Great Alaska independent bookstores — visit one soon

I challenge you (and myself!), as the days grow longer, to make a fun road trip to an independent Alaska bookstore — perhaps even one you haven’t visited before. But first, let me explain what prompted me to make this challenge on a post-inauguration day of hope, festivity, and responsibility.

Reader and blogger Rose let me know yesterday about the sad closure of an independent Milwaukee bookstore chain called Harry W. Schwartz, where she once worked and where I did a signing in 2007. The original store had been open for 82 years. A statement attributed the closure to our recent economic downturn, a hard blow following the 2004 death of A. David Schwartz, who had taken over the chain from his father.

I loved what A. David Schwartz had to say about his profession: “Bookselling was and is for me a cultural and political expression, an expression of progressive change, of challenge to oppressive authority, of a search for a community of values which can act as an underpinning of a better world. The true profit in bookselling is the social profit; the bottom line, the measure of the impact of the bookshop on the community.

You’ll see Title Wave in Anchorage, my “happy place,” mentioned at 49 writers a lot. (I think it rivals many West Coast used/new combo indie bookstores.) But I’ve also meant to blog about Alaska’s other notable indie bookstores.

In August, I did some signings at two Mat-Su Valley shops: Fireside Books in Palmer, and Pandemonium Books & Cafe in Wasilla. I’d never been inside those stores before. I hadn’t even known they existed.

What a wonderful surprise to meet co-owner David Cheezem at Fireside, a small but atmospheric and well-stocked downtown shop with lots of great staff book recommendations (I bought an Orwell biography I’ve posted about since) and a friendly, book-loving staff. Cheezem himself is an interesting renaissance guy. He ran for political office unsuccessfully last fall, and writes daily poetry that he posts on Facebook, among other things. At Fireside, I was unable to restrain my husband from going on a book-buying binge, including both used and new titles. He bought so much they threw in a free totebag.

A few hours later, at the very modern Pandemonium Books in Wasilla, I was impressed by the incredible gourmet desserts at the gleaming cafe, plus the community room and a special dedication to educational books that would make any homeschooler feel particularly welcome. Even the bathrooms are gorgeous. Someone there has a taste for interior design, as well as literature. Who could have known that the town that gave us Sarah also has such a great and welcoming indie bookstore? Pandemonium just opened last summer, which might explain why some of us city folk have been slow to discover it.

Either of these stores are worth the drive from Anchorage, and I bet there are others. I’ve heard that River City Books & Cafe in Soldotna is a great place to spend a few hours, if you’re down that way, fishing or camping. On my past Southeast Alaska trips, I always enjoyed checking out Parnassus Books in Ketchikan (great gifts in addition to books) and Old Harbor Books in Sitka. Last summer, I popped into teeny-tiny Girdwood Books & News and came away with some original paperbacks from the 1950s for a few bucks each. Other Alaska favorites include the Homer Bookstore, and Orca Book & Sound in Cordova. Next time I’m in Fairbanks I plan to check out Gulliver’s.

Do you have a favorite Alaska bookstore or even better, a story about something special you found or experienced at an Alaska bookstore? Tell us. It’s hard to imagine now, but someday soon we’ll get one of those sunny, slushy days where you just want to drive, and a bookstore/cafe makes an excellent destination or refueling spot. If you’re a bookseller, tell us why you do it and how the business is going.

7 thoughts on “Great Alaska independent bookstores — visit one soon”

  1. Kelly O'Neal Thompson

    I have to mention Andy Wills wonderful bookstore in Homer, Cook Inlet Books, featuring a veritable feast of used books of every imaginable variety. Andy and his wife, Sally, opened a wonderful B&B and restaurant, "Mermaid Cafe", when they moved the book store into brand new digs and its current location. Their high school age daughter, Oceana, is quite a writer and has won mention several times in the ADN and Homer News writing contests.

  2. I was just going to mention Homer’s Mermaid Books, with a great Alaskana collection and the feel of Grandma’s attic. I didn’t know their daughter is a writer. (Cool name, Oceana) And probably a quarter of the books I own came from Gulliver’s.

  3. Thanks for the great heads-up on indie bookstores. I'm glad to report that, after initial scepticism about their ability to survive the new B & N in Fairbanks, Gulliver's is doing quite well — so well, in fact, that they opened an annex right next door, entirely for used and bargain Alaska-themed books.

    My fondest memory is browsing in Sitka's independent bookstore one rainy day to find the handwritten sign "Please don't drip on the books!" — I truly knew I was in Southeast, then.

    I'll be sure to check out the stores you suggested, on my book tour to Anchorage this March.

  4. Thanks for this! Melissa Behnke and I opened the bookstore in Downtown Palmer, Alaska in 2001. I thought of it as an excuse to hold poetry readings. It was and is a great location, right on the parade route (Palmer has the best parades anywhere, in the summer, in the winter, dark, light — the best parades!) We’ll always be a small, rustic bookstore. But I hope that what we give to the community is more than the number of books or the style of our decor.

    Some of the highlights of our history so far: Alexander McCall Smith, Arlitia Jones, Gretchen Diemer, John Haines, Ken Waldman, The Walt Whitman-Emily Dickinson Look-alike Contests; The 50th anniversary celebration of “Howl” (for which we won an award from the publisher (City Lights Books); all those city-wide Harry Potter events; and, of course, Andromeda Romano-Lax!

  5. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    I’d never heard of that bookstore in Homer (though I’m still confused about the name — Cook Inlet or Mermaid Books?) I’ll find out the next time I make a road trip! Also good to hear that Gulliver’s in Fairbanks is going strong. As for the comments from “Difficult Snow” (the owner of Fireside) — what a wonderful story! Buying a bookstore sounds like such fun, especially if one’s revenues expectations are grounded.

    Speaking of buying a bookstore, Michael’s comments about “don’t drip on the books” (from the Sitka shop) reminded me of my last visit to the Voyageur Bookstore in Craig, on Prince of Wales Island in Southeast AK. It was such a hip, classy little shop/cafe for such a remote locale. There was a sign in ’07 that they were looking for a new buyer, which always prompts one to think, “Is this a life I would enjoy?” Always fun to ponder.

  6. I’d probably be too immersed in books to deal with customers. (When not worrying about the decline of reading and the publishing industry.)

  7. My favorite independent bookstores are: Title Wave, Gulliver’s (I left Fairbanks a couple years ago and still miss them. Glad to hear they are doing well!), and Powell’s (in Portland, Oregon). As a long time Alaskan who recently moved to Canada, just outside Edmonton, I was shocked to find that they don’t have anything that comes close to the stores mentioned above. Unless I just haven’t found them. So savor those wonderful bookstores you have in Alaska.

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