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50 Years of Island Books: Roger Page, Part 1

Victor and Laurie Raisys, Cindy Corujo, Nancy and Roger Page, Miriam Landis and Marnie Gittinger in 2015Roger Page says even though his wife Nancy’s successful wedding floral business was more profitable than Island Books in the early days, they committed to Island Books because the scheduling and lifestyle were a better fit for having a family. Nancy Page would tell you that her final and most enjoyable career was the 15 years she spent working at Island Books. These days both Pages are enjoying their retirement, still reading plenty of books and traveling to visit those not-so-small children, Emma and Lewis, who were the deciding factor in ownership of Island Books all those years ago. 

Miriam: Roger, tell me what it was like during the first month you owned Island Books. Did you have a moment that made you realize what you could bring to the community?

Roger: Remembering the first month of owning Island Books is hard. It's a bit like the frog in the boiling water story. You sit in the pot for a long time enjoying the warmth, and suddenly, you realize you're the one being cooked. In 1984 I called every bookstore in Seattle looking for a "Christmas season" job, and Island Books was the only one that called back. I did realize in the first month that I was very lucky to have landed in a much-loved bookstore on an affluent island. I was the only male and only full-time employee among 19 well-educated part-time women. Everyone was recognized, everyone was appreciative, and everyone really read. The bookstore felt big, full of surprises, and full of energy.

Picture: New owners Victor and Laurie Raisys; Cindy Corujo; old owners Nancy and Roger Page; Miriam Landis and Marnie Gittinger in 2015

I decided to stay on and went to something called Bookseller School the next spring. Full of "new ideas," I returned, and thanks everlasting to the generous and kind three women (Marge Wilkens, Fam Bayless, and Elinor MacDonald) that ran the store, they made space for me and entertained my ideas. I didn't deserve a seat at the table, but I think it was easier to deal with me than all their friends that worked with them. After a year, I was titled "floor manager," I focused on streamlining the systems, culling the aging inventory, and rebuilding sagging shelves. The customers were great, but not friends yet and there was much to be simplified, for the store had suffered a bit from too many cooks. I was single and willing to heft, nail, or come in early or late. 

After six years, I really felt I had found my calling, and I was married to Nancy, the wedding florist, who came to work at the store later down the road in 2000. As we began to think about a family, I approached the ladies about buying in, and they again took a generous and gracious turn and said they would back me if I wanted to take the reins alone. So with a Volkswagen bus as collateral, we had a lovely afternoon drinking fine Washington wine and signing the papers at the Bayless home. What changed in the first few months of owning the store was that the community began to recognize me.

I had a role and a responsibility to maintain the standards of hospitality and good books. Honestly, supported by the ladies, I felt confident and excited and loved making real friends of all ages and stripes. I (and eventually Nancy) had fallen into the arms of a big warm family, and I loved coming to work and unlocking the door each morning.

Miriam: Tell me about when the unmentionable online and big box retailers came on the scene. What were the in-store clues that wisdom and humanity could endure up against the algorithms? 

Roger: My time at Island Books from the late eighties to 2015 parallels the most dramatic period of change in the history of the book retail industry. In some ways, we were the canary in the coal mine for a set of revolutions in the information industry and general retail. When I started, we were in the mom-and-pop store era of bookstores. This model led to great diversity, strong community ties, and low competition between stores. People (especially people on Mercer Island) had their store, and the store was catering to that community as much as making a profit.

Everything began to shift in the late eighties. First, it was a trickle of Walden and B. Dalton chain stores in Seattle. I wrote a now prescient memoyou can look at our old blog post about that infamous memo here 

about the specter of the discount chain of Waldenbooks and the need to strengthen our service and ties to the community. Then the first direct blow to business came in 1993 when Barnes and Noble opened a big box store in Bellevue. We had always prided ourselves on our children's section, and overnight there was a store twice our size 10 minutes away. Then Costco became more popular and, as a sign of things to come, they used books as a loss leader and broad-based customer attractor. Finally, Microsoft and personal computers made their mark on homes in the early 90s. The bookstore as a storehouse of knowledge for adults and kids faded fast when they could look it up "on their computer."

Honestly, my reaction to these existential changes was largely terror. I was starting a young family, the store was our sole means of support, and it seemed like a new battle to fight every year. We reacted by working hard to speed up our special-order business ("We don't have that title but can get it for you Wednesday!") and to emphasize our free shipping and the expertise of the booksellers. The community appreciated our efforts, and despite plenty of dips and valleys, we continued to grow slowly despite the competition.  In the late 90s, Amazon arrived and presented a different magnitude of the challenge. For the first time between the growth of the web and Amazon's "free" home delivery, many customers never saw the need to visit our store.

If we never saw them, our knowledge and service would be useless. So, we turned our focus toward marketing and events doing all we could to draw them in. This led to huge Harry Potter parties and hundreds of tiny evening gatherings of self-published Island authors. We also began to emphasize our school fundraisers to connect and show our commitment to the community.

Throughout these roughly twenty-five years of change and increased competition, almost three-quarters of the independent bookstores in the country closed. The Mom-and-Pop store model was defunct. We learned about lean inventories, just-in-time ordering, niche marketing, shopping as entertainment, and the value of "third places" in the community. Our deep ties to the community ultimately helped us weather the storm.  

One moment stands out. At some point in 2005, Amazon tried out a new idea on Mercer Island to use school communities to raise funds for the school. We had been doing this for a decade and had raised several hundreds of thousands for local schools. One day a big "Buy from Amazon " banner appeared outside a local school. We felt like jilted lovers: angry, scared, and sad. This was very close to home, and we knew if Amazon lured away families, we would not survive. I said as much to some long-standing customers, and their response exceeded all expectations. The school's foundation sided with the store, and the banner disappeared. The unspoken loyalty of the community was voiced out loud, and it was a turning point for the store.

It became clear that our fate was tied to the choices they made. From that point on, it felt that there was a deeper appreciation for the bookstore and, in turn, for our community. We were joined at the hip. Through the spring of 2009 with the Great Recession, the Kindle was the darkest hour for independent bookstores. We bounced back quickly and had some of our best years (2010-2015) at the end of our tenure as owners.

Miriam: That was right around when I came on the scene after I’d defected from the Amazon Books team and moved to the island from Capitol Hill. I remember we had lunch across the street from the store, and you gave me a lot of this oral history over Thai food. As I listened, I was thinking, how can I use all the knowledge I gained at Amazon to help Island Books thrive? And thrive it did and continues to endure. It’s like the little engine that could.

To our Island Books community: stay tuned for part 2 in this conversation, coming soon. Once Roger and I get going on the subject of Island Books, it’s hard to stop us...