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"It's fun to be a bookseller": 50 years of community with Island Books

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Photo by Lindsey Anderson
Photo by Lindsey Anderson

Photo by Lindsey Anderson  

Just across the floating bridge sits the community epicenter of Mercer Island: Island Books. Over the last 50 years, the store has become a hub for meetings, a must-see gift shop, and the island's largest collection of new books.

Nancy Shawn has enjoyed watching the store grow and flourish. "I've been working here for probably about 12 years, I've been in the book business for about 20," she said. "I love books. I like talking to people about books. That's the beauty of bookstores. ...It's just wonderful to touch books and see them take off. I love watching authors take off, and talking about books is my favorite thing."

"The age of Queer normative"
Over the last few decades, Shawn has not only watched Island Books grow, but she has seen a development in how readers react to LGBTQ+ books. "I used to work at Red and Black Books. It was a feminist Queer radical collective started in the 1970s," she said. "Since then, it has been fun to see the 'age of Queer normative.'"

Photo by Lindsey Anderson  

Island Books has a small LGBTQ+ section, which is mostly curated by Shawn, but today readers can find LGBTQ+ books in any section, especially in the front of the store, where the employees' picks are. "You can walk to the front of the store and see that there are best-selling books with Queer characters. They are so mainstream. It's really fun to be a bookseller now," Shawn said.

Shawn has also noticed some of the best-selling books of the summer are LGBTQ+ ones. "The hottest books this summer are... Lessons in Chemistry, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow. We usually sell a lot of mainstream mystery and thrillers. A lot of romances sell well for us. Also, in the teen section, Heartstopper has been a best seller."

Heartstopper has been so popular it has inspired the store's book buyers to stock more teen LGBTQ+ romances. "High school kids are coming in to read Heartstopper now. And it's everybody — Gay, Trans, and straight kids. We can't keep it on the shelves.

"We're a mainstream bookstore, [but] there are so many great [LGBTQ+] books out now," she said.

Photo by Lindsey Anderson  

A community hub
The warm and cozy feel of Heartstopper pairs perfectly with Island Books, which Shawn describes as a "warm old nooks-and-cranny sort of bookstore."

For the people of Mercer Island, it's more than just a place to grab a new read. "It's a community hub," Shawn said. "It's the center of retail on Mercer Island. People come in to get the news, gossip, and meet up with their friends. All sorts of people live here and shop here, so we have to try to cover all the bases."

Aside from books, shoppers at Island Books can also find small gifts, such as handmade soaps and candles, as well as art supplies and plenty of toys.

"Because there's not a lot of retail on Mercer Island, we keep everything covered," Shawn explained. "You can find stickers or a nice tea cup. Laurie, the owner, is great at finding nice stuff that's usually West Coast made."

The store also hosts many community events. This past week it celebrated "Where's Waldo Day" with free pizza and games for families to enjoy. When school is in session, it also contributes to community events to ensure that all the kids on Mercer Island have access to new books to read.

"We run the local school book fairs at the store every fall and donate a good [part] of the proceeds back to the schools," Shawn said. "We're always donating books, too. During COVID, we donated a lot to the retirement homes for people who couldn't get out.

"We also support local businesses. We do lots of things, like give out gift cards to local organizations. We like to keep it local, since our community here supports us so much."

Island Books has been a staple of the Mercer Island community for as long as many can remember. It's its longstanding dedication to books that makes the store so special, Shawn says.

"Island Books is unique, because we have one of the most experienced book-selling staffs in the Seattle area, with decades of combined experience. The store has also been around for 50 years, and it's way bigger than it looks," she said with a laugh.

Whether you're looking for the next edition of Heartstopper, a cozy summer candle, or the perfect gift for a friend, make sure to stop by Island Books the next time you venture to Mercer Island.

Island Books is at 3014 78th Ave SE, Mercer Island, or online at https://www.islandbooks.com/.