Summer is finally over, and now that October's waning I get to almost slow down into fall. People who stay are here, those who leave are mostly gone. The muskeg turned red, so did some leaves, I was there and back again. While traveling I found myself trying to describe my bookstore to people who will never visit but want to understand what helps keeps me here, so thought it was time to post in detail about the best job I've ever had.
I actually started this by accident. The writing prompt was 'Bosses' and it turned into a love letter to my bookstore.
Sing Lee Alley Books & Gifts is an independent bookstore in a town of 3,000 on an island in Alaska. The woman who started it over 30 years ago still owns the house with her husband. They live in Hawaii most of the year. The woman who bought the business from her still runs it, and since she managed it for years the transition was practically a matter of paperwork. She works hard, running the business and doing massage therapy in the back room a few days a week. I help her part-time during the year, and keep the lights on 5 days a week in winter, which is when when she travels somewhere around the world. I leave for a month each in the fall and spring, and we work with each other if other things come up.
Petersburg doesn't get the big cruise ships, relying on independent travelers or boats carrying 50-200 people at a time. We're open on Sundays in summer for 6 hours. People come to Alaska to experience our beauty and maybe find themselves. We sell a lot of Alaskan authors, books about tiny houses, memoirs from thoughtful people, and military history throughout the summer. Along with lots of other things. When I travel and shop for books for the store, I get to ignore the tables of books dedicated to how to stop being so busy.
Around Christmas we open Sundays again, then go big and stay open until 7 pm that whole week, selling books and gift items that the store owner has picked up on her travels, be it up to Anchorage or down south to Oregon, or any of the countries she's recently been to. Christmas Eve we stay open until 4 pm, and collapse on the two chairs in the store afterwards with a glass (or two) of champagne. That's the day we provide food and cider to the customers, a Norwegian-Alaskan tradition of our town where we thank them for the business over the year, and they thank us by spending more money. We don't have a website, though sometimes I post things to our Facebook page when I remember. People from communities like Point Baker (population 35) or Sitka (population 9,000) will call in orders for us to mail out. I've gotten pretty good at describing the different colors of a sock and picking out birthday cards for strangers.
The building itself is an old boarding house, built in 1927 to welcome newcomers to the island as the town still got its feet (and pilings) under it. The bookshelves were built by hand in the store, and people keep asking to buy our rugs but we like them and it'd be a pain in the ass to replace them so we say no. The walls are covered in artwork, books are intermingled with scarves, Alaskan gift items are everywhere and the kid's room is all the way in the back accidentally/on purpose. We check email once a day, twice if we're expecting something. I place the book order once a week. Along with paperbacks, select hardcovers and books that are interesting enough to get my attention, I order books certain people will like and give a call when it's arrived about one-two weeks later. We advertise when we're having a sale, but people know where to find us. Sometimes people come in just to chat with one or either of us and don't buy a thing.
I eat lunch on the stairs in the sunshine, shovel the driveway and stairs in winter, take pretty pictures of our apple tree in the fall, and sweep excess rainfall off the stairs year-round. In the summer we keep the door open so visitors know we're a business, but every other time of the year people walk in and make themselves at home.
Last winter I finally started putting up book recommendations around the store. It's forcing me to stretch my reading habits, as I realize not everyone shares my love of apocalyptic themes and feminist historical fiction. Even though they really should. This winter I'm thinking of hosting a weekly coffee hour in the post-Christmas winter time, where people bring their favorite books and we talk about them, maybe do a book swap. I don't really know where we'll fit the chairs, but something tells me it'd be worth it to try.
There are worse ways to spend a winter.
It's actually a lot more work than I make it sound, but it doesn't always feel like it.
I think that makes us lucky.