This 50 Years of Island Books series is about to reach the grand finale, because November is only a few weeks away and it's almost time to pop the champagne. Since April, I've talked to booksellers and owners from years past, sales reps, and many beloved local authors to paint a picture of what Island Books has meant to the community and how it evolved into the place it is today.
Now, I'm turning my attention to the people who show up hour to hour, in the here and now, to make the store the living, breathing wonderland that it is and will be in 2023 and beyond. On a rainy Monday when the store was closed for cleaning, I pulled them aside for some heart-to-hearts.
So many times we come in and say a quick hi to these friendly booksellers, the face of a familiar place we know and love, but it's rare we think about who they are as people and what they think about as they work. I've known many of them for years and have watched the staff evolve. From my little perch, I can honestly say that they put so much love into what they do, and that our island community wouldn't be the same without them.
Side note: since I already cornered the longest tenured Island Books employee for a separate blog, Cindy only makes a tiny (and fun) appearance via Caitlin in this post. If you want to learn more about Cindy, click here.
To our Island Books booksellers—we love and appreciate all of you. Truly. Now let's get into it.
Miriam: I'm so happy to have a chance to talk to each of you. Let's start with, which book category excites you the most, and why?
Brad: Any day I can turn someone onto the Russians, like Checkhov, Tolstoy, or Dostoevsky, or someone less read, like Pushkin, is a great day. Jorge Luis Borges is a favorite for customers looking for a literary blend of fantasy and science fiction literary. He's Argentinian, and his voice differs from many other classic authors. There are so many large and small presses putting out reprints.
Becca: I'm largely a sci-fi, fantasy, and romance person. I’m not averse to other categories, but the books that I drop everything to read tend to be one of those genres (or fairy-tale retellings). I also love curling up with a good Middle Grade or Young Adult fiction.
Lori Robinson: The genre I get the most energy around right now is romance. I read widely, but I have my favorite places I like to land, although every once in a while something different catches my eye.
Caitlin: I love to sell the books I like to read: short story collections, literary fiction, translated fiction, poetry, some memoirs, and art and ballet history. When I first started at Island Books, a lot of people said, “Oh, short stories don’t sell here.” But I'm happy to say that isn't the case anymore.
Nancy: I like to read literary fiction and good narrative nonfiction, generally science and history.
Lillian: I think people would assume that I read a ton of kids books, but I’m around them so much and read them for work—at least 600 picture books a year (!), so for my own pleasure, I read mostly mystery, romance, and fantasy.
Miriam: As a group, you have a wide variety of tastes, which is great for customers. Now, tell me about your proudest accomplishments at Island Books.
Brad: I love to draw signs. I’m a part-time illustrator with a cartoony style, maybe because I’m a big graphic novel fan.
Becca: It’s fun to have become a person that customers ask for book recommendations. -- I still feel fairly new (2 years under my belt now), but to have become an integral part of something I love so much is awesome.
Lori Robinson: Mine would be the year we sold over 200 copies of Amy Snow by Tracey Rees in six months because I kept hand selling it. It was the first time I realized the impact a bookseller could have on the success of a book that wasn’t getting all the media attention.
Caitlin: Mine would be proving that our customers do like short stories.
Nancy: I'm proud of the many stories over the years that I could bring home to my family, and tell them how we found the perfect book for a customer’s dying mother or a kid having an issue, things like that. And the funny ones—we used to have a customer who loved to give a certain book to his lady friends. Whenever we saw that title on order, everyone knew he had a successful date! I think he single-handedly kept that book in print. I sure didn’t have those kind of stories when I worked as a web designer.
Miriam: There's no job quite like bookselling, is there? Those are great answers. Can you give an example of when you felt a deep connection with a customer or the community?
Becca: When a kid comes in and says they like fairy tales and you realize that kid is exactly who you were as a small child. Then you give them a pile of books and they buy all of them and you’re like, yes, I’ve found mini-me! Or having someone call back or come in the next time and say, "What you gave me for my grandkid was exactly what I needed and they loved it".
Lori Robinson: I have a certain customer who I remember coming to our door during the pandemic and saying, “Just pick two books out for me, I’ll read anything you want." That trust is challenging. When I don’t know someone, I really want to take care of it and give people good choices. Anytime someone buys a book that I write a blog about, that warms my little heart. And I love when someone comes in and I think, I would never guess you’d read this book, and then they say, “I love this book!” I just love that we all get to like what we like.
Caitlin: One of our customers who loves short stories—having that customer come to me for recommendations is really nice, and an honor because she’s also a big reader, a school librarian, and a mother. I love sharing a common love of certain books with individual customers.
Nancy: Here's my quirky fact - This will be the second 50th anniversary of a bookstore I’ve attended this year. The other one I went to recently was for Red and Black Books, where I used to work with former Island Books bookseller Kay Wilson. I saw her there. Talk about long-time connections.
Lillian: I actually have a really clear one. Earlier this year, a mom came in and said that her queer child felt welcomed and happy to be at the store, and she was so thankful that her child had thought to mention how welcome they felt. I almost started to cry on the spot and it makes me tear up thinking about it.
Miriam: That's amazing. It's nice to know that your experiences in the store are just as meaningful to you as they are to the customers. I love hearing this good stuff, and I’m also interested in hearing about a challenge you overcame.
Brad: At first I would have said, wrapping, and it’s something I didn’t expect. I had no idea! People on Mercer Island really know how to give gifts. Drawing quickly is also a challenge.
Caitlin: I wish more people would give books I like a try. People will come in and want to read whatever is the bestselling book. What I say is, “What are you in the mood to read?” and then go from there, because not everyone needs to read bestsellers or classics. They’re not in school. Read what you want.
Nancy: There are a lot of books! We like a lot of books, but more and more books come out and we don’t have the space to shelve everything. We can order it, but we can’t stock everything. So every quarter, it’s a huge challenge to say, these are the books we’re going to commit to.
Lillian: The honest challenge is to stay interested after reading so many books over so many years. What I realize after I go through another season is that the books are different, that’s the great thing about books. Sometimes customers want the same thing over and over, and those things become classics and that’s fine, but for the majority of customers and definitely for me, I have to see what’s different, otherwise, it can get repetitive.
Miriam: Great answers that speak to so many years on the job. Here's another question. How would your colleagues describe you?
Brad: Friendly and kind, I would hope. A good listener.
Becca: Enthusiastic and willing. Laurie says I’m sassy. I'm also the youngest and got sucked into the social media part of things pretty quick, so I get a lot of the, hey, younger generation, technology, things.
Lori Robinson: I know that I’m pretty calm and unflappable when it comes to dealing with whatever you’ve got to deal with.
Caitlin: Oh, ha, here’s a note from Cindy about this question. She said I’m literary and quirky, and a name-dropper. And I was like, “Yeah…I think that’s pretty accurate.”
Nancy: Brilliant, friendly, kind to everyone, no-nonsense. You know. All the good stuff.
Lillian: I’m definitely the squeaky wheel. I guess what they’d say is that I get things done. That’s the thing. I get things done.
Miriam: These answers cracked me up (including the ones that aren't making it to print!). OK, let's do a fantasy question now. What would you do with it if someone gave you one million dollars to improve the book business and/or promote literacy?
Brad: Open more dream bookstores and do them the way I always wanted.
Becca: The industry is already diversifying the characters and cultures in books, and I’d find ways to support that. Everyone deserves to see themselves in what they read.
Lori Robinson: I’d love to do something to fight book bans. Working at the bookstore has opened my eyes to what banning books does, and I appreciate that it’s changed my view on experiencing things rather than being afraid of them.
Caitlin: I’d start with free nationwide healthcare for people earning under a certain amount of money. I grew up in a household filled with books, and I think it’s important for kids to grow up with their own books, and that takes parents earning a living wage.
Nancy: This is because I’m such a nuts-and-bolts person, but I’d get rid of dust jackets and have everything be paper on board so that we have less damages to deal with. Saves money and they’re annoying.
Lillian: I’d reverse this trend of prices going up because that would make independent bookstores more accessible to people who shop online because it’s cheaper. There are people who can’t afford to shop in independent bookstores, and if you remove that barrier, it would just open up that handpicked-for-you element that can be so special for kids, and adults too.
Miriam: Ah, if only booksellers ran the world. How about this. If I were to work with you in the store for a month, what would I learn about bookstore life that I can’t possibly gather from a brief interview?
Becca: A lot of people don’t know that we get new releases every single Tuesday, or that we get books sent to us a week before they come out so we have them on the actual release day. So many books, all the time.
Caitlin: Customers are pretty savvy. Obviously, there’s that old idea that booksellers and librarians are just sitting around reading all day, but it’s not true, there’s a lot of work. It’s physical work, you’re constantly bending and putting things away.
Nancy: Well I’m sure everyone says, we do not have time to read while we’re working. They also might not know just how much we really know our customers. Sometimes when we’re going through a catalog, we’ll say, “Oh, I know who will like that book.” And we get that book for that particular person in our community. The two big trends in the past years are the normalization of queerness in fiction and nonfiction, so we really have a tiny LGBTQ section, because, there aren’t really any queer novels anymore—they’re mainstream. I love that. The other thing is Tiktok. It’s been crazy for us getting younger women and girls in the store. And we wish Tiktok could work that way for boys too. We now see these backlist authors getting a second wind because of Tiktok and that’s so interesting as a trend. The third thing that everyone is talking about is AI. One of the things that we have on our radar and it’s been coming up in the book world is fake books. We’re seeing them more and more in the travel and cookbook categories. Our job as curators is more important than ever. We’re working with reputable publishers, we’re looking at every book that comes in the store, we’re recommending books. I think with AI, people are becoming even more important.
Lillian: How much time we spend just putting books away and tidying up and keeping things alphabetized. I can’t tell you how much we hum the alphabet to keep bookshelves in order. And working with me in particular, I’d say that I come across much more serious than I really am.
Miriam: You all have to be so organized. Let's move on to my final question. What does being part of a small business within a community mean, and how do you play a role in it?
Brad: One of the best things about working at Island Books is how the community supports the store. And it’s not just about books. We’re a hub. About six months after I started, a woman came in and said her car wouldn’t start. Does anyone know how to jump a car? And I said, I can help. She didn’t know me, but she knew I worked at Island Books, so she knew we'd pitch in.
Becca: People are so committed to the small-town vibe here, everyone knowing each other. It’s so cool to see my colleagues interact with all these customers and they know their names and who they are. I also admire the way we work with other small businesses in the community. Everyone is invested in each other.
Lori Robinson: It’s funny for me, because I went to middle school and high school here, and I worked on the south end for longer than I care to admit, but all of that built a lot of relationships for me, the kind where you see people every day. It’s strange to have people to come in who have kids who were four when I met them and are now graduating from college and starting their careers. When I think about being part of a bookstore, I hope that there are some kids and regular customers who have felt like we’ve offered them a safe place and that I’ve personally been a safe person to talk to who they know won’t judge them or what they like to read. It means a lot to people when we remember them. I hope we offer a warm moment and a good experience.
Caitlin: With the exception of Laurie (and Becca, who is moving off-island), none of the staff lives on the island. So I guess we feel we’re representatives of the store and the community and it’s our responsibility to make people feel welcome.
Nancy: I feel like I have really grown with Mercer Island. I don’t live here, but I feel like I’ve really gotten to know this community. I worked for Roger for six years and I’ve worked for Laurie for almost seven, and we see kids grow up, we see people age, we have a lot of customers who have died over the years, and you’re kind of going through life cycles with people. We’ve seen the build up of Mercer Island, the businesses who are all working together now—it didn’t used to be like that. The community feels more like they appreciate their community too. I think our customers really stepped up during Covid and realized, we love this place, and we need it. They’ve been great.
Lillian: As the kids’ specialist, it’s different, because I spend a lot of time chatting with the community kids. I get to watch them grow up. There are people that come in who are going to high school that eight years ago I was recommending chapter books to. So, to have a hand in helping kids become life-long readers, and enhancing how important it is, is great. I always say I’m lucky to not be the teacher or parent because I don’t have to worry about the academics. I worry about, how can I make this kid love books so much that they will be a reader for the rest of their life?
Miriam: Right? That makes so much sense. Thanks, everyone. What a cool crowd. I adore all of you and am so glad you're in my life, and everyone else's!
Next week, for my final installment of 50 Years of Island Books, I'll be talking with the owner, Laurie Raisys, and it'll be a good one. See you soon.