Of all the small businesses that make up the core of the various Whidbey municipalities’ commercial districts, the island’s independent bookstores are among the most beloved.
This weekend, Whidbey bookstores will join others nationwide in observing Independent Bookstore Day. Saturday, April 29 is the 10th anniversary of the national celebration, and island bookstores will join together for their second annual bookstore crawl.
Book-lovers can pick up a passport at any of the five participating shops — The Book Rack, Wind and Tide Bookshop and His Place Christian Books and Gifts in Oak Harbor; Kingfisher Bookstore in Coupeville; or Moonraker Books in Langley — and make a purchase to earn a stamp at each store.
Participants who receive stamps at at least four of the five locations will receive a commemorative tote bag. Some of the participating stores will also offer special events and promotions.
Running a small business is no easy feat, especially when squaring up against prominent online competitors and large chain retailers, Whidbey booksellers said. Owners of participating bookstores shared how they personalize their services to best meet the needs of a hyper-local community.
Take a look at the five independent bookstores in Whidbey’s crawl.
The Book Rack
Oak Harbor native Matt Daniel owns the bookstore that his parents founded in 1983. Daniel worked at the Book Rack throughout his childhood and early adulthood — at age 12, he was paid one dime per book he shelved.
When his parents planned to retire and close the shop in 2013, Daniel knew he wanted to step in and keep it alive. There were a lot of opportunities for growth and modernization, he said, and his parents were ecstatic that he wanted to run it full time.
In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, the Book Rack found its niche in comic books and role-playing games. Today, in addition to books, the shop continues to sell games, as well as art and craft supplies, puzzles, gifts and apparel.
Daniel said the shop remains competitive in a market dominated by large chain retailers and online stores by offering personalized customer service and tailoring inventory to the community’s interests.
“We know our community. We know what they want to read,” he said.
Book Rack staff also make a point to offer an inclusive space by stocking books with diverse representation. The shop is a place for everyone regardless of background, Daniel said.
The Book Rack is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year with monthly specials and a weekly spotlight hour in which store patrons can roll two twenty-sided dice and earn up to 40% off their purchases.
Most notably, the shop will also be moving to its new location this year, next door to its current address at 551 Midway Boulevard. Daniel said its new space will be four times larger than the current spot and include room for a cafe and private event rooms.
He hopes to be fully open at the new location in August or September of this year.
The Book Rack will celebrate Independent Bookstore Day with fun events and promotions of its own, including a prize wheel and crafts for kids on April 29 and 30.
On Saturday, patrons can participate in a costume contest or search for a golden ticket hidden in the store to earn a year’s worth of free audiobooks from Libro.fm. Eldritch Black, author of the Weirdby Island series, will hold a reading and book signing from 5 to 6 p.m.
On Sunday, the store will host a scavenger hunt, and local children’s author Johann Steinke will give a reading from 11 a.m. to noon.
Wind and Tide
Karen Mueller had no prior retail experience and was already retired when she bought Wind and Tide Bookshop in 2011. Though a lifelong avid reader, she hadn’t imagined herself owning a bookstore until she moved back to her native Whidbey Island and found out that the bookstore she’d visited as a child would likely close.
“It needed to be saved,” she said.
Sisters Mary Carr and Dorothy Park opened the shop in 1967, and it passed through two more owners before coming under Mueller’s ownership. Learning to run a business was quite the undertaking; there was a steep learning curve, Mueller said, as she expanded the inventory and organized the shop.
But she didn’t undertake any major remodels or changes to the Wind and Tide brand; Mueller said she always wanted the space to retain the charm that has made it a city landmark for decades.
“I don’t want to be shiny and glossy and all that,” she said. “I’d rather be laid back and old-fashioned.”
The bookstore owner said she’s circumvented the difficulties posed by larger bookstores and online sellers by focusing on the hyper-local, including Whidbey guides and books about the history and ecology of the island.
Mueller even carries books with her own name in them, as some of the history books about Whidbey Island feature properties owned by her family.
For her part, she also enjoys reading in the store during the day. She said she doesn’t have a particular genre preference.
“I’ll read anything — I can’t help it,” she said.
Wind and Tide Bookshop is located at 790 Pioneer Way.
Oak Harbor’s third independent bookstore is His Place Christian Books and Gifts. Janelle Poor, the worship director at Church on the Rock, owns and operates the bookshop with her husband, Seth.
Like Mueller, Poor said she and her husband never dreamed they would own a bookstore. The store was founded in 1974 and has had two previous owners, Poor said.
She and her husband were selling their homemade wooden signs there when the previous owner approached them about taking over the shop. The couple accepted.
“We weren’t seeking this out at all,” she said. “We’re very surprised to be here, but we love it.”
Poor said her husband gravitates toward the book side of the business, while she handles the gifts, which include mugs, candles, soaps, stickers, jewelry, art and more.
The couple has owned His Place for around five years now. With much of that time dominated by the COVID-19 pandemic, Poor said it has not been an easy journey, but the community has stepped up and shown its support.
“We would not be here if it were not for them,” Poor said.
She added that she and her husband are always listening to their customers and asking them what they want; as a result, the store is always changing and evolving.
His Place can be found at 350 Pioneer Way.
The iconic bookstore on Front Street is located in one of many historic buildings in downtown Coupeville. The building has gone through many different eras before becoming the beloved local landmark it is today.
Built in 1916, the building that now houses Kingfisher Bookstore was once known as the Benson Confectionary, according to Kingfisher employee Felix Hall. During the building’s stint as a candy shop, ships used to sail right up to the bay doors on the bottom level to deliver goods.
Hall said the building has also been a mercantile and a liquor store before its former owner Carl King opened the bookstore. He owned it for around 30 years before its current owner, Meg Olson, came onto the scene.
Hall said Olson was considering buying property in historic Coupeville for hospitality when she saw that Kingfisher was for sale. She convinced King to sell it to her; Hall said Olson had to prove her knowledge of books was up to snuff. King sold Olson the store in 2018, and in the beginning of her tenure, she lived out of the back office while running it.
Olson has made a number of changes in the brief time she’s owned the shop. During the pandemic, Olson opened up the lower level, which used to be an unfinished basement. She put in interior stairs and shelving and now houses merchandise there.
Hall said the upcoming Independent Bookstore Day is a way for Whidbey’s local bookshops to support each other. Though they are all technically in competition, he said, they also depend on one another to keep the small bookstore industry alive.
“This is a chance to promote and celebrate each other,” he said.
Kingfisher Bookstore is located at 16 Front Street. The shop will also celebrate with a scavenger hunt and prize wheel this Saturday, and Hall said that patrons who show up dressed as their favorite book characters may receive a special discount.
The store will also host Eldritch Black for a reading at 2 p.m. April 29.
The island’s southernmost bookstore participating in this weekend’s festivities is Moonraker Books.
The only participating bookstore on the island still under the care of its original owner, Moonraker was founded by Josh Hauser and her late husband Glenn in 1972. The store, which is named for the top square sail on a boat, has remained in its original location at 209 First Street in Langley since its beginning.
Known for its coziness, Moonraker has a second level with a skylight that shines on the mezzanine, store employee Dianne Shiner said in an interview. Shoppers enjoy sitting and reading in the shop or striking up conversations about books and other topics close to their hearts.
Shiner has been working part time in the shop for a year.
“I absolutely love it,” she said. “It’s so fun.”
She echoed the sentiments of some of the other bookstore owners, saying that personalized service is what distinguishes small, independent bookstores from their larger counterparts. At Moonraker, customers can find books on topics of local interest such as gardening, hiking and whale watching, as well as books by local authors.
They can also be greeted by booksellers who have known their families for generations.
“When you watch Josh,” Shiner said, “she is speaking to a customer, and she may have known their parents, and then them, and now their children. It’s really personal.”
Last year, Langley Mayor Scott Chaplin declared June 2022 to be Josh Hauser Appreciation Month, and Hauser won a state Legacy on Main Award for her contributions to downtown Langley.
“Josh is known as the welcome wagon, a small business mentor, a person of joy who doesn’t take things too seriously,” the award announcement read. “In so many ways, Josh lives up to her reputation of being ‘The Heart of Langley.’”