Local bookstore owners plan for new chapters

The family of Liz Saya, right, her husband, Greg McLaughlin, second from right, their son, Lief Saya, left, along with Henry Hopkins provide live folk music in April 2011 at Rainy Retreat Books.

Book lovers all over Juneau have been nervously discussing the fate of two of our local bookstores over the past few weeks, amidst rumors that both Hearthside Books and Rainy Retreat were about to close their doors. But, like reports of Mark Twain’s demise, these rumors have been greatly exaggerated.


Owners at both bookstores have indeed announced plans to sell their businesses, but neither has any intention of closing and both are committed to finding buyers that have a passion for books and a commitment to the Juneau community. And here’s more good news: according to the latest figures from the American Bookseller Association, independent book stores like these are beginning to make a comeback across the country, as community-centric book-buyers make it clear that they value the brick-and-mortar shops in their towns. Against all expectations, it’s Borders that failed, while the small guys held on.

Here’s a closer look at both local businesses and their experiences, and at promising national trends for the industry overall.


Hearthside Books

Hearthside Books co-owners, Deb Reifenstein and Susan Hickey have talked about retiring on and off for years, but it never seemed like the right time.

“We used to say, ‘Oh, maybe we’ll retire in five years,’ and then five years would come and go and we’d say, ‘This is still too much fun’. And it's still fun but ... I guess we’re ready, that’s the bottom line. We love the bookstore, it's like raising a child, we’ve raised it...”

“But it’s time for it to fly off on its own,” Hickey said with a laugh.

“And we’re not going anywhere,” Reifenstein said. “Our goal is for it to pass into good hands and continue on. We’re not in a hurry, we just want to make sure we find the right buyers and that it continues.”

The women, both former teachers, opened their bookstore in Merchants Wharf in September of 1975.

At that time, there already was a bookstore, Baranof Bookshop, owned by Susi Gregg Fowler’s grandmother, Inez Gregg, but the women’s market research showed that Juneau’s book-loving population – at that time 12,000 – could support another one. Gregg’s shop eventually turned into Big City Books, which changed ownership several times but didn’t close until the early 1990s.

Hearthside soon moved from the Wharf to the Front Street location, where it has remained; the Nugget Mall store opened in 1976.

Both Reifenstein and Hickey say they’ve had such a great experience with the bookstore that quitting was never a temptation.

"I cant think of a time when I woke up and I thought, 'I just don’t want to go in, I don’t want to be there anymore,'” Hickey said.

Highlights of running the business include getting to work with local and visiting authors, being surrounded by piles and piles of interesting books – especially new releases and Alaska-related titles – and, above all, working within the Juneau community, through hiring hundreds of employees over the years and through working with customers.

“We have had so many people come through the bookstore in this town,” Reifenstein said. “It’s been so fun to get to know the community in that way.”

Both women plan on staying in Juneau. Reifenstein said she hopes to travel more and spend more time with her grandchildren, as well as pursue other interests – she’s currently taking an oil painting class at UAS. Hickey said one of her top goals is more time for – no surprise here – reading.

“All these great books go through my hands - I would love to stay at home with a cup of coffee and do some more reading,” she said.

Both women said they’ve weathered many changes in the book business over the years, such as the threat of online booksellers, but that the industry overall seems to be undergoing a resurgence.

“The pendulum is swinging back toward the independents,” Reifenstein said. “The big guys, the big box stores, Barnes and Noble and Borders, they’ve kind of duked it out with the online buying, and they’ve lost, that’s the marketshare that’s been lost. And now I think there’s a lot of room for independents to come back in.”

“We can adapt on a dime,” Hickey added. “We don’t have all that big infrastructure to change, so we can change much more rapidly to meet the market.”

Their words are backed by a recent article in the Christian Science Monitor, “The novel resurgence of independent bookstores," by Yvonne Zipp, published earlier this month.

“While beloved bookstores still close down every year, sales at independent bookstores overall are rising, established independents are expanding, and new ones are popping up from Brooklyn to Big Stone Gap, Va.,” Zipp writes. “Bookstore owners credit the modest increases to everything from the shuttering of Borders to the rise of the “buy local” movement to a get-’er-done outlook among the indies that would shame Larry the Cable Guy. If they have to sell cheesecake or run a summer camp to survive, add it to the to-do list.

According to the article, ABA membership has been steadily growing since 2009, adding 40 members last year. Moreover, sales at independent bookstores rose about 8 percent in 2012 over 2011, according to the ABA. Community support has been key in keeping independent bookstores alive, Zipp writes.

Reifenstein and Hickey agree.

“Juneau’s been a wonderfully supportive community. What a wonderful place to have bookstore,” Reifenstein said.


Rainy Retreat

Rainy Retreat Books co-owner Toni Birdseye is also hopeful for the future of brick-and-mortar independent book shops. She recently read a couple books that mentioned the idea of the “third place,” a concept that’s also discussed in the CSM article.

“There’s a sociological-slash-architectural concept called the ‘third place,’” Toni said, “and it’s the idea that you have home and you have work, but there’s this place in between, where you meet, where you talk, where you exchange ideas – coffee houses, places where are there are events going on -- the businesses that build on that, I think, have a good future.”

Toni and her husband Don Birdseye are selling their used book business, Rainy Retreat Books, after 12 years. Like Reifenstein and Hickey, they made the decision with no regrets and many fond memories.

“It’s been a heck of a ride. Just wonderful,” Toni said. “We’ve loved every minute of it.”

The couple bought the business, then called Rainy Day Books, in 2001 from former Juneau residents Lawrence and Laura Powers, who’d opened the bookstore in 1997 in the space now occupied by Dee Longenbaugh, of Observatory Books. The shop moved to Seward Street in the Valentine building a couple years later.

Toni said they found out about the bookstore through a tiny ad in the book review section of the New York Times. She and her new husband, Don, had been looking for an adventure, and decided to fly up to Juneau to check it out. Both had been to Alaska before, but only briefly, and decades earlier. Neither had ever run a business, but they shared a passion for books and for language. In fact, Don says part of how he caught Toni’s eye in the first place was with an alliterative dating ad that mentioned “browsing bookstores” as one of his interests (she responded in alliterative c’s).

“Don had always wanted to retire to Alaska, and I had always wanted a bookstore. it was a match made in heaven,” Toni said. “When we came, we loved it. What’s not to love about Juneau? The mountains and the water and the wildlife and the people. The people are just fabulous, it’s a great community.”

They made the decision to buy the business during that initial scouting trip in July of 2001, and at that time also picked out a house on Fritz Cove Road.

“At the end of the week we walked away with contracts for both the business and the house,” Don said.

After 12 years, they have no regrets, and in fact, have grown so attached to Juneau and its people that they have no plans to move. The couple plan to take more trips to see their children and grandchildren, but will always come back.

“We’ve acquired husbands and wives for our four kids and we’ve acquired four grandchildren, and counting, since we’ve been here ... and we’ve had a lot of health problems,” Don said. “So we realized life is short, and going to see the grandkids is sort of a higher priority.”

Though more travel is in their future, they plan to keep their house and continue living here.

“We still plan on keeping Juneau as our main headquarters,” Toni said. “It’s our home. It’s been our home for our married life and we have all these people we want to see.”

One of the first friends they made in town back in 2001 was well known local musician Buddy Tabor, who introduced the couple to the folk music community. Don also got involved with Veterans for Peace, and it didn’t take long for the couple to feel right at home in Juneau.

Toni said her favorite part of the business has been interacting with the public and getting to know Juneau as a community of readers. Though Juneau’s readers are very eclectic in their tastes, the store’s bread and butter is paperback fiction of all genres. For the tourist market, it’s Alaska books.

“The fun part of the whole business is the customers,” Toni said. “Finding out what they’re interested in and trying to put them together with a book that will answer their questions.”

Both Toni and Don said that is the part they will miss the most.

“We’ll miss the people, we’ll miss getting up and going every day,” Toni said.

“We’ll miss that downtown interaction,” Don added.

Chances are, the book-loving Birdseyes will still be frequent visitors of this “third place” after they sell it, and of other third places nearby - The Rookery or the Triangle are two more likely spots.

In the meantime, the Birdseyes said they’re excited to help the story of Rainy Retreat continue under new owners. Whether its a local who buys the business or out-of-towners who are setting off on a new adventure, like they were 12 years ago, the new owners should fuel their decision with one basic idea: a passion for books.

“That’s the first requirement,” Toni said. “You have to love books.”

For more on Rainy Retreat, visit their Facebook page at www.facebook.com/pages/Rainy-Retreat-Books/228014137486, or watch their video at www.youtube.com/watch?v=veT9K94NQfs.

For more on Hearthside Books, visit www.hearthsidebooks.com.




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