Bainbridge Island has always been an affordable and easy escape for frazzled Seattleites who need a break from the annoyances of city life. Less than 10 bucks gets you aboard one of the frequent, relaxing half-hour ferry trips from downtown, and a 10-minute walk from the ferry terminal puts you in the heart of the town of Winslow, which is everything Seattle isn’t — quiet, calm and slow.
Winslow feels custom-built for city dwellers who want to while the time away. The main drag is lined with restaurants, galleries and shops. And for Seattleites who make their way across Puget Sound in search of rejuvenation, no Bainbridge minivacation is complete without a leisurely stop by Eagle Harbor Book Company, Winslow’s preeminent bookshop. At over 4,000 square feet, the size of Eagle Harbor surprises first-time visitors: From the front door it looks like another cute little Winslow storefront, but take just a few steps in and the shelves seem to unfold vertiginously, further and further back.
Most great independent bookstores do one thing really well, but Eagle Harbor plays double duty: It’s a quaint island bookstore, stocked with plenty of jigsaw puzzles and cheap, used cozy mysteries, and it’s also a community hub for one of Seattle’s most densely packed literary communities.
Tourists driving off the ferry in search of Washington rainforests will find all the lushly illustrated local guides they need in stock at Eagle Harbor — “Natural Bainbridge” and “Thirty Walks on Bainbridge” are two perennial bestsellers, as is “Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast” — but to get to those titles, they’ll have to walk past a shelf crammed full of books written by Bainbridge Island authors like Marlowe Benn, Carol Cassella and Jon Mooallem. Staff at Eagle Harbor like to joke that on a writer-per-square-mile basis, Bainbridge Island is the Brooklyn of the West Coast.
This month marks Eagle Harbor’s 50th anniversary. It’s been continuously owned by Bainbridge locals for the entirety of that time — most recently, the shop was bought by Jane Danielson and her husband Dave in 2016. Danielson, who worked as the events coordinator at Eagle Harbor for more than a decade before taking over ownership, admits over the phone with some sadness that she’s “not able to have the kind of party we wanted” to mark a half-century of bookselling in Winslow. Between the coronavirus lockdown earlier this year and the noxious wildfire smoke earlier this month, the shop has been struggling to adjust to the realities of small-business ownership in the year 2020.
Still, Danielson has been surprised by the outpouring of love the community has delivered to Eagle Harbor’s doorstep, through booming sales on the store’s website and by coming into the shop now that it’s reopened with COVID-19 protection protocols in place.
“One of the reasons this bookstore has lasted for 50 years is because we have a very supportive customer base right here on Bainbridge Island and on the Kitsap Peninsula,” Danielson says. Eagle Harbor’s customer loyalty program has “something like 16,000 names in it,” she adds, and “when I saw that they really had our backs, it was very motivating.”
Seattle continues to show up for Eagle Harbor, too. “We’re having very busy weekends,” Danielson says. “The ferries are packed with people from Seattle coming across on weekends. You can sit up top and not worry about COVID, and you can meander and stroll and have a wonderful afternoon, which is maybe not happening in downtown Seattle right now.”
Winslow has tried to accommodate visitors in a healthy way. When the weather is good, chef Brandon McGill sets up weekend open-air cookouts just up the street from Eagle Harbor at Hitchcock Deli & Market, and day-trippers munch on fish and chips from Proper Fish as they poke around. Eagle Harbor keeps its doors and windows open to promote airflow and Danielson says that on weekends bookstore staff has had to enforce the shop’s maximum of 20 browsers at one time to maintain social distance.
Though Seattleites come to Bainbridge when they want to slow the march of time, Winslow has seen its own explosion of growth in recent years. As more and more families have moved to the island, Eagle Harbor’s year-round customer base, which longtime booksellers say used to be largely older people and retirees, has gotten younger. As a result, its children’s book section has spread into its own expansive kingdom in the back of the store, with booksellers promoting a deep catalog of young adult titles in the staff recommendation section.
“We’re interviewing for a position right now and it’s funny: Two women who’ve come in for interviews literally grew up in the bookstore,” Danielson laughs. “I remember them as children looking for books, and now they want to work here.” Conditions for the anniversary celebration have been less than ideal, but Eagle Harbor is on good footing to launch into the next 50 years.
The books that built Eagle Harbor
There is no question what the all-time bestselling book at Eagle Harbor Book Company is, according to store owner Danielson. “Of course, it’s ‘Snow Falling on Cedars,’” she says. The novel by Bainbridge resident David Guterson unflinchingly reflects “the history of the Pacific Northwest, and offers a sense of healing. We still sell several copies a week.”
Another perennial store bestseller that Danielson says is “iconic for visitors and island dwellers is called ‘The Curve of Time.’” She calls M. Wylie Blanchet’s memoir about raising five small children on her own in the late 1920s “a remarkable story of what the Northwest used to be, told by an amazing, resilient woman.”
Bainbridge writer Jonathan Evison has long been an Eagle Harbor favorite, both for his moving and inventive novels and his rollicking, beer-fueled readings, which tend to run long into the evening. Danielson says her staff is torn over which of Evison’s novels is the store’s favorite; it’s between “West of Here” (“an epic, sweeping story of the Pacific Northwest with hundreds of characters spanning a hundred years”) and the Bainbridge-set “Lawn Boy,” a comedic novel about a poor landscaper who resents having to tend the shrubs of wealthy Winslowites.
The list of local authors is yards long. From bestselling romance novelist Susan Wiggs (“whenever she has a new book come out, we get preorders for months and months ahead of time”) to popular kid’s book author Lynn Brunelle (“she makes science fun and accessible”), Danielson says the community built and fostered by local authors is the secret of Eagle Harbor’s success.