The Bookloft celebrates 40 years

Mary Swanson enjoying what she does best — carrying books to appeal to all tastes in Wallowa County. Swanson's bookstore just celebrated its 40th anniversary with an open house on Nov. 19.

It might be easy for the unknowing to dismiss Enterprise bookstore The Bookloft at its cozy spot on Main Street.

After all, what can a hole-in-the-wall store in rural Northeastern Oregon have to offer the sophisticated reader? How long can such a store possibly stay in business?

About 40 years and counting as it turns out.

The Bookloft celebrated its 40th anniversary as Wallowa County’s main bookstore on Nov. 19. In a tribute to its reputation as a gathering place, inclement weather didn’t keep a steady stream of well-wishers from pouring through the door throughout the day. Owner Mary Swanson went all out with free cake, beverages and conversation for customers, while most of the store’s tables were filled with local authors selling copies of their books or chatting with visitors.

Neatly arranged books, many by local or regional authors, lined the wall shelves. And the carousel of journals and notebooks, the magazine rack and other sundries occupying the front space of the store are just a hint of what The Bookloft has to offer.

A few steps past the cash register and into the center section, you can smell the gourmet coffee Swanson offers, along with chocolate and baked goods and generous space offered for tables and chairs. This is not a place to shop; it is a place to peruse.

The Skylight Gallery, with an actual skylight, features works of art, pottery, photography, jewelry and even goat milk soap — and more books. The affable Swanson is always available for book recommendations and general conversation.

Swanson and her husband Tom bought The Bookloft more than 28 years ago, after reading an article in The Oregonian about the store’s then-owners, Rich and Judy Wandschneider. Swanson already was a six-year veteran employee of a Portland bookstore.

“Once you work in a bookstore you’re always thinking it would be nice to own your own bookstore,” she said.

The couple had never been to Enterprise, although they’d been to the Wallowas, so they scheduled a visit.

“We fell in love with it, and it all worked — and we lived happily ever after,” Swanson said with a laugh.

More or less, that is. The Bookloft offered its own challenges as the county and country went through wide swings economically as well as the rise of online retail. However, the death knell that sounded for independent booksellers by Amazon and other online retailers did not toll for The Bookloft, in large part because of Swanson’s successful efforts to weave the store into fabric of the community.

“I consider The Bookloft as part of the community, so it’s give and take. If I want the community to support the bookstore, I have to support the community, and I do it whenever it’s possible through donations or supporting local authors,” she said.

Local writers appreciate Swanson’s efforts as well. Author Kristy Athens is just one of many who has done readings and book signings at The Bookloft and appreciates the store’s presence in the community.

“Mary has graciously carried my book, and it feels great to be part of her collection of Wallowa County writers,” Athens said.

Still, a number of other factors, including hard-nosed business sense, contribute to the store’s continued success, according to Swanson.

“Local support is just huge, and the tourist population in the summer helps. I pay attention to the business end of business. I think very carefully about what I’m buying, and I think the bookstores that figured that out have survived. I also think the diversity of offerings helps keep it going. When times are tough, we have cheaper books or coffee or whatever. It all seems to work out. After 30-plus years in the book-selling business you get to know how to pick books and what books to stock.”

Swanson’s own love of books and eagerness to share that love with others perhaps give the store its true secret of success. A self-described book fiend, Swanson offers books to appeal to nearly any reader’s taste and loves to recommend books.

Looking around her store at the dozens of customers who came to help her celebrate, Swanson smiled and said, “Of course it’s wonderful being around books all day long, but the real thrill is putting the right book in a person’s hand after they came to you for recommendations, and you find the right thing. That’s what it’s all about.”

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