Posted: Thursday, September 16, 2010

In late July 1975, two local women in their mid-20s - both former teachers, one very pregnant - were sitting around with their husbands discussing potential business ideas. A restaurant? one husband suggested. No, too complicated. Book store? one woman ventured. Bingo.

Three days later the friends, Debbie Reifenstein and Susan Hickey, flew to Seattle to do some research, and, after receiving encouragement and suggestions from the owner of a bookstore near the waterfront, quickly laid a plan. They came back to town and compiled a list of books they thought people in Juneau would like to read, encouraging suggestions from locals, and began ordering.

A month after that, they were sawing boards to make bookshelves and slapping scraps of plywood together to make a front counter. On Sept. 19, 1975, a mere six weeks after the idea had been floated, and one week after the birth of Reifenstein's first daughter, they opened their doors, full of energy and enthusiasm.

Now, 35 years later, a few things have changed at Hearthside Books: the bookshelves are no longer home-made, and Reifenstein's daughter has two children of her own. But the core of the business remains unchanged. The same two women are at the helm, selecting books for Juneau readers from among the vast pool of possibilities, and their enthusiasm has not waned.

As Hearthside celebrates its 35 anniversary this weekend, Reifenstein said she finds the milestone a bit surprising.

"(The bookstore) just sounded like something fun we wanted to try for a few years," Reifenstein said. "We never ever dreamed it would turn into 35 plus years."

The year they opened was a big one for local business, Reifenstein said, and the freshly renovated Merchant's Wharf building attracted other new tenants. Grady Saunders opened an ice cream and coffee shop there, a precursor to his eventual business, Heritage Coffee, and Dennis and Donna Green opened The Greenery, a flower store that became Miss Scarlett's under new ownership some years later. Annie Kaills, owned by Annie Kaill, also opened for business in 1975.

The year after Hearthside opened downtown, Reifenstein and Hickey added a second store out at the Nugget Mall. And they've never looked back. Though both raised two children and juggled full lives outside of the business, neither ever thought seriously of quitting.

"We've just gotten so much support from the community and I guess that's what kept us here all these years." Reifenstein said. "And I still love coming to work."

Their party will be a three-part celebration, lasting from Friday through Sunday. In addition to celebrating their business, the owners are honoring all their current and former employees (a list of more than 300 names will be circulated), the many authors they have hosted at readings and booksignings, and the book-loving community that has allowed them to continue. Free prizes will be given away Saturday and Sunday, and live music, provided by pianist Tom Locher, will be featured Sunday. Books are offered at a 10 percent discount at both stores all this week through Sunday.

The owners have weathered lots of changes in the print industry, but both are firm believers in the resilience of the printed word, and in the importance of a community bookstore. Hickey said they have no plans to quit.

"Our former teaching friends are all retired, and they keep asking us when we're going to retire," she said. "But we say, 'why retire?' We love coming to work. We think up new things to do all the time, we meet great people. And every day is new."

• Contact Amy Fletcher at 523-2283 or at

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