A bookstore closes, and an era ends

Books by the Way has had many incarnations over the years, opening first in the Old Fuller Store at Center and then moving into town, where it claimed at least four locations.

Jenni Wilke sells a stack of discounted books to a longtime customer.

Books by the Way has had many incarnations over the years, opening first in the Old Fuller Store at Center and then moving into town, where it claimed at least four locations.

Now, the 38-year-old business, the longest-running bookstore on Vashon, is about to shutter its doors for good. And owner Jenni Wilke, appropriately, it seems, will hold a wake to mark the small shop’s closure.

“It’ll be an opportunity for people to celebrate the bookstore with stories and memories, the same way you’d celebrate a life,” she said. “But we also realize there will be some sadness.”

Indeed, last week, as books, discounted 45 percent, flew out of the store, one customer after another noted how sorry he or she was to see the Island institution close.

“It’s been around forever,” said Joanne Calhoun. “I will miss it.”

“It’s heartbreaking,” another woman said as she placed 11 books on the counter. “I’ve been a loyal customer for 10 years.”

She patted Wilke’s dog Millie on the head and then gave the bookseller a hug.

“It’s been such a great place to hang out,” she told Wilke.

And so it’s gone for the last couple of weeks, as Wilke upped her discounts, finally scrawling on a  sandwich-board sign on the sidewalk “closing mid-November.”

Some have come into the store asking Wilke who they’ll now turn to for book suggestions. Others have shed tears. Several, Wilke said, apologized for not buying more books.

But Wilke, who bought the store four years ago with her husband Dave, doesn’t blame Vashon for the shop’s closure. As her husband put it, “a perfect storm” hit the bookstore during their brief tenure as owners — a fateful combination of economic hardship, the ongoing popularity of online book-buying and the final blow, a growing interest in Kindles and e-books.

And while it’s little comfort, the Wilkes note, they’re hardly alone.

Last month, Powell’s, a venerable bookstore in Portland, Ore., announced it was laying off 40 employees, while Barnes & Nobles announced the closure of its store at University Village, one of many outlets the chain is shutting down.

Nationally, both independents and chains have been hit hard, Jenni Wilke added. According to numbers recently released by the American Booksellers Association, there were 4,000 independent and chain bookstores in 2008, Wilke said. Now, she said, the ABA reports that 1,800 exist.

“And there’s no sign of it slowing,” she said. “Bookstores are still closing at a consistent rate.”

Businesses come and go on Vashon, of course. But there’s something special about a bookstore, some say, especially one that’s been around for nearly four decades and that has a storied past.

It was opened by Islander Vivian Conant on Oct. 26, 1973, in the Old Fuller Store at Center. Why it was given the name Books by the Way none of the current employees know, though Dan Chasan, a longtime Islander who knew Conant, always assumed it was because the shop was located on the highway.

Conant eventually moved her shop into Vashon town, where it first occupied the small, yellow house behind AJ’s Espresso and eventually moved to a structure on Bank Road, now the site of Vashon Island Fire & Rescue. That structure became the first house at Vashon Cohousing; Betty Martin bought it for $1 after Books by the Way relocated to the small business strip where it now sits and the fire department wanted to get rid of its former structure to make room for a new fire station, Martin recalled.

For years, Books by the Way was the only bookstore on Vashon, Chasan said, becoming the center of the Island’s literary life when Islander Juli Morser approached then-owner Susan Montoya to see if she could begin a program of author readings at the small shop.

It was a vibrant time for the store. Morser brought several authors to the Island — among them, David Guterson, Nancy Pearl, Dan Savage, Robert Michael Pyle and Sherman Alexie, whose event was held at the Vashon Theatre to accommodate the crowd. Margie Morgan, a current employee who has worked there a little more than a decade, recalled Alexie’s visit as one of the highlights.

“It was incredible,” she said. “We filled the theater.”

In 2003, Jan and Charlie Peterson purchased the bookstore, but by then, Charlie Peterson said, it was clear to many booksellers that theirs was an industry on the decline. Indeed, the Petersons were in the process of liquidating a bookstore they owned in Colorado when they purchased Books by the Way.

Even so, they made a go of it for about five years, eventually selling to the Wilkes, who had moved to Vashon from Flagstaff, Ariz. Dave Wilke remembers the moment he told Charlie Peterson they wanted to buy it. Wilke asked Peterson what he needed to seal the deal, and Peterson told him $1 in earnest money. Peterson then tore a scrap of paper off of a pad, jotted down $1 and called it a receipt.

The Wilkes, many noted, have worked hard to keep the small store afloat. Jenni Wilke was often seen at the store with one of her three young children on hand, helping out or reading a book. She held events at the store — “Harry Potter” release parties, craft parties for Island causes and events that promoted children’s literacy.

She tried incorporating other retail offerings into the store — such as “upcycled clothes,” outfits made from discarded items. And in one of their bolder moves, the Wilkes last year relocated the store from the western edge of the building to a much smaller space adjacent to the bustling Café Luna, installing a glass door between the bookstore and the café to encourage traffic.

As his wife stood next to him behind the counter, Dave Wilke said he watched Jenni come to terms with the sale in recent weeks, moving from a place of blaming herself for the closure to a realization that she and her husband did all they could and more to keep the shop alive.

“We’ve made big decisions, aggressive moves and personal sacrifices,” he said. “And it’s simply gotten harder and more time-consuming.”

Closing the bookstore is painful not only to the Wilkes but also to their two longtime employees, Morgan and Morser. Both said they saw it coming. Even so, Morser said, she considers it the end of an era as well as the end of job she’s thoroughly enjoyed.

Most gratifying, Morser said, was helping a customer choose a book, then having the person return to the store pleased by the selection and wanting help finding another. Such interactions sometimes had a personal, even intimate, feel, Morser said.

“People would just open up because you’d find these connections over books,” she said.

“I love books, and I love people. And a bookstore brought both of them together,” she added.

Ever resourceful, Jenni Wilke says she’s found a new way to use the space, but without the heavy responsibility of running a small business. She and several other Islanders interested in textiles and fiber arts plan to run a collective storefront, where they’ll sell items, hold classes and possibly even make their wares.

Wilke says she’s not sorry she and Dave took on the bookstore. He started reading novels as a result of their ownership, and her interest in literature has only deepened, she said. She’s also met a lot of people, and the couple have found a place for themselves in the Vashon community as a result of their effort to make the bookstore a community-centered spot.

The shop will officially close on Saturday, with the wake the following Friday from 5 to 7 p.m. Jenni Wilke said she and her staff decided on the wake at a recent staff meeting, when they discussed how important it was to give Island residents an opportunity to gather in the store one last time.

“I think it will provide a sense of closure,” Wilke said. “The bookstore’s been on the Island for almost 40 years, and people want the opportunity to say goodbye.”


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