Hearthside Books approaches 25th anniversary

Posted: Tuesday, February 22, 2000

Hearthside Books is making its seventh move or opening this week by consolidating its Nugget Mall bookstore and toy store into a space vacated by Jay Jacobs.

The company is also approaching its 25th anniversary, having started out in Merchants Wharf on Sept. 19, 1975. The downtown store, now at Franklin and Front streets, has become a city fixture.

``I think we're part of the fabric of Juneau,'' co-owner Susan Hickey said.

Hearthside has survived ups and downs in the economic cycle, cable television and home videos, the advent of the ``big box'' retailers and the recent surge in on-line purchasing.

Hickey and co-owner Debbie Reifenstein, who abandoned teaching careers to start the business, are still enjoying the fruits of a weekend's brainstorm.

In 1975, Reifenstein, an art teacher at Marie Drake Middle School, and Hickey, a fifth-sixth grade teacher at Harborview Elementary School, were musing about what business they could start. Their husbands recommended a restaurant, but they rejected that as too time-consuming.

It was a Friday night when Hickey proposed a bookstore. On Monday morning, they were on a plane to talk to people in the industry they then knew nothing about. It was ``just a love of reading,'' Reifenstein said. ``I think readers and authors are just wonderful people.''

Juneau's population was about 13,000, and there was only one bookstore, Inez Gregg's Baranof Bookshop. The oil boom had begun, and Juneau was seeing an influx of young, highly educated people.

Reifenstein and Hickey originally considered mining terminology for the name of the bookstore - for example, Mother Lode. They finally settled on Hearthside because of its cozy sound, Hickey said.

The name occasionally has been mistaken as Heartside - ``No, we're not a romantic bookstore,'' Hickey said - and Earthside, around the time recycling came into vogue.

The initial inventory was carefully compiled from requests of potential customers, Hickey said. ``If people wanted Greek cookbooks, we would order Greek cookbooks.''

Within a year, they realized Merchants Wharf was too far off the beaten path in the winter and that the Mendenhall Valley was developing rapidly. A second outlet was opened in 1976 in what is now the Nugget Mall.

Although they started Hearthside by themselves, over the years Reifenstein and Hickey have had nearly 200 employees. There are 23 on staff now, and about 30 in the summer and during the Christmas shopping season. Donna Horn and Connie DePute have worked for Hearthside for 20 years or more.

The book retail business has changed dramatically in the meantime, say Reifenstein and Hickey.

Once, best-sellers were a staple of the business.

``We'd order 150 copies of Stephen King, and they'd blow right out of here,'' Hickey said.

But Costco arrived and cut sharply into that market.

Now a new challenge is posed by amazon.com, the online bookseller.

The response to that challenge, as always, is customer service, Reifenstein said. Employee Peter Epperly, who has been with Hearthside for more than 10 years, spends about 85 percent of his time on special orders, she said.

But Reifenstein doesn't see book sales as a zero sum game. ``More competition increases readership,'' she said.

On occasion, Hearthside has been distinguished by what it won't sell.

The store made the Associated Press national wire several years ago for refusing to carry pop star Madonna's ``Sex,'' a coffee table collection of lurid photographs. The issue wasn't sexual content, as such, but rather the book's images that were suggestive of violence, bondage and bestiality, Hickey said.

``People thought they had the right to buy whatever they wished,'' Reifenstein said. ``It was a huge hoopla. ... We think of ourselves as kind of a family bookstore because we also carry children's books.''

Hearthside also avoids Paladin Press, which publishes gun-related literature, including a how-to manual on murder. But it has stocked ``Daddy's Roommate,'' a children's book that brought protests in some school districts, including Juneau, because of its homosexual content.

Reifenstein and Hickey say they can see some of the changing character of Juneau in their sales. Books on computers, gardening and travel are selling better than ever. They now carry novels in Spanish.

But as trends change, the bond with readers remains, Hickey said. ``We have a really supportive group of readers in Juneau.''

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