An Interview with BookTree—Kirkland’s Independent Bookstore
March 20, 2020
“What I say is, a town isn’t a town without a bookstore. It may call itself a town but unless it’s got a bookstore, it knows it’s not foolin’ a soul.”
This quote, from author Neil Gaiman, is featured on the homepage of BookTree Kirkland—it’s a fitting motto for one of the few remaining independent bookstores on the Eastside, a place where human connections are built through books. BookTree carries a variety of books, both new and gently used, and ordinarily hosts reading circles and other book-related events.
During at time when our city is facing the COVID-19 outbreak, the store remains open, with a few new options and changes so that you can safely get your book fix. To learn more about BookTree, we spoke with owner Chris Jarmick, about his favorite parts about owning a bookstore and how you can support their business right now.
Are you open during the COVID-19 outbreak?
BookTree is open. If you want to take this opportunity to read some good books, we’re happy to help you find them. We’re taking many precautions, like wiping down surfaces several times per day and providing hand sanitizers.
We are also limiting how many people are in the store at one time. If we have 8 people in the store, the front doors will be locked with a sign on the door, and you might have to wait 10 minutes (though it’s rare we have that many in the store all at once). If a family comes in and goes to our kid’s room, we’ll request that others wait (or get permission) before entering that part of the store.
We can also order books for you, with curbside pick-ups. We have gift certificates, and we’re happy to mail them. (We might offer delivery in the future, within an approximate 5 mile radius of the store—but not yet.) You can order books, pay over the phone, call the store when you arrive, and we’ll bring them out to you and put them in the trunk of your car. Often, there is parking in front of the store. There’s a red zone less than a block away you can ‘stand in’ for a few minutes. To make an order, call during business hours at 425-202-7791 or email firstname.lastname@example.org, and include your phone number for a call back.
We are also going to start Seniors Only shopping hours on Tuesdays from 10am to 12pm, beginning Tuesday, April 24. That time will be reserved for customers and browsers over 60 years of age. (If a 75-year-old is with a 50-year-old, I will be flexible with this).
Many people have been doing a wonderful job supporting small, independent businesses (including BookTree) in our community. Wonderful. Thank you! It’s needed and greatly appreciated.
How can people connect with BookTree right now?
What makes your shop unique?
It’s an updated version of an old-fashioned neighborhood bookstore. A place where the owner wants to make sure you have a wonderful experience exploring and browsing new and gently used books. You can be left alone to wander for as long as you like, or you can have a great conversation, get recommendations, and learn what books the local book clubs and customers have really enjoyed. The attitude is: this is your bookstore or will become your bookstore.
We have a kid’s room with beanbags and LEGOs; we have art on the wall from local artists that changes every 6 weeks and is for sale; we have unique, hand-made cards and several times per year, artist-made gifts and jewelry. If you’ve forgotten or never experienced a neighborhood bookstore, run and operated by a very passionate book-lover who is also a published writer and poet, treat yourself to the experience soon.
What might surprise someone about the ins and outs of running a bookstore?
Probably the most surprising thing people find out about BookTree is that, since April of 2017 (6 months after it was opened), it has mostly been a one-man shop. I don’t have employees. It’s all me, and I work very hard six days a week, and a few more hours on my day off, too. I have had some volunteers that have helped a great deal in the past and a couple of reliable ones in the last year, including LeJene, who has gotten more involved with the bookstore. A couple of times per year, I can get away for a few days or so. I can do presentations for groups, talk about the bookstore, recommend great books to read, and share some poetry, too.
Another thing that surprises people is how paper-thin the profit margins really are and how important it is for me to understand and pay close attention to cash flow, so that most of the bills get paid on time. People are usually surprised to know that about 60% of the gross sales happen in the last two-and-a-half months of the year. There are weeks in January, August, and September when only a trickle of business happens. I knew when I became a partner in the bookstore that I was buying myself the worst-paying job I ever had. I didn’t realize I wouldn’t be able to pay myself anything for several years. And now, we are dealing with a brand new challenge as a community and a business—COVID-19.
What’s something you wish people knew about your shop, or about your job as a bookseller?
Regular customers know nearly every third Saturday of the month, we have a free 90-minute creative writing workshop led by a variety of writers, poets, and teachers who inspire people to write and even share their writings. You don’t have to consider yourself a writer to attend, either. This is followed by a reading, which usually features two poets and then an open mic where young, old, new, and professional writers and poets can share something they have written.
We can, and often do, order books not already on our shelves for customers. We can find books for customers that might be out of print. I love putting books I believe customers will enjoy into their hands; books they perhaps haven’t thought about before. I love recommending books and talking about books I’ve enjoyed or think might be over-rated. I want people to know my job is to do my best to get the right book into their hands, one that they will enjoy reading. If a customer wants an important book or just a fun book, I’ll steer them in the right direction. If I can introduce them to an author they haven’t discovered yet, or a local author, that makes it a great day to own a bookstore for me.
Tell us a little about how you curate your bookstore! What makes you decide to order a title in?
I read. A lot. I read books, I read about books. I listen and ask customers what they enjoy reading and constantly learn—learn about books, authors, and upcoming releases I think some of my customers will enjoy. I’m not going to stock every book, or even all the best-sellers. I can order them in and have them in a couple of days, if customers want them, but I know discovering good books is like getting a great birthday present, and I usually have those books in the store.
I also want to have diverse, eclectic, interesting, gently-used books on my shelves; classics and lesser known books; popular books, of course, but also books I either know or have heard from trusted sources are worth reading. I also am aware of expectations my customers may have that have nothing to do with what I personally do or don’t like. I pay attention to which books won awards; what books are being read in schools; who is going to be speaking at Seattle Arts & Lectures.
I try to keep up with what books are on talk and news shows and try to be a filter, guiding people to the better pop culture and political books that are available. Since I have to worry about cash-flow, I have books that will or should sell in my store: I anticipate what books will be popular with my customers and carefully order those into my store so that I can stay in business and remain a valuable resource and member of the community. Customers will give me a heads up, so I have to be sure to listen to them.
My attitude is always that I am a steward of my customer’s neighborhood bookstore. BookTree exists because enough people want it to exist and be Kirkland’s only bookstore.
Do you have a personal favorite thing about your shop?
I think we have a charming, welcoming, interesting space. The ‘we’ is my life-partner, LeJene, who in the past year, has become more involved in the bookstore, and besides keeping things more organized, has added important touches to the store. She’ll even bake cookies that are available to everyone who wanders into the store. I’ve had candies and treats available, but fresh-baked cookies takes this to the next level.
She’s also an avid reader and has her own opinion about books she’s read or is interested in. She’s also one of the warmest people you’ll ever meet—she grew up in the South and brings that Southern hospitality to everything she does. And, it also means that our official greeter, Mae May (the blonde English Labrador Retriever), is at the store more often.
It’s customers that are absolutely my favorite part of the shop. All types, of course, and it’s wonderful to converse, joke, introduce them to other customers, visiting authors, and great books. Sometimes, I’ll share poems, sometimes read a kid’s book to a family, or just appreciate their mutual love of books and bookstores that my customers share with me.
What events at the store are coming up that you think people should know about?
Everything has changed because of COVID-19. Our in-store events are cancelled, and we might not have Independent Bookstore Day at the end of April! Off-site events that are important to the livelihood of the store at this time of the year have also been cancelled. The good news, as of this writing (in mid-March), is that several people have been making an extra effort to support the bookstore and other smaller independent businesses in the area. Perhaps a few more people want a few more books in their house and are making sure they purchase them from their local bookstore. The libraries are closed right now, and that might encourage a few more people to support the bookstore. This might also change very quickly, but I’m very, very appreciative of our wonderful customers, particularly right now.