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Juneau bookstores offer more than books

Posted: November 13, 2013 - 1:06am
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Aaron Suring, co-owner of Alaska Robotics Bookstore and Art Gallery, gives a tour of his shop on Monday.  Michael Penn | Juneau Empire
Michael Penn | Juneau Empire
Aaron Suring, co-owner of Alaska Robotics Bookstore and Art Gallery, gives a tour of his shop on Monday.

In a world of electronic readers and digital purchases of all kinds, four small brick-and-mortar bookstores dot a two-block radius in downtown Juneau.

In this day and age, success in the bookstore business doesn’t require a new strategy, says Royce Metz, manager at Rainy Retreat Books. Instead, it requires the bookstores to keep doing what they’ve always done — only better.

“Bookstores — now more than before — are required to be a part of the community,” Metz said. “If they don’t find a way to do that, they fail.”

At Rainy Retreat, connecting to the community means hosting live music during Juneau’s First Fridays, bringing in authors for book signings and organizing public readings. The idea is to make the bookstore more than just a physical version of what’s available online, Metz said.

“When a place is part of your worldview — your community — you support them to make sure they don’t go away,” he said.

The Observatory, Alaska Robotics and Hearthside Books are the other three bookstores that make up the downtown quartet.

“We each have our niche,” Metz said. “Ours is kind of a potluck with bits of everything.”

Rainy Retreat’s shelves hold cookbooks on one side of the store and a narrow aisle, filled mostly with fiction books, is on the other side. A section of Alaskan books sits near the front of the store. The crown jewel of Rainy Retreat Books is a set of 24 books by Sir Walter Scott. The set was published in 1909 and is worth an estimated $1,000.

“I’ve got the only full set I know of in the world,” Metz said. He added, “It’s about the cool stuff.”

Around the corner and up the hill from Rainy Retreat is Observatory Books. Inside the quaint, light blue house is a collection of old and uncommon books densely packed into waist-level carts. The specialty here is oddity.

“Every year, [the owner] goes on a trail through England collecting old and rare books and maps,” the store’s clerk, Mary Lou Spartz, said. “This store is a collection of hard-to-find and rare books.”

But the books aren’t the only tidbits to discover inside; maps and prints from as far back as the 1600s line the walls.

“It’s just amazing what the world of cartography can tell you about a time, its people and the way they thought — lots of things, really,” Spartz said.

Technology is something Spartz acknowledges as the emerging trend in the book business, but it’s not a medium she will ever use as a substitute for the tried-and-true bound book format.

“I am not willing to give up a book,” she said. “[An electronic reader] just doesn’t feel right and it doesn’t look right.”

Not only are electronic readers deviations from the books she’s used to, they isolate people who might otherwise engage others during a trip to the bookstore, she said.

“A bookstore isn’t just books. It’s a place people can come to talk,” Spartz said. “Sometimes they’re looking for information, and some just want to talk when they have time.”

Another bookstore in the downtown quartet is relatively new and was created as a result of another Juneau bookstore deciding not to carry a particular genre.

Alaska Robotics opened in May of last year and focuses entirely on graphic novels and comics.

“The medium is just really fun, and people love it,” said Aaron Suring, an owner of the shop.

Like the other bookstores, Alaska Robotics engages the community, but in a slightly different way.

Its staple engagement activity is on Wednesday nights. Artists are encouraged to come to the gallery to draw a subject who models for them. One time they held a “Super Smash Brothers” video game event. Suring said future events like it are in the works.

For the graphic novels and comics genre, there isn’t an online comparable quite yet, he added.

“Being able to browse is a big thing, and you can’t really do that online,” Suring said.

Juneau’s oldest bookstore, Hearthside Books, has chosen to adapt to the emerging technology by allowing patrons to purchase books online through their website.

But that doesn’t mean co-owner and co-founder Deb Reifenstein believes bookstores should become a thing of the past.

“A bookstore is a community center. It’s a place [where] people meet and we support each other around town,” she said. “Juneau is full of wonderful local authors and their books would be lost in electronic publishing.”

After 38 years in business, Reifenstein and her co-founder decided to sell the company’s two bookstores and toy store, but that doesn’t mean the stores are closing.

There has been a lot of interest, she said, but she declined to comment if any of those inquiries have progressed to substantial stages of a sale.

“We’re ready for the next chapter in our lives right now,” Reifenstein said.

Hearthside offers a number of public events annually with local and non-local authors. They also participate in First Friday festivities each month.

“Being able to have a grandchild sit in your lap and read a book to them is just wonderful,” she said. “It’s just not the same with a computer.”

• Contact reporter Matt Woolbright at 523-2243 or at matthew.woolbright@juneauempire.com. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/reportermatt.

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