Suzanne Selfors dedicated herself seriously to her writing in 2002. Three years later, her first book was published. For the next 15 years, Selfors wrote and published over 30 titles for young readers across a wide array of publishers.
“I’m very happy to say it’s been a very successful children’s author career,” Selfors says over the phone. She’s published bestselling, licensed middle-grade books with DreamWorks and Mattel, and her “Wedgie & Gizmo” series, about a superhero corgi and a brilliant-but-devious guinea pig, has won awards from coast to coast.
“I have to admit that about two years ago, I was starting to feel really burned out,” Selfors says. She had just published six books in a single year, and she was looking to scale back on writing for a while.
“That’s about the time when Suzanne Droppert,” then the owner of Poulsbo mainstay Liberty Bay Books, “put this little idea in my head about eventually buying her bookstore.”
Selfors, a fifth-generation Bainbridge Island resident, had long since made Liberty Bay the home base for her literary career. Readers from around the country ordered autographed copies of her books from the 43-year-old indie bookstore, and Droppert managed all of Selfors’ Skype visits with schools and kids book clubs.
Droppert gave Selfors about a year to decide if she wanted to buy the shop. Liberty Bay is an easy bookstore to love. Its cheery yellow storefront and lofty green spire are the heart of historic downtown Poulsbo, and it serves as both a year-round community hub for the sleepy town and a destination for tourists in search of the latest summer bestsellers.
But Selfors wasn’t sure if bookselling was for her. She contacted the owners of local bookstores she’s worked with over the years — including Village Books, Island Books and Eagle Harbor Book Company — for meetings.
“And then I asked them to share their numbers with me, and they were all completely transparent,” Selfors says with some amazement. “They were so welcoming, so willing to talk about the reality of what the numbers really look like — the things they loved and the things they didn’t love about owning bookstores.”
“I did my due diligence,” Selfors says, “and there were a lot of red flags — believe me, a lot — but I had been thinking about it for so long that it had become a reality in my brain.” Selfors agreed to buy the shop, and the two Suzannes agreed that Droppert would work one last Christmas season before retiring and handing Liberty Bay over to its new owner.
The shop closed in January for much-needed renovations. Every old bookstore could use a new carpet and a fresh coat of paint, but Selfors also had to address some “funky” leaks and other major maintenance that had gone untended during the day-to-day parade of retail life.
When the shop reopened Feb. 15 of this year, it retained the charm of Liberty Bay, but it felt renewed and revitalized. “It was wonderful,” Selfors recalls. “All my friends showed up, we had all sorts of support from local writers, and it went really well.” Sales were very strong: “Our February was the best February that the bookstore has ever had.”
But March 2020 arrived, and with it the coronavirus pandemic. Out of concern for her employees’ health, Selfors closed Liberty Bay a week before Gov. Jay Inslee’s statewide stay-at-home mandate. “It was scary,” she admits. “And then it was also scary from a financial perspective. I had a lot of sleepless nights.”
Since then, Selfors has been continually reinventing the Liberty Bay experience. She had to bulk up the shop’s anemic website so customers could order books online, and Selfors and her son became Liberty Bay’s delivery fleet. “We would just drive all over the place for hours and drop these books off at people’s doorsteps,” she recalls.
The community support for Liberty Bay was overwhelming. “Even though it was the most stressful thing I’ve ever been through,” Selfors says, adding that she “ended up on blood pressure meds for the first time in my life” during lockdown, she’s “so grateful to our customers, who not only helped us survive those early months of COVID, but are now helping us purchase books for Head Start, for incarcerated women, and for local families in need” through the store’s website.
Now that restrictions have eased, Liberty Bay has reopened for the second time this year — this time with Plexiglas shielding and sanitizer to keep everyone safe — and Selfors and her staff of four booksellers are learning how to sell books in a time of COVID. For Liberty Bay, as for most indie booksellers, the holiday season will be of vital importance, and community support will be crucial.
“None of us knows what Christmas is going to look like,” Selfors says, “and it’s the quarter in which bookstores make most of their money.”
If Selfors can steer Liberty Bay through the pandemic, she’ll get to host three successful grand opening celebrations in two years. “One of the main reasons I bought this bookstore is because I wanted to have a place where I could celebrate with all my friends,” she says. “I love events, and I designed the whole space so everything’s on wheels. We can push everything back and we can fit a hundred people in the store for some wonderful celebrations.”
The plan was always for Selfors to continue writing books while managing the bookstore, but the first few months of the pandemic made it nearly impossible to focus. “Despite all the chaos, I am finally writing again,” Selfors announces. “The title? ‘I Bought a Bookstore, Then All Hell Broke Loose.’ Because as we all know, truth is stranger than fiction.”
What’s Poulsbo reading at Liberty Bay Books?
Selfors says she wouldn’t have bought Liberty Bay Books unless Madison Duckworth, who has worked at the shop for a decade, agreed to stay on to provide a sense of continuity for the Poulsbo community. Duckworth “came with the place and she’s held my hand through much of this,” Selfors says, in shaping the store’s stock and overseeing customer relations.
“Poulsbo is a Scandinavian-themed town, so many visitors go to our Nordic section,” Selfors explains. She says “Norse Mythology,” Neil Gaiman’s modern retelling of millennia-old stories of Thor, Odin and Loki, “is a big seller, as is any book by [Swedish author] Fredrik Backman.”
Books about nature — particularly the ocean, since Liberty Bay is right on the waterfront — always do well, and “Braiding Sweetgrass,” Indigenous scientist Robin Wall Kimmerer’s sumptuous exploration of the deep and mysterious relationship between flora and fauna, is “a consistent bestseller in our store. All I do is reorder that book,” Selfors says.
“And in my favorite section, kids graphic novels,” Selfors says, “one of our bestsellers is ‘Bug Boys’ by local author Laura Knetzger.” The gorgeously illustrated comic, about two beetle friends who explore the world together, has enthralled and inspired kids who have been stuck at home during the pandemic.