Island Books customers frequently report a certain vertiginous feeling when they walk into the shop for the first time in a while: The store is, somehow, always much bigger than they remembered. Once you pass the new arrivals and staff selections in the front of the Mercer Island bookstore, you find an array of nonfiction sections and a well-stocked cookbook loft. Behind that is fiction and genre fiction, and then the store keeps tumbling backwards into humor books and board games. Finally, once you’re sure you’ve seen everything, the space opens up again into a humongous children’s book section so enveloping that it could be its own free-standing bookstore.
From the exterior, Island Books looks like nothing more than a quaint neighborhood bookstore, but the high ceilings, huge windows and never-ending shelves inside make it a literary destination. In November, Island Books will celebrate 49 years of bookselling excellence from this location.
As the fourth person to own the store, Island Books owner Laurie Raisys likes to think of herself as a steward of the shop’s traditions. Roger and Nancy Page, who owned the shop for 30 years before selling to Raisys in 2015, decorated the store with a few used typewriters, and then customers began donating more. Now, 29 typewriters of varying provenance perch atop the shelves.
When a new donation comes in, “I always make sure that we learn the typewriter’s story,” Raisys says. “My mother-in-law’s typewriter is up there. She used to type up all my husband’s papers. And then a friend of mine brought her mother, Daisy’s, typewriter, and she’s now sitting next to my mother-in-law.” She says that bookseller, Cindy Corujo, who has been working at Island Books for nearly 30 years, is “working with a school intern to historically categorize all of the typewriters in the store.”
Island Books’ staff of seven booksellers are among the best the region has to offer. Raisys says customers love Corujo for “her wicked sense of humor” and because “she goes above and beyond anything that’s asked of her.” Caitlin L. Baker is one of Washington state’s most voracious readers, and her bespoke literary fiction recommendations always unearth plenty of hidden gems from small presses. Lori Robinson posts her recommendations every week on the shop’s popular blog, and those books often wind up on the store’s bestseller list for months at a time. Raisys believes that Lillian Welch has built “one of the greatest children’s sections in the Northwest.”
“This is their vocation and they’re very good at what they do,” Raisys says of her team. “And, you know, I’m lucky. I’m very lucky.”
In addition to the usual slate of book clubs and readings, Island Books serves its community in nontraditional ways. The store hosts annual political forums that allow Mercer Island residents to meet candidates in person. Last month the shop hosted a memorial service for two longtime customers who dearly loved the store for their entire adult lives, and early this year a local couple got married at Island Books after COVID-19 restrictions foiled their original plans for a wedding in Mexico. “It was always my dream to host a bookstore wedding,” Raisys says.
Beyond weddings and funerals, Raisys has also come to love the more mundane community events. “You can always tell when there’s a lot of children’s birthday parties on the weekend, because the really organized people come in Thursday night to buy their gifts,” she says, followed by “panicked people on Friday night.”
“But the greatest indicator of a birthday party weekend is when I open the door at 9 o’clock on Saturday morning,” Raisys says, “and there’s eight people streaming in to run back to the kid’s section to get a birthday present and have it wrapped” as they’re on their way to the parties. “Those are the things that happen in a community bookstore.”
In March of 2020, just as the pandemic really began, Raisys gained international attention in an as-told-to piece published in Slate under the attention-grabbing headline “I Own a Bookstore. I Don’t Know How Much Longer We Can Survive.” Raisys says she gave the interview at “a vulnerable moment. I was really scared because all these employees rely on me for their livelihood,” and the uncertainty of the pandemic and looming lockdowns put the shop’s future in peril.
But once the piece went viral, “we were just overloaded with online orders” from all over the world, she explains. And then the Mercer Island community stepped up in a big way, ordering books and gift cards in such overwhelming numbers that the business stayed afloat until it was able to safely reopen.
“I aged about 10 years in the two years during COVID,” Raisys laughs, but now “we are in a better place. We’re back to what feels like normal.” Now, every day she comes in to open the store, Raisys takes a moment to remember that “if we did not have this community, we would not have survived.”
What are Island Books customers reading?
Mercer Island was the neighborhood of choice for many of Microsoft’s earliest employees, so it’s probably no surprise that Island Books has sold hundreds of copies of former Microsoft philanthropy program head Akhtar Badshah’s book “Purpose Mindset: How Microsoft Inspires Employees & Alumni to Change the World.” Badshah has encouraged followers on social media to purchase signed copies of his hybrid philosophy/business book from Island Books. “He’s a great guy, and it’s been a fun partnership,” Island Books owner Laurie Raisys explains.
Bookseller Lori Robinson is a vocal champion of Bonnie Garmus’s “fiercely feminist” novel “Lessons in Chemistry,” about a female chemist in the 1960s who becomes an unlikely TV cooking show host — a kind of cross between Julia Child and Mr. Wizard. The book has been a fixture on Island Books’ bestseller list since spring, along with Kate Quinn’s historical novel “The Diamond Eye “I thought I was done with [World War II] novels,” Robinson gushes on Island Books’ blog, but the “absolutely fascinating” story of a female Russian sniper who strikes up a friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt surprised her as “Quinn’s best yet.”
Candice Millard’s bracing nonfiction account of the quest for the source of the Nile, “River of the Gods,” has enraptured readers since its publication last in May. “You can always put it in someone’s hand,” Raisys says. Once they’ve read it, those customers can’t stop raving about the book to their friends. And for a community that has lost too many to COVID over the last few 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 neighborliness in hard times. Raisys explains that it’s “a book that people have given other people” in order to help them wrestle with grief and find some peace at a time of tremendous loss.