Story last updated at 11/27/2013 - 2:11 pm
SITKA - Back in 1976, three Sitkan families saw a community need for a bookstore - so they started one. Now, almost 40 years later, Old Harbor Books is active in the community, and its values - the free exchange of ideas and giving back to the community - remain.
"We were all readers and felt the community should have a bookstore," said bookstore board member Lee Schmidt. "And we have all been strong conservationists... combining a place for conservation to occur and have a bookstore seemed like a good thing for that group to do."
Though the bookstore is a business, it's always used "100 percent" of its profits for philanthropy and community work, said current board president Roger Schmidt, the son of original board members Lee and Linda Schmidt.
"It's a really cool thing. They started a store because they thought the community needed the store," Roger Schmidt said. "They've all put money in, and they've never taken money out, to my knowledge."
The store was founded by Sitkans Chuck and Alice Johnstone, Lee and Linda Schmidt, Don Muller, and Mary Stensvold, all friends who met through the Sitka Conservation Society. Muller managed the store for 35 years, though he resigned from the board at the beginning of November to take a long trip, Lee Schmidt said. Roger's sister Laura is also a current board member. Other members have come and gone over the years, though membership has tended to range between seven and nine.
Melissa Danville, who managed the bookstore for the last three years (she recently left for personal reasons, and Aisha Lane is the new manager) described the store's mission as "putting the right book in the right person's hands at the right time."
The board also bought the historic building (it was built in 1895) in which the bookstore is housed.
Before housing a bookstore, the building hosted a bakery, a bar, an ice cream parlor, an Elks Club, and housed a dentist and an attorney, among others, Lee Schmidt said.
"We have a good building and we have tried to take good care of it," he said. "We've tried to make it a welcoming place for Sitka. You don't have to come in and buy something - just come in and be there. That's what... our vision of a bookstore was. A welcoming place."
The Back Door Café, a separate business connected to the bookstore, opened in the early 1990s, he said. The café helps create that kind of atmosphere.
The board has also provided space in the building - at times free of charge - to local nonprofits. Some past and present residents of the building since the bookstore bought it are Planned Parenthood, the Sitka Conservation Society, the Alaska Rainforest Campaign Alaska Arts Southeast, which hosts Sitka's Fine Arts Camp, an EMS program, a teen club, and others.
Old Harbor Books sells tickets to events around Sitka free of charge. It also hosts readings, many of which feature local authors. And they used to have a "Boatmobile," where two board members would take books to small communities without bookstores, Roger Schmidt said.
While the focus of the store used to be on supporting various causes, now, he said, the bookstore is the cause.
"Independent bookstores all over America have just been closing and closing and closing," Roger Schmidt said. "The goal of the founders is still (there), but... the bookstore's the cause, now. It used to support other causes, and now it's the cause itself."
Bookstores are much more than bookstores, he said.
"When bookstores disappear, communities lose a source and a central place for independent thinking," Roger Schmidt said. E-books, he said, are "certainly convenient for people. But by having central corporations for whom reading and diversity of ideas is not their mission - that's really scary. You're basically consolidating thought in the hands of faceless corporations that are not interested in independent thought and ideas, and independent writers, and the love of reading, and the love of exchanging ideas."
Both Roger Schmidt and Danville describe e-books and online ordering as one of the big challenges the store - and all independent bookstores - face.
Roger Schmidt said in coming years the store will be focusing on ensuring customers feel welcome and comfortable, with employees that can offer suggestions based on their knowledge of customers themselves.
"We're thinking more than ever about the relationship between people and a store and how to build that with events that happen in the store," he said. "These are the kinds of things you can't get on the Internet.... For the founders of the bookstore, it was always about quality of life in Sitka."
Find out more about Old Harbor Books at http://www.oldharborbooks.net/.