Story last updated at 5/28/2014 - 2:15 pm
E-readers, online shopping and iPhones may be giving brick-and-mortar bookstores a hard time, but Petersburg's Sing Lee Alley Books and Gifts has taken up the challenge to stay relevant both to locals and to tourists. The store was started by Tina Green and Phoebe Smith in 1981. Current owner Nancy Zaic did massage in a room at the back of the store and started managing it when Green was away. She arrived in Petersburg from Oregon in 1977 when she got a job in a restaurant through the newspaper.
"I was just looking for more work, trying to make money for college," she said.
Green, who bought Smith out, eventually made Zaic a partner. Almost two years ago, Zaic bought the store. She still practices massage a few days a week, part time.
"Both of them (the book store and massage) are part time, so it works. It's a nice balance," she said.
With more people going online for their reading material, cookbooks and books on topics like parenting and psychology aren't going as fast as they used to, she said.
"Even travel books, not so much, because people travel with their iPhones," she said.
This changing environment has meant the store has, in the last few years, focused more on gifts.
"It's the way it seems to be going," Zaic said of the shift in focus. "Being a small town, and there aren't that many businesses - everybody needs to buy a little gift sometimes."
She tries to keep those gifts in the $20 range, something that seems to be working well.
It works out well for tourists, too - summer is the store's busiest time.
Zaic remodeled the Alaska room, installing many more Alaska Native arts and gift items. She changes the store for the seasons, as well.
"I think that kind of makes it fresh, too, moving things around," she said. "Being a small town, you have to keep changing your inventory."
Zaic has always traveled in the winter, she said, but when she bought the store from Green, she began bringing things back. This year, she brought back gifts from Nepal and Thailand.
She buys scarves wherever she goes, she said, but some of her favorite items this year are silver hair sticks and key chains. She's brought back carvings, bowls, crafts made out of shells - "something interesting, something different," she said.
She also gets some of the store's products from shows.
To adapt to a changing book world, she's cut down on hard cover books. "People aren't really buying them very much anymore," she said. "That's always just a challenge - what to bring into your store."
Books, however, are still a primary focus.
Zaic said she reads all kinds of books, fiction and nonfiction. Some of her favorite books are "The Brothers K," by David James Duncan, "The Kite Runner," by Khaled Hosseini, and "Cutting for Stone," by Abraham Verghese. She also loves Barbara Kingsolver, author of "The Poisonwood Bible," among other books and authors.
For store employee Chelsea Tremblay, who grew up wandering around the store, lost in words, working at Sing Lee Alley Books and Gifts was "a dream come true."
"I like the uniqueness of the store," she said. "It's based on the community's interests and on our interests."
One of the unique factors: it's not in a regular commercial building; it's in an old house.
Those who enter the store "really like the atmosphere of it being in an old house where you can wander around," Zaic said. "You just don't see that down South. There are very few independent bookstores anymore. It's refreshing to have people come in and really enjoy their time wandering around."
Sing Lee Alley Books and Gifts also gives people who special order books through the store a discount.
"Books are still a major part of the store," Tremblay said. "We're lucky we live in a town where people see the importance of (local business)."
The changes Zaic has made in these last two years "seem to have paid off, because we're doing just fine," Zaic said.
As for future goals: "I'd like to see it stay around," Zaic said. "I would just like it to be able to be in town. I'm just trying to keep it going, keep it floating. Any kind of retail in a small community is really hard. You're making a living, and you're doing it independently, but it's a tough business these days. It's a real challenge."