There are three new bosses in charge of Fairhaven’s iconic bookstore. After 36 years of running Village Books and Paper Dreams, founders Chuck and Dee Robinson have retired.
They sold the business to Kelly Evert, Paul Hanson and Sarah Hutton, three longtime-employees.
They had already been helping run the day-to-day operations of the store, and helped oversee the expansion to a second location in Lynden in 2015. They officially took the helm on Jan. 1. Before that, Evert and Hanson, a married couple, and Hutton took some time to sit down with the BBJ.
Answers have been edited for length and clarity
So how did you each get started in book selling, and what do you like about it?
Hutton: I started in 2001 at Borders, and I have been in book stores ever since. I think books really reach people at times in their lives when they need them. Whether it’s a happy time and it’s a celebration or it’s a bad time and they’re looking for some consolation. It’s a way to escape.
Hanson: I started, it was a college job back in 1989 in Illinois and I was working for Waldenbooks. Then I was in the mecca of the Northwest, the mecca of independent bookstores, and that’s when I started working for Eagle Harbor Book Company on Bainbridge island. And I ended up managing that store for about 18 years.
And what do you like about book selling in particular?
Hanson: I was working my way through college and cycling through different majors. The one constant that I had was English and creative writing. And then I realized that should probably be my major, because that’s how I’m wired is to talk about books. Books are usually the best vehicle to have a good conversation about something that matters. Somebody once asked me if I read self-help books, and my quick, pithy answer was that every book I read is a self-help book. And then I realized it’s true, you can get something from everything you read that will help you grow or serve as a cautionary tale.
Evert: I got my start in my first year of college and I wound up hanging out at the independent bookstore in town, Port Book and News in Port Angeles. And one day the owner just said, as long as you’re hanging out here, can I go get dinner and I’ll pay you to stay here? He just hired me on the spot. Because I was always there anyway.
Hanson: One of your first experiences, or one of your early experiences, at Port Book and News was when their home burnt down–
Evert: Yeah, that’s the sad part of the story; their house had burnt down the week before and they needed someone to take care of their store while they took care of their life. And so he handed me the keys basically and said I need you to take care of the store. So I didn’t really get any training. I learned a lot. I had to learn fast. And I liked it. So I stayed.
And what do you like about books?
Evert: I find, personally, it’s an escape, like Sarah said. But it’s just this intimate story between you and the book and you’re putting all that time and effort into reading the story and holding the story and carrying it with you in your purse. It just becomes a part of you, and that’s pretty neat.
What is your favorite book?
Hanson: That is the hardest question.
Hutton: I kind of like favorite book this year. Because saying favorite ever is like asking what’s your favorite child.
Hanson: I think my favorite book this year is “Before the Wind,” by Jim Lynch.
Hutton: I think mine is “Salt to the Sea.” Ruta Sepetys. It’s a part of WWII history that I was not familiar with at all.
Evert: One of mine was ‘News of the World’. Paulette Jiles. Also “Piano Tide” by Kathleen Dean Moore. “Piano Tide” is about — the author is an environmental philosopher — and it touches on the environment and what we’re dealing with with the environment right now. “News of the World” was just a very sweet story. It had just really good characters. You really learn to love both of them.
What was your experience with Village Books before you came to work here?
Evert: I went to Western, so my first day of school I came down here. So I lived here as a student and then as a young mom. I’d bring my daughter in here. So I feel like I’ve kind of grown up with it.
What are some of the differences between working at a corporate bookstore and working at an independent bookstore?
Hutton: I think the biggest difference that struck me when I started working here is that you have full control over what you have in the store in terms of product, in terms of advertising, or in terms of events you offer, those are all things that are chosen at the store level. One of the things that was frustrating when I worked at a corporate bookstore was I worked in Las Vegas, and the advertising that would come to us in September was like, ‘warm up with a good book’ and we would not be able to change that in any way. It had to be a certain way at a certain time at a certain place, no exceptions. And I thought that was very limiting, and not serving the customer, or the staff, or the good of the store as a whole.
Hanson: It’s very limiting the service you can provide, too. I remember, and it may have changed with technology, but I remember somebody would ask for a book that you didn’t have and you’d say, OK I can order that for you, it will be here in about two weeks.
It will be here in about two weeks. That’s all you could say. And the level of knowledge or input or ability to help someone was extremely limited.
Here our salespeople are highly trained and they can research all kinds of options to be able to fulfill the needs of our customers, be it where it’s ordered from, the format it’s in, whether it’s a used copy, being able to call other stores to see if they have them, finding rare books.
And to be able to serve our local authors — there are so many writers in this community. Just as an example we’ve designated September as memoir writing month, and not only do we have a place for them to meet to work through that, but then they can also publish the book through us, and then they can also come here and have a reading.
Can you imagine the corporate hoops you’d have to run through to get something like that going?
I think that’s one of the biggest changes between here and the corporate life is when somebody comes to us with an idea or a proposal or a question, we can say yes.
What are some of the challenges of running an independent bookstore?
Hanson: All the decisions are in-house. The infrastructure, you’ve got the buying and the selling, the financial, the marketing. We don’t have corporate offices making those decisions for us. So it’s a lot more labor intensive.
Our behind-the-scenes infrastructure is far more intricate.
Evert: We have to wear a lot of hats. One person will do many different jobs. And that’s for everyone who works here.
When did the first conversation start that you three would be taking over the store from Chuck and Dee?
Hanson: It was kind of an evolution.
Hutton: The discussions really started in earnest when they returned from their trip this year. They went on a cruise.
Evert: I think they liked being on vacation.
Hutton: They realized that the life of retirement could be very pleasant.
Hanson: And that the store didn’t burn down while they were gone.
Hutton: And so we started talking then about what that might look like in terms of transition.
Hanson: I think we had all pictured a much longer transition. But then I think they wanted to get vacationing early.
Hutton: Start reading all the books they had accumulated.
What do you think Chuck and Dee’s legacy is?
Hanson: It’s huge. The community building that they have been doing since they hit town 36 years ago cannot be measured. Or underestimated. There are so many institutions here that they have been founding board members of, or instrumental in forming. City Club, Sustainable Connections, the Food Co-op, Whatcom Reads, the Whatcom Community College Foundation. There’s not too many boards in the city of Bellingham that at least one of them hasn’t served on.
Hutton: And there’s also their part in the larger bookselling community. They’ve taught bookselling school.
Hanson: I was just remembering one of the days after I started here when Chuck and I were driving down the road, going from one meeting to the other and it seemed like every other person we passed, he said oh, they used to work at Village Books, they used to work at Village Books. Every body he introduced me to.
Hutton: Folks have had their wedding pictures taken inside the store, and weddings here.
Evert: We had our wedding here.
Hanson: We got married on the green behind the store. The reception upstairs. Joan, one of the booksellers here, married us.
So is it at all daunting to step into this role, or do you think you can handle it?
Evert: Yes and yes.
Hutton: Oh we can handle it, but it is daunting.
Hanson: Fortunately for the past few years we’ve been running the day to day operations. And in fact for the past five years the five of us have been meeting weekly to talk about daily operations, and also the big picture direction of the store.
Are there a lot of other bookstores that do everything that Village Books does?
Hanson: From what I’ve heard, no. It’s hard to talk about what we do because as you can tell, the article just keeps going because there’s just more and more things that we’re doing.
Evert: And we’re looking for more.
Hanson: And we’re looking for more. Which is exciting because one of the things people ask us as new owners is ‘what are you going to be changing?’
And Chuck came up with this: well, they’re going to change something because Village Books, one of its founding principles is change and innovation and so the expectation is that we will continue to change.
What we would hate to see is somebody who doesn’t realize that and will blame changes upon new ownership, the new owners are screwing things up.
Hutton: We also expect to be known as the new owners for about 15 years.
Hanson: And the number of things that Village Books has screwed up over the years is magnificent.
You can’t improve without making mistakes.
So one thing we’re not going to change is we’re going to keep making mistakes like we have in the past and learning from them.
What do you think you might do next? Where do you see the trends going that you might have to follow?
Hutton: Digital is really an area that we’re looking at and whether that’s our offering already in terms of audiobooks, or whether that’s marketing that happens inside the store, or whether that’s improved website offerings, those are some of the areas that we’re looking at.
Hanson: I want to host a pun contest.
Evert: I want to have morning yoga classes, or evening tango classes. Fun stuff.