Between Seattle and the Canadian border, is a small town called Bellingham, a town which wears more than one hat: home of Western Washington University, fishing boats, tourists, and a deep community. In that town is a an old bookstore with rambling aisles and passionate booksellers. Village Books.
Village Books is a cornerstone of the local community, loved by all of its elements. Most people in town have a memory of it, and many have worked there. They put out a quarterly paper with all the latest book news, host reading events, and partner with the local community college to host writing classes.
I recently sat down with cofounder Chuck Robinson to learn more about the store.
[Judy Oldfield] Tell me briefly, your background with the store.
[Chuck Robinson] My wife and I founded the store in 1980. June of 1980. So we just celebrated our 35th anniversary this last year.
[CR] Thank you. We’d both been in education . . . back in Illinois. We took what was essentially a one-year leave of absence, with the original intent to go back to our jobs back there, because we both liked what we were doing. But by the time we went through the process of getting ready for being away a year—we bought an older motor home and remodeled it, and sold most of what we owned, it was a real values clarification for us. We started asking ourselves questions like, well, do we really want to live here? We sold a house so we had a chunk of money. We had our retirement from teaching, even though we hadn’t been doing it for that long (we were 10 years in education at that point). So we thought maybe we’d strike out and do something different.
In the course of our travels, we discovered the Northwest. We loved it, and decided that we’d settle somewhere out between Santa Rosa California, I think was the farthest south, and up to the border. We had a list of criteria, and [Bellingham] met most of it. The size of the town, the fact that it had to have a college or university, had to be a place—by the time we decided we were going to have a bookstore (that came pretty early in the process)—a bookstore could be successful. I think we moved here in February of 1980 and opened the store in June. And it’s been a long ride since there.
[JO] Being in a college town, and a bit of a tourist place too, do you see a lot of seasonal changes around the store?
[CR] Well, you know it’s interesting that being in a college town, students at the college have never been a huge part of our business. I think because that’s probably in part because aside from the things that they have to read for class, I don’t think students are buying lots and lots of books. They do hang out at bookstores and we get students, there’s no doubt about it, but we are probably more influenced by the faculty and staff at the university. So the seasonality of that is summers, we probably lose some of those people, but that’s when we pick up the tourists.
[JO] Do you stock differently, based on that? Because university faculty is important.
[CR] The faculty at the university doesn’t seem to be looking here for academic sorts of things as much as they are for things everyone else here in town are. It’s a pretty highly educated town. A number of things have happened here. Back in the late ‘60s and ‘70s this was kind of the bounceback town from the border. There were a lot of people who weren’t happy with the Vietnam War that ended up in Bellingham. The other piece that has happened is that there are a lot of people who came here for school and stayed for whatever reason, and aren’t necessarily doing what they went to school for. A lot of the fishermen who fish in Alaska went to college up here. The first thought many people would have is that fishermen were blue-collar workers so to speak, and I guess it’s a blue-collar job, but they are very highly paid in a good fishing year and they stock up on books before they go to fish. And it’s things everybody else would read.
Our stock in trade, the biggest-selling section of our store, is fiction. I would hesitate to call it literary fiction but I would describe it as good writing. It’s everything from people who are good storytellers to the very best writers in the world. That’s probably the biggest influence the college has had. Who stays. The faculty that’s here.
[JO] Are there certain books you find yourself recommending over and over again?
[CR] Oh sure. I’ve often said that no one should live in the Northwest without having read the book The Good Rain by Timothy Egan. It’s so descriptive of place, for one thing. He goes back and looks at Winthrop’s travels through the Northwest. And Winthrop asks the question in his book, “Will the landscape shape the people or will the people shape the landscape?” So Tim goes back about 100 years later to do sort or the same circuit, trying to answer that question, what happened? Did the landscape shape the people or did the people shape the landscape, and you get some of both. But it’s just a beautifully written book.
I’m a big fan of Ivan Doig. I think This House of Sky was one of the greatest memoirs ever written. So I find myself repeatedly recommending those sorts of things.
[JO] What’s on your to-be-read list?
[CR] Right now I’m reading a book called Persian Fire, which is about Iran and it’s long, long history.
I just recently finished one of Jo Nesbo’s novels that’s not out yet, an Advanced Reading Copy.
[JO] What keeps you coming back to the store every day, after more than three decades?
[CR] The stairway? Oh, I love the interaction with the people. I love the challenge of the business aspect of it. I don’t come from business, but I think I have a real entrepreneurial edge about me. I like some of the challenges of it.
We have a very talented group of people here who are part of our leadership team, who work with the two of us, and who are likely to be—we hope, if everything works out—to be the continuation of the ownership of the business.
[JO] Do you have any crazy stories that you’d like to share?
[CR] Well, let’s see. Tom Robbins has appeared for every book of his since we opened the store. He did do one appearance with backup singers. He wrote about it in a book called My Bookstore. Different authors wrote about their favorite bookstore, and Tom wrote about our store, about the time he came and brought his backup singers. Which was a fun thing.
One of the most surprising things for us has been the authors we’ve met over the years. When we got into the business, we had no notion that we would meet, and in some cases become pretty good friends with people who were famous. Tom Robbins is a friend; Ivan Doig was a friend. . . . And then in my capacity working with the booksellers association, I’ve met four U.S. presidents, Margaret Thatcher, a whole bunch of people. Which has been surprising and exciting.
I remember reading in the paper one time someone asked Tom Hanks, “You know, we always hear the negative side of celebrity. In that you go out to dinner and get bothered by everybody. But there must be a positive side.” And Tom Hanks said, “Yes, I’ve met two presidents.” I read that and I thought, “Wow, I’ve met four presidents and I don’t get bothered by anyone at dinner besides my friends!”
[JO] Bill Clinton was just at Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle.
[CR] Yeah, I saw Tracy’s post that he was in there. The interesting thing is that should either of the leading Democratic nominees be the next president, I’ve met both of them too.
[JO] As a former teacher, are there certain books that you’d recommend for parents whose kid is a reluctant reader?
[CR] If you’re particularly talking about teenage boys, they’ve always been kind of that difficult [age group] in that boys find a lot of distractions. It’s not so cool to read, that sort of thing. There are some books that are often thought of as adult books that I think teen guys could get into. One fairly recent one is The Boys in the Boat, Daniel James Brown’s book. Because, you know, not only does it have that sort of sports element to it and something that I think grabs you in the eyes. I mean, as you are reading towards the end, you’re going “They’re gonna lose! They’re gonna lose!” and you know damn well they don’t lose, but it’s written in such a way that it pulls you along.
I don’t think that young kids get introduced to some [books] like White Fang, Call of the Wild, that I think they would find pretty enticing.
Some of the Jon Krakauer books, Into the Wild, Into Thin Air—either one—those true adventure [stories] grab the imagination.
There are reluctant teenaged girls who aren’t reading, but that area seems to be covered a whole lot better.
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