KODIAK, Alaska — For Kodiak residents who want to buy books, thrift stores and online shopping have been the only option. But Melissa Haffeman and Lacey Tucker are about to change that.
The Islander Bookshop is open at 1315 Mill Bay Road, bringing a collection of 3,000 books and handcrafted gifts to Kodiak shoppers.
“The shop has always been a dream of mine,” Haffeman said. She graduated from Kodiak High School and worked in education for 17 years, most recently serving as the principal of Kodiak Middle School. But when devastating news hit her family, she decided to make a change.
“Life changed suddenly for our family in April. Out of the blue, my dad experienced paralysis in both his legs in a week’s time,” she said.
“We flew up to Anchorage and got a diagnosis of stage 4 cancer.”
But if you’re the principal of a middle school, you can’t easily step away. She decided to step down from the role.
Her father moved in with the family, but they realized that there is enough help in Kodiak, through hospice and palliative care, and Haffeman missed working.
“The reason why I have always worked in education is that I felt I could give back to my community. That’s central to what motivates me,” she said. She began seeking a different way to contribute to the community, and the idea for a small business was formed.
With the help of the Alaska Small Business Development Center, Haffeman searched for the right business plan that would be profitable and fit the Kodiak community.
“I’ve always loved books. I write little books for my kids. Kodiak has the legacy of the Shire Bookstore, which I worked in when I was in high school. It had Next Page, and so many people miss that,” she said.
She learned that while bookstores declined when e-readers first became available, small independent bookstores have experienced growth since 2015.
“If you are reflective of your community, you become what is called a community-supported bookstore, and that’s our goal,” she said.
While the bookshop was Haffeman’s brainchild, she says she could not have done it without the partnership with Tucker, who will co-manage the shop. Tucker was born and raised in Kodiak but left when she was 17. She returned to the Island in 2015, after her father was diagnosed with cancer and passed away.
“The time I spent here when my dad was sick reminded me of the amazing community,” Tucker said. Haffeman told her about her bookshop dream and they quickly decided to team up. The partnership gave them the confidence to pursue their vision.
“I was unable to move forward until Tucker said she was interested and would manage,” Haffeman said. “For me, she’s been the key to doing this … Now that there’s two of us, the shop can exist.”
As the idea began taking shape, Haffeman and Tucker found that the process of choosing books was more complicated than they expected.
“We called the company that we buy the majority of our books through, and we said, ‘surely there’s some method to this madness, when you start a bookshop and you have to stock it with 3,000 books. Out of the pantheon of books, how do you choose?’ They said, ‘No, you’re on your own.’ “
So Haffeman and Tucker asked for recommendations from community members, sought advice from local and national book clubs, and stocked award-winning books in different genres.
“It’s really fascinating to see people you barely know start talking about their favorite book. All pretense goes down, their face lights up. It’s amazing what books mean to people,” Haffeman said. “I have loved that part of opening a bookshop. I never expected it to brighten up people and open up people so much.”
They also hope the collection will evolve over time, as they discover what books attract the Kodiak community.
“I’ve been surprised to learn what a bookshop means to a community,” Haffeman said. “I inherently love books, and it was natural that that would be what we chose to pour all of our energy and passion into, but I didn’t realize how much people missed it in our town.”
The shop will sell primarily books, alongside greeting cards and goods made by makers, both local and from the Lower 48. The shop also will host small workshops, limited to eight participants, several times a week. Workshops will be taught by local experts on topics that include fly tying, candle making, essential oil distilling and cookie decorating. The shop also will host workshops for children.
Prices for workshops will vary. Adult workshops will cost around $50, including all materials, a custom-made workbook, and a cheese-plate sampler. Children’s workshops will be set at a lower price.
The shop will include a small cafe that will serve pour-over Kaladi Brothers Coffee, pastries, and cheeses from around the world. The shop will offer bistro boxes that people can buy and eat on the premises or take to-go. The boxes will include cheeses, charcuterie and fresh veggies.
“Because we share a building with other businesses, especially a masseuse, we’re not doing espresso, so it’s all going to be pour-over coffee,” she said. Espresso machines are known for being particularly loud. “Because we’re being a good neighbor, I think we’re going to bring something new to Kodiak.”