So what’s so great about a neighborhood bookstore, especially one that doesn’t even sell a cup of coffee?
That’s a question best answered, perhaps, by Mary Gleysteen, an employee for half of the 40 years Eagle Harbor Book Company has inhabited Winslow Way,
“I’ve always thought of it as a refuge,” she said a few days before the Bainbridge institution will celebrate it’s 40th birthday on Saturday, Feb. 27.
“What’s wonderful about my job is that I get to do what I love – talk about books with people who read all the time. I love our customers because we share what I think and care about. Books. And I get to pass on information that they’re eager to get. It’s an exciting place for me.”
Gleysteen lives in Kingston, “but I feel like I live here. It’s home.”
In fact, the inner warmth of this particular bookstore’s environment, whether it emanates from the interior’s soft, inviting color tones or the employees’ receptive, helpful decorum, attracts readers like plump pillows fronting a fire on a cold winter’s day.
“We’re doing some things right, I know, because people come in here all the time and tell us how happy they are that we’re here,” said owner Morley Horder, a Northwest-born romantic who bought the store on a whim 12 years ago when he learned it was for sale. “I realized in a moment that I had to do it because the bookstore was a community treasure. Now, I just feel like I’m a caretaker for the next owner.”
It is not easy to remain viable, he admits, operating a small-town business with a tiny profit margin and constant pressure coming from the Internet and brick-and-mortar competitors with 200,000 titles on their shelves.
“It can be a struggle, so you need a lot of payback from it,” he said. “I work with a lot of incredible people who think they’ve got a dream job. That’s good. But most of all, we realize we’re providing a community service here. The bookstore is just another way to give back to a community that’s special. I can’t think of a better way to spend my life.”
Horder spent 20 years working for nonprofits so his sense of community was naturally transferred to his community bookstore, but he was prepared to buy the store.
“I wouldn’t have done it if the store hadn’t been on Bainbridge Island,” he said. “It was clear that it was all about Bainbridge Island because of the location and the demographics. I’d lived here long enough to know the bookstore was already an institution and we just had to meet the challenge of making sure we are serving the community’s needs and keeping up with the business.”
By twice doubling the size of the store during his ownership, Horder has kept up – at least on a small scale – with his competitors by ensuring that customers are served. With that in mind, the store has increased its Internet presence and has done more community surveys aimed at having customers express their needs. Horder thinks it has helped bring more people into the store.
“We have 35,000 books on our shelves, and we can get most book orders filled the next day through our wholesalers,” he said. “The business is always changing and we study the trades to keep us ahead of those changes.”
Horder said publishers are beginning to reverse the big-store trend somewhat with the realization that there is now a growing market for independent booksellers.
“At trade shows I’ve attended during the last year,” he said, “more publishers are saying the smaller stores do a good job showcasing their books. They are beginning to listen to what we need rather than ignoring us as being second-tier. They need us, which gives me hope.”
While the store continues to showcase local and regional authors because of the community’s interests in such books, its inventory remains diverse enough to draw many top authors to Bainbridge Island for readings.
“We’ve been lucky to bring in some great authors by buying directly from publishers rather than from wholesalers,” Horder said. “They seem to like how they’re treated and that’s led to us getting some bigger names. It’s a big deal to come all the way from the East Coast, but people like coming here.”
Gleysteen was the store’s primary events coordinator until recently when another employee took over the task.
“I guess it fell on me when somebody discovered I had Ivan Doig’s phone number in my address book,” she said.
“We get some good writers here because they like Bainbridge and they like our audiences,” she said. “They like the basic knowledge of the people attending and the fact they ask good questions. We have a very diverse population, less insular than it used to be. And they’re nice, which most writers really like.”
Another draw is an increasing number of registered book groups on the island, now numbering about 50.
“The reading group phenomena has grown huge,” Gleysteen said. “It’s amazing. I’m seeing my second generation of readers coming through now, with some infants when I first started now going away to college.”
Still, Horder and staff (12-15 now and a total of 73 during the last 12 years) have to keep on top of the business because of the small profit margin.
“It’s just trickier than it used to be because you have to watch every book closely,” he said. “You can’t make many mistakes ordering because it’s all about cash flow. Publishers want to be paid immediately, so you have to pull a book sometimes faster than you’d like to give it a chance to sell.”
But he is optimistic about the future because, despite the current infatuation with digital learning, he is hopeful that people still enjoy the experience of submerging themselves one-on-one into books. He likes to believe that the written word has been hard-wired over many millennia into the psyche of human beings.
Meanwhile, he and his caring, well-read staff will continue to do what they do best: serve their customers.
“We have a really good staff,” Gleysteen said. “There’s good teamwork now and the staff represents a microcosm of the community.”
She gives Horder credit, too. “His management style is very collaborative and he gives us a lot of room to express ourselves and offer new ideas.”
Horder has worried about the store’s future, but he remains positive.
“We will be here, by God, or whatever it takes,” he said. “I don’t think this community will let it fail because it is very important to it. And we won’t let the community down.”
Another 40 years? Sure, why not.