At a time when Amazon has erased big box booksellers, many neighborhood bookshops have persisted and even prospered. The tantalizing aromas of ink, paper and coffee are like pheromones for bookworms. Amid the shelves of stories and verse there’s a comforting quietude, a sense of belonging, and always the secret pleasure of new discoveries.
Wallowa County’s own local bookstore, The Bookloft, changed ownership this week. Mary Swanson, who has nurtured the shop and the community for 32 years, is turning the keys over to Katy Madrid and Becky Wyland. “I feel really confident about them. It’s a good move,” Swanson said.
Madrid moved to the county in 2015 and recently retired after working for the federal government for 30 years, most recently as the Geospatial Area Manager for the Wallowa Whitman National Forest in Joseph. Wyland has spent more than a decade working for public health nonprofits. She’s been at the Wallowa Valley Center for Wellness for the past 3 years. Madrid likes to read biography, nonfiction and short stories. Wyland gravitates toward history, historical fiction, general fiction, sci fi and fantasy. So together, they have most realms of books and reading covered.
“When I heard that Mary might be selling the bookstore, and mentioned it to Becky, we both thought ‘Oh wouldn’t that be just the best thing ever.’ But then we thought “there’s no way that’s going to happen.” But the buyer who was ahead of them backed out, and ultimately, Madrid and Wyland found themselves the new owners of The Bookloft.
“Becky will be the full-time person in the store,” Madrid said, “and I can do computer stuff and also be engaged in the store because we both love books … and coffee. It just seemed right.”
That was in December, 2019. Then COVID-19 happened. “We thought we’d be scared, and that everyone would think we were crazy,” Madrid said. “But everyone was really supportive. They kept saying ‘Everyone drinks coffee and reads books and wants to have a place locally where they can do all that. You’ll be fine.’”
“You see the stories where Amazon’s profits have really gone through the roof,” said Wyland. “But you also see the other side of it where more and more people really want to support small local businesses.”
As they settle into this new chapter of The Bookloft’s life, the new owners are absorbing lots of training and suggestions from Mary Swanson. Mary isn’t going anywhere, except outside, a place she really misses, to read all the books that she hasn’t gotten read in the past 32 years while she’s been running The Bookloft. “My house is full of books,” she said. “I haven’t had time to read hardly any of them.” Swanson also wants to do volunteer work for local nonprofits, and work in her garden. “Not the manic weekend type of gardening,” she said. “The slower, more relaxing kind.”
Madrid and Wyland have pledged to retain the store’s character. And eventually perhaps, infuse a few new wrinkles.
The Skylight gallery remains. So does the coffee/espresso “café.” You’ll find just as many books, and they’ll be pretty much in the same places. Madrid and Wyland said they likely will make The Bookloft more internet-connected, with the ability to order books online, a more detailed and inviting website, and some other nuances. “But things will stay pretty much as they are, at least for now,” Madrid said. “Except that I might start opening the store earlier in the morning for folks who want coffee.” For a bookseller now, being tech-savvy and looking at all the ways you can use tech to reach more people, is important. “We’re tech enthusiasts for sure,” Wyland said. That includes working through organizations (for example, bookshop.org) that are bringing independent booksellers together to compete with big online stores. That won’t have any effect on The Bookloft’s physical ambiance and local service , but it does provide another platform to enhance sales.
Since its inception, The Bookloft has supported local writers. It’s worked hand in glove with Fishtrap to promote local writers, and always put their work front and center, right up by the cash register in a can’t miss location. There have been book signings, poetry readings, and pawtograph parties. The new owners intend to maintain those traditions too, and will also be reaching out to Rich Wandschneider, who started The Bookloft in 1976, for advice, and perhaps participating somehow in the new Josephy Center Book Club.
The only unresolved problem seems to be what to do with The Bookloft’s collection of armadillos that line the top of bookshelves. Swanson began collecting them long before she purchased The Bookloft. “They were interesting and exotic animals,” she said. At last count there were more than 100 of them placed, perched, and scattered throughout the store. “We were going to have a big opening party and give them away to new homes,” Madrid said. “But now with the social distancing thing, a big opening party isn’t really an option. We haven’t quite got this figured out yet.”
Anyone with suggestions about the armadillos, or questions about books can call the shop at 541.426.3351, visit The Bookloft’s website bookloftoregon.net, or drop in for a visit now that the store is open under Phase 1 guidelines.