This week, I have the pleasure of talking with the woman who started it all, the founder of Island Books. It's hard to imagine our Island without the bookstore, so I wanted to go back to the beginning and find out how it all began. I started by asking Lola for a short biography, and with her typical wit, here's how she came back to me and described herself:
Past - Farm girl, UW Graduate as Family Nurse Practitioner, Wife, Mother, Mercer Island resident 1957-1985 and founder of Island Books, Shaw Island resident 1985-2019. Community Volunteer/Activist.
Present - Mercer Island resident again, still a Mother, Grandmother, Great-Grandmother, resident of Covenant Shores, Volunteer at MIYS Thrift Shop in books, and still a Community/Activist with even more issues on my plate.
Future - "Who Knows what the Future Holds?" Right: Owner Laurie Raisys with founder Lola Deane under the original sign at Island Books in 2015
Miriam: Ha! Thank you for that fabulous bio, Lola, and can I say, I can't wait to see what you do next? But first, let's go back in time. Can you tell me about the exact moment you decided to forge ahead with the bookstore, and what scared and excited you about this big undertaking? Who were the key players in the venture and how did you work together to get started? What was the Mercer Island community like at the time?
Lola: The idea of a bookstore came out of a frustrating week at a wonderful retreat center where speakers were challenging everyone on the controversial topics of the 1970s, tossing out the names of books to support various points of view and being 12 miles up in the mountains above Lake Chelan we had no access to any of the books! We were a group of families and one of the women and I had been in a Book Club in our Church, and we started thinking about how great it would be to have a bookstore at this Retreat Center. That started the wheels turning and we spent a good part of the week talking about what it would look like and what the inventory would be. It was “pie in the sky” at that point, but the thought came down the mountain with me and since we were about to spend the second week on an uninhabited island in the San Juans, I went to the MI Library to see if they had any resources on retail bookstores.
There was the ABA book on How to Open and Run an Independent Bookstore. This was 1973 and Mercer Island was in the throes of becoming a bona fide city, establishing all the infrastructure that was required to make a city function, obtaining all the open land available for a park system. The core business district was building.
As I read the book, the idea became more possible in my mind and I knew that Mercer Island would be the place to start. We had moved to the Island in 1957 and been involved in many activities and organizations. I knew that the well educated and active population could support it, and it might be an ideal place to start such an endeavor. I also knew Mercer Island was very proud of what we had been able to accomplish in establishing a good school system and government. Why not a bookstore?
As reality started to sink in, I knew that it would be best if ownership was single, and fortunately my husband and I were willing to come up with the funds to think about making this real. The weekend we came home, we drove around the Center and there was an empty space. I also had retail experience and some minimal finance experience, so that did not concern me, as I also knew we had a terrific accountant who could help put the business structure together. My retreat friend was eager to come on as an assistant manager, and she had a good literature background, but no retail. Another friend was approached who had artistic talent and was also willing to be the other Assistant Manager. This was August 1973. The next two months were wild!
Miriam: What was the biggest surprise or challenge about owning Island Books? Do you have a favorite memory from the time you owned the store?
Lola: The biggest surprise about starting and running the bookstore at the beginning was, in retrospect, not really a surprise. From the day we opened the door with a line of people down the sidewalk to the day I turned over the keys to the new owners, the biggest answer to any doubt about our decision to open the store was erased by the loyalty of the people of the island to shop at Island Books over and over again. I had experienced Island loyalty before in other projects in the community and tried to make sure the bookstore was supportive of our schools and local endeavors. The staff were all Islanders with the exception of one person, so many of the customers were good friends. We definitely had some other surprises - from our Book Thief, to learning the reading tastes of our customers (which were always kept confidential - who knew who loved bodice rippers?) to the person who requested an autographed copy of the Bible.
The biggest challenge to me were the invoices! They had to be tended to as well as the customers, but personally I would much rather help someone find exactly the right title for a good night's read. But my fondest memories will always be the thrill of opening that door the first day we opened, the wonderful customers and friendships we made during those seven years, and working with my good book club friends as we helped customers.
Miriam: I bet, Lola! What a pleasure to connect with you and I hope we can talk more in the future. You're our living history, and Island Books wouldn't be here carrying on these traditions without your vision and leadership.
To our Island Books community: I dug around in the archives and found two old posts from another former Island Books owner, Roger Page, with interesting anecdotes about Lola's legacy in the store. If you want to read more, follow the links to read about the origins of the Island Books wrapping table, which originally came from Lola's husband Phil's pediatric clinic, or learn about the eclectic signs and logos that trace Island Books' rich history.
If hearing from Roger about store history floats your boat (oh no, I shouldn't get started with island puns or I'll lose my audience...), tune in next time. I'll be talking to Roger next.