well at the store and why—The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo! Laurie and Victor came to the prepub dinner that I had for TJR in Seattle. Laurie immediately embraced the book and shared it and hyped it and talked nonstop about it until finally pub day came and by gum, Island Books was outselling all of my other accounts within a month. This was the perfect storm of great book, passionate reader and responsive customer base. It's wonderful to find a book one can really get behind, and Laurie and the whole staff did that with this marvelous novel. Also, don't we look lovely in green?
Remembering my first days selling to Island Books—I started selling to Roger in 1993. I knew nothing about anything, I was fresh out of the St. Martin's Press office in New York, selling trade paperbacks and mass markets and children's books and perfectly confident in my ignorance. Roger made short work of my inexperience but was kind about it, and commented on how I tidied up the store shelves and faced out titles. Had I worked in a bookstore, he asked. I sure had, and after that things were always affectionate between us in the Roger way. Which is to say, he let me sit and chatter for probably 10 minutes longer than he would have otherwise. And often I got a laugh out of him, which was wondrous. We did bond over having both been to Newfoundland — did you know he co-edited a book about it titled Outport: Reflections from the Newfoundland Coast? He did. (It's out of print.) I always loved Island Books, it was a pleasure to visit and see what kind of books Roger had decided to buy for the community. What a lucky community.
David Glenn (Penguin Random House): Durn, my first visit to the store was so long ago I’m not sure I can even dredge it up from my addled brain. If I had to guess, I’d say it was probably way back in the mid-90s? Of course that was back in the “Roger Days,” and I think it’s fair to say that, within our tightly-knit rep community, Roger was known as kind of a tough buyer. He relied a lot on jobbers and didn’t particularly like being “sold,” especially if it was by someone he felt perhaps didn’t necessarily measure up, or wasn’t sufficiently prepared to defend a title if questioned about it. Roger did not, as they say, suffer fools gladly and, quite honestly, I was pretty intimidated by him at first. He gave me a bit of a rough few seasons there at the beginning—always good-naturedly, for sure, but also making sure I understood who the buyer/owner was. Early on, though, I decided that I was going to do whatever it took to win Roger over. I was gonna get a belly laugh outta that guy one way or the other. So every season I made sure to bring my A-game, and began my campaign to be “welcomed” by Roger. It took me a lot longer than I thought it would—at least a couple years—but eventually, the respect I had for Roger as an owner and businessperson, was replaced by just the simple goodness of the man. I loved his dry sense of humor, and if you could coax it out of him, he had a truly impish grin. So Island Books at that point became one of my favorite stores to visit.
When Roger decided he’d had enough and it was time to sell, I was pretty bummed. And in what was an odd quirk of fate, the fellow that helped Laurie come to a decision about buying the store was an old fraternity brother of mine who lives on the island. Happily, Laurie and Victor have been the ideal stewards to move Island Books along, post-Roger. The store has always had a wonderful vibe, a superb staff, a great location, and a tremendously supportive community.
As far as books go, I have to mention a title I feel is perhaps the finest novel any of my imprints have published during my 34-odd years with Penguin Random House: The Heart’s Invisible Furies, by John Boyne. Full disclosure: Island Books has sold a solid, if unspectacular 40-plus copies of it since it came out in August of 2017. So, not a real barn-burner. But more than the “zero” it would have sold had Laurie not been willing to take a chance, and an example of the fruits of the give-and-take between a rep and a buyer. It may not have set the world afire, but my fervent hope is that it will remain a staple at the store for years to come.
In January of 2018, I hosted a dinner for three PRH authors: veteran Amy Bloom, and newcomers Tara Westover and Karen Cleveland. Both Laurie and Victor attended that dinner and, at one point, Victor noticed that while nearly everyone was chatting away left and right, Karen Cleveland was looking a little lost and forlorn (whoever the rep host was that night should have been paying more attention). So he marched right over and began chatting her up. Well, cutting to the chase, Victor read her debut thriller Need To Know (based on the author’s own experiences as a former CIA counterterrorism analyst) and made it his own personal crusade to make it an IB bestseller. In short order, IB sold over 70 hardcovers, and another 100+ more in paperback, which is just an outstanding result for a debut novel. Tara Westover’s singular memoir, Educated, also struck a chord with Laurie and Victor that night. And while it’s true the book was a massive bestseller for nearly every bookstore in America (spending over two years on the NYT hardcover bestseller list in hardcover no less), IB more than held their own and, in fact, really punched above their weight, selling nearly 600 copies in hardcover alone. This is the power of the independent bookstore in general, and the superpower of a store like Island Books. Every community in America should be so lucky to have such a store, and I can’t help but believe that if this were actually the case, the country would be a far less frightening and chaotic place.
Kurtis Lowe (Imprint Group): When I started as a commission rep back in 1997, I did not work with publishers that ranked for a meeting with Roger Page. However, in early 2001, I joined Book Travelers West, so Roger was ready to meet with me to scrutinize the lists of Workman, Ten Speed Press, Running Press, Watson-Guptill, and more. As I pitched book after book (only the best), Roger would pause before a title, pen hovering over the printed catalog page… sometimes he would he would score a one, for one copy... saved! It would have a chance. Two copies. Looking good! Three copies… just about as high as he would go with me. That is because local wholesalers had no better indie partner than Island Books when it came to restocking a title if it worked, and the high shelves were too full displaying vintage typewriters to make room for overstock. Roger’s team could be on the phone minutes before the deadline and receive a shipment by the end of the day. An initial order of one, two or three copies of could become 20, 50, or 100s sold over time.
When a title did not make the grade, Roger was not cruel, as he slashed a diagonal across the page, but at least he was definitive: “Not quite,” he would state, and often add a helpful comment of feedback for the publisher. Perhaps the greatest feeling of triumph as a rep was to throw a Hail Mary, one more point to get that book on the shelf, and Roger would page back, look again, squiggle out the slash and enter a number and circle it for order entry.
The times that Roger really went for a book were beautiful, and he was ready to do something a little special. Back in 2014, Island Books picked The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry for their April store pick. I committed to touring Gabrielle Zevin to 27 Pacific Northwest bookstores in three days to celebrate this gift to the bookselling (and rep) community. Roger loved the idea; he set up a display in front and gave a little speech to the the late morning gathering.
I’ve observed many bookstore succession stories. Laurie Raisys taking over, respecting traditions, and creating new ones, while bringing her own experience and energy to the store has clearly been a great success. Lillian Welch is my buyer now, and she eerily brings some of that challenging scrutiny that reminds me of Roger, but also a new and vibrant commitment to the best books for all readers in challenging times. Thank you to the many booksellers at Island Books who carry on your great tradition and congratulations to Island Books for 50 years as a shining literary light on Mercer Island!
Thank you to Dan, Christine, David and Kurtis, for giving us a glimpse into how those books get on the shelves at Island Books!
To our Island Books community: In the next 50 Years of Island Books installment, I’ll be talking to Cindy Corujo, who has been a bookseller for 36 years and has the longest tenure of any Island Books employee.