From books to weddings and memorials, Island Books has served Mercer Island for nearly 50 years
Island Books customers frequently report a certain dizzying sensation when entering the store for the first time in a long time: the store is, somehow, still much bigger than they remembered. Once you pass new arrivals and staff picks in front of the Mercer Island Bookstore, you’ll find an array of non-fiction sections and a well-stocked cookbook loft. Behind that is fiction and genre fiction, and then the store keeps tumbling into comedy books and board games. Finally, once you’re sure you’ve seen it all, the space once again opens up to a huge section of children’s books so enveloping it could be its own independent bookstore.
From the outside, Island Books looks like nothing more than a quaint neighborhood bookstore, but the high ceilings, huge windows, and endless bookshelves inside make it a literary destination. In November, Island Books will celebrate 49 years of excellence in selling books from this location.
As the fourth person to own the store, Island Books owner Laurie Raisys likes to think of herself as the store’s keeper of traditions. Roger and Nancy Page, who owned the store for 30 years before selling to Raisys in 2015, decorated the store with a few used typewriters and then customers started donating more. Today, 29 typewriters from different sources perch on the shelves.
When a new gift arrives, “I always make sure we learn about the history of the typewriter,” Raisys says. “My mother-in-law’s typewriter is up there. She typed all my husband’s papers. And then a friend of mine brought her mother’s typewriter, Daisy, and she’s now sitting next to my mother-in-law. She says the bookseller, Cindy Corujo, who has worked at Island Books for almost 30 years, “is working with an intern from the school to historically categorize all the typewriters in the store.”
Island Books’ staff of seven booksellers is among the best in the region. Raisys says customers love Corujo for “her sense of humor” and because “she goes above and beyond anything asked of her.” Caitlin L. Baker is one of Washington State’s most voracious readers, and her bespoke literary fiction recommendations always reveal many hidden gems in small presses. Lori Robinson posts her recommendations weekly on the store’s popular blog, and these books often end up on the store’s bestseller list for months at a time. Raisys believes Lillian Welch has built “one of the greatest children’s sections in the North West”.
“It’s their calling and they’re very good at what they do,” Raisys says of his team. “And, you know, I’m lucky. I am very fortunate.”
In addition to the usual roster of book clubs and books, Island Books serves its community in non-traditional ways. The store hosts annual policy forums that allow residents of Mercer Island to meet the candidates in person. Last month the shop held a memorial service for two longtime customers who have adored the store for their entire adult lives, and earlier this year a local couple married at Island Books after the COVID-19 restrictions thwarted their initial wedding plans in Mexico. “I’ve always dreamed of having a wedding in a bookstore,” says Raisys.
Beyond weddings and funerals, Raisys has also come to love the more mundane community events. “You can always tell when there are a lot of kids’ birthday parties at the weekend because the really organized people come on Thursday nights to buy their presents,” she says, followed by “freakish people on Friday nights.” .
“But the best indicator of a birthday party weekend is when I open the door at 9 a.m. on Saturday morning,” Raisys says, “and there are eight people rushing back to the kids’ section to get a birthday present and have it wrapped” as they head to the holidays. “Those are the things that happen at a community bookstore.”
In March 2020, just as the pandemic was truly beginning, Raisys captured international attention in an article published in Slate under the catchy headline “I Own a Bookstore. I don’t know how long we can survive. Raisys says she gave the interview at “a vulnerable time. I was really scared because all these employees are relying on me for sustenance,” and the uncertainty of the pandemic and impending closures puts the future of the store in jeopardy.
But once the piece went viral, “we were just overloaded with online orders” from around the world, she explains. And then the Mercer Island community stepped up, ordering books and gift cards in such numbers that the business stayed afloat until it could safely reopen.
“I’ve aged about 10 years in the two years during COVID,” Raisys laughs, but now “we’re in a better place. We’re back to what feels normal. Now every day she comes to open the store, Raisys takes a moment to remember that “if we didn’t have this community, we wouldn’t have survived.”
What do Island Books customers read?
Mercer Island was the neighborhood of choice for many of Microsoft’s early employees, so it’s probably no surprise that Island Books sold hundreds of copies of the book by former Microsoft philanthropy program manager Akhtar. Badshah, “Purpose Mindset: How Microsoft Inspires Employees & Alumni to Change the World”. .” Badshah encouraged his social media followers to purchase signed copies of his philosophy-business hybrid book from Island Books. “He’s a great guy, and it’s been a fun partnership,” says Laurie Raisys, owner of Island Books.
Bookseller Lori Robinson is a vocal champion in Bonnie Garmus’ “fiercely feminist” novel “Lessons in Chemistry,” about a 1960s female chemist who becomes an unlikely TV cooking show host – sort of a cross between Julia Child and Mr. Wizard. The book has been on Island Books’ bestseller list since the spring, along with Kate Quinn’s historical novel “The Diamond Eye.” [World War II] novels,” Robinson gushed on the Island Books blog, but the “absolutely fascinating” story of a Russian sniper who strikes up a friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt surprised her as “Quinn’s best yet.” .
Candice Millard’s invigorating non-fiction tale of the quest for the source of the Nile, “River of the Gods,” has delighted readers since its publication last May. “You can always put it in someone’s hand,” Raisys says. Once they read it, these customers can’t help but tell their friends about it. And for a community that has lost too much to COVID in recent years, Susan Cain’s “Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole” has become more than just a book – it’s a gift of grace and good neighbor in difficult times. Raisys explains that it’s “a book that people have given to other people” in order to help them deal with grief and find some peace at a time of tremendous loss.