Bookshop Superheroes: Paper Boat Booksellers
March 29, 2021
Bookstore workers and owners have been absolute essential workers during this pandemic—heroes on the frontlines of our mental health. After those first months when reading felt really hard, when the doom-scrolling kept us in our lizard brains, books were there waiting for us in all their analog selves. Books, as one 2020 Summer Book Bingo player said, are the only safe way to travel right now.
In appreciation of our local indies who have reinvented their processes and protocols over and over again in the service of getting the just-right book to the just-right hands, our Bookshop Superheroes blog series features interviews with our partner bookstores and special Instagram takeovers to get a glimpse into a day in their store. (Not following us yet on Instagram? Check us out!)
Next up is Paper Boat Booksellers, who will take over our Instagram on Tuesday, March 30! Paper Boat opened September 19, 2019, to the delight and relief of West Seattle bibliophiles. Co-owner Desirae Wilkerson spoke with Christina Gould, SAL’s Patron Services Manager, about her passion for books and bookstores. But first, she shared how Paper Boat got its name: it was inspired by her 10-year-old daughter’s love of making origami boats. Desirae and her co-owner husband Eric, thought, why not, we live near the water, and it reflects our community. The origami swag hanging in the windows is one of the charms of this local bookshop.
How do you build community as a bookstore?
I think bookstores are a hub for people. I have always looked at bookstores that way. Eric and I are book nerds. We love books, and we love talking to our family and friends about them. So many big conversations can be had about one book. Even if one debates about a book or a certain passage, it’s a conversation spark.
I see whole communities here at Paper Boat spark conversation. Neighbors run into neighbors, friends run into friends, teachers run into teachers, and it feels like community. We all support each other. It definitely has been true this last year, with everybody going through lockdown. However COVID has changed the lives of our customers, I feel we can still talk to each other, and the feeling of a community place continues. We have family reading time and events, and it brings all these people together. That is what bookstores do—they bring people together.
How has the pandemic impacted your business?
Oh my goodness, it changed our business so much, essentially how we sell books. It felt like we were really getting our feet on the ground, and then we had to switch to online-only and shipping. We were here for two months with the doors closed, just shipping books out, which was not fun. We were happy to be selling books and were thankful, but selling online was not how we wanted our business to be. Frankly, it got depressing. There was so much more work involved. We really had to change the way we did things.
The store is only 1,200 square feet, so when we opened back up, we started taking special orders. Then, the online store became one thing, and the special orders another, and many mistakes were being made. There was a lot of learning involved. It came down to stress and store size; we just couldn’t handle the special orders and online pick-up. We had 200 special orders in one day—and we would take the orders on a notepad! That’s when we decided to change to Bookshop. It freed us up to help our customers in the store as we like to, and it took less staff hours. (We now have a computer system to take special orders.)
Eric and I always look for silver linings. This time forced us to learn fast, and do things that we probably wouldn’t have done for a long time. Our small staff jumped in and worked so hard; everyone was supportive of each other. When we all came back together, Eric and I realized how much they cared about us and the store and how capable they are. A deep trust was built, and we have let go of some of our control and now have a daytime manager and a weekend manager. It is better for everyone.
The other silver lining is seeing how a community truly can come together and support you and show how they care. We received postcards and emails and letters of support. Children would leave drawings through our slot. I just couldn’t believe it. I’ve never experienced anything like it. People really care about the bookstore and it makes me so glad that we are here. It’s a wonderful feeling.
What’s the most fun thing about selling books?
Oh so many things! Talking about books is my favorite thing. I am in the office a lot of the day, but when I come out to do a display or for some other reason, someone asks for a recommendation and I am off. Customers have their own ideas, but they want to hear yours as well. I have three children—10, 15, and 18. I can tell them my son loved this, or Eric, who loves sci-fi and fantasy, loved that. No matter the work I need to do or how tired I might feel, I love walking around the store and recommending and talking about books. There it is—the spark of conversation—I can’t get around it.