Mercer Island Spotlight: Island Books

A long-standing member of the Mercer Island business community, Island Books’ own story possesses the magical elements that create an urban legend.  Lola Dean, who originally established the store, was an island resident back in 1973.  She was a nurse, married to a Mercer Island pediatrician, who saw a need for a place where reading was supported and celebrated – and which did not involve leaving the island.  Dean, a woman who could take an idea and run with it, decided in September of ’73 to establish a local book store. On November 1st of the same year, Island Books opened its door. The shelves, which are still used in the store today, were built by Dean’s pediatrician husband; his examination table now sits behind the cash register for staff to wrap gifts on.  From time to time, Roger Page, current owner of Island Books, reminds long-time residents they probably once sat on that very table as children!

While Dean was a mover and motivator, she was also always ready for a new challenge. Rumor has it, when she was ready to tackle her next project 3 years later, Dean gathered 3 friends of similar age and life circumstances — Elinor MacDonald, Fam Bayless and Margory Wilkens—  and took them for a boat ride around the island.  At the end of the lake tour, Dean made the announcement that they were going to purchase her book store.  Page is not clear how much of the story is embellished—he figures it contains both truth and touches of fancy.  When he started working at Island Books, MacDonald, Bayless and Wilkens owned the store and daily operations were carried out through the enlisted help of 15 other island women.  Page’s own story adds to the Island Books mythos—he had been a teacher for approximately 10 years back in 1983.  Deciding that he needed a break from teaching, Page elected to take a year to try some other employment opportunities.  An avid book hunter, Page thought a turn in a book store would be just the thing for him to experience—however he could not find a store in Seattle which was hiring.  Acting upon a tip he’d heard, Page called up Island Books and the ladies hired him on as the gift wrapper for the 1983 Christmas season.  He stayed on after Christmas and attended a 2 week book selling school offered by the American Booksellers Association during the winter of ’84. Due to the fact he was at the store so often, Page was made a store manager soon after.  In 1991, Page and his wife, Nancy, wanted to start a family.  He approached the ladies of Island Books about a more substantial position at the store. Instead, they offered to sell him the whole operation.  As Page spun the tale of Island Books’ rich history, the integral elements of roots, relationships and community became inherently clear.

Those elements are as important to today’s Island Books as they have been during the developmental years of the business.  For instance, the store has an enduring relationship with local book clubs. They offer members a 10% discount when purchasing their most recent titles, and store staff have been invited to speak at various clubs. Nine of the island book clubs’ current reading selections are displayed on Island Books’ website. However, the number of groups they service is closer to 30-40, located both on and off Mercer Island.  Island Books’ Open Book Club, the only one they officially sponsor, was established back in 1996 to accommodate locals who are looking to join a club. It’s a great way for new residents to meet people.  Throughout its tenure, like-minded participants of Open Book Club have split off, forming their own groups.  The longstanding Poetry Potluck is a group Island Books has sponsored for many years.  While they are not currently accepting members, the monthly group gathers to nosh and share the varied poetry they so love.  In addition, there are many informal ways locals connect through Island Books.  Parents bring their children to play in the same store play house they enjoyed as youngsters.  Nancy Stewart, a Seattle area singer, has performed at pj story time for 30 years.  Lola Dean herself still travels to Mercer Island to attend a book club which has been meeting here for decades.

As a by-product of his 30 years at the store, Page has witnessed the cyclic growth and waning of the island business community. He noted that in 2012 there is less variety in the types of businesses located in the Downtown neighborhood than in years past.  “Part of what’s happened with that is we have diversified,” Page replied when asked how changes in the Downtown core have affected Island Books’ business practices. The store has morphed from being just a book store into being more of a mercantile—they now offer a variety of products which are no longer readily available at other island businesses.   The advent of online shopping is another change Island Books has adapted to.  They offer online shopping options in addition to their brick and mortar storefront.  While convenient, online shopping may not replace the need we have, at times, to interact with others. “Sometimes people want to touch things, sometimes people want to connect… sometimes people want to shop with their kids… there is something about who we are in the Pacific Northwest, and as humans— people want a place to do their shopping,” Page opined. When asked for suggestions on how to increase the diversity and vitality of Mercer Island’s Downtown, Page brought up the renaissance of two Seattle neighborhoods which sprang from the long-term ideas of a local visionary.  In Ballard, it was Kenny Alhadeff, and his Majestic Bay Theatre, which gave steam to the revitalization there.  In South Lake Union, Paul Allen’s perceptions developed into a neighborhood plan that not only shaped the neighborhood itself but influenced Seattle’s future.  Page suggested that Mercer Island’s Downtown could also benefit from a long-term vision, and that it might reduce the “log-jam” of similar businesses which are clustered in the Downtown core.

Within the last eight years, Page’s wife, Nancy, transitioned from owning and managing her own business to partnering with him at Island Books.  She’s helped manage the helm of the store during this time of rapid change. She works with Page to maintain the relationship-based, community-hub atmosphere it has matured into.  Nancy was excited to share a lovely gift a patron hid, back in March, on top of a book self in the store.  It’s a sculpture of their logo meticulously created from the pages of a Shakespeare play, poised on a pedestal built from copies of Jane Eyre and Robinson Crusoe.  The attached note refers to an anonymous artist gifting Scottish libraries with similarly created sculptures—a neat story covered in the Store Journal 4 months ago.  More importantly, the note shared the sincere feelings of the local, unnamed artist, regarding Island Books. Through the charm of local mythos, procuring long-term staff who establish relationships with their clientele, and being involved in the community, Island Books has grown into a place where people enjoy spending time with friends and family, or just by themselves, whiling away an hour or two.  It’s so fitting that their tag line throughout the last 4 decades has often been the Shakespeare quote, “I like this place and could willingly waste my time in it.”

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