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Home  >  Libraries and Booksellers  >  Bookstore Profiles
Valley Bookstores Finding Their Niche
By Matt White

WASILLA -- It's that time of year, when the weather first turns cold, then very cold, then forget-it-and-curl-up-with-a-book cold.

Only, where to find the book? Unlike Anchorage, the Valley is without a major bookseller. Waldenbooks in the Cottonwood Creek Mall is the only national chain in the Mat-Su area.

But the lack of major players in the region has allowed a handful of Valley booksellers to find market niches.

In Wasilla, Annabel's books in the Meta Rose Square shopping center and Books Inc. sell new and used books, while Shalom Books carries Christian titles.

Palmer's two bookstores -- Fireside Books and Alaskana Books -- sit within 150 yards of each other, but they have little in common besides a downtown address.

Alaskana, on Denali Street, is as much museum as bookstore. It boasts 25,000 rare and out-of-prints books exclusively on Alaska. Fireside Books sells a mainstream line of mass-market fare and also stocks lesser-known, independent titles.

In Wasilla, Carol Kinney runs Annabel's, which she named for her mother. Kinney opened in 1999 in the basement of Meta Rose, then moved upstairs about 18 months ago. Most of her business is buying and selling used books.

"People come in here looking to deal," Kinney said.

She sells recent hardbacks as low as $3. "Even during the summer, people who come through town in RVs come in. What are you going to do at night as you're traveling around? You want to read."

Her new project, in the store's loft, is home school materials. She carries textbooks, posters and learning kits from several home school vendors. Kinney believes home school material will be a high-growth area, particularly in the Mat-Su, where public programs reimburse home-schooling parents for some learning supplies.

In Palmer, Lorie Kirker opened Alaskana Bookstore five years ago as the home to the massive rare-book collection of Anchorage collector Eugene Short. Very nearly everything in her store is out of print, which means her typical customer is not, well, typical.

"My typical customer is older, a longtime Alaskan and very focused," she said. "They don't buy the trinkets or artwork. They know what they want, and they are very excited to get it."

Many of her customers, Kirker said, are as full of information as the books they buy.

"I love to hear people who knew the writer or know what the book is about," she said.

When Kirker moved Short's books from his Anchorage basement to Palmer, she found herself overwhelmed by the collection's volume -- the boxes of books eventually filled her basement -- as well as outrage from longtime Anchorage customers.

"So many of the old customers wanted to lynch me. But once they make the trip out here, they seem to come back," she said. "And the Valley people come in and thank me for opening here."

Even after five years, Kirker said she still has 25 of Short's boxes to sort through. Where those books might go is not clear; every wall of Alaskana is lined with shelves, all stuffed with books.

Along one wall, the organization is geographic: the Interior, the Arctic, the Aleutians.

"I did the Yukon by river systems," she says, pointing to shelves labeled with town names in their order along the Yukon River -- Eagle, Yukon Flats, Circle. Kirker smiled and said, "One thing about that, it does just demote Fairbanks to another town on the Chena River."

Elsewhere is a section on transportation, divided roughly by the advance of technology -- dog teams, then ships, then railroad and finally aviation.

Recently, Kirker added almost 1,000 hunting books, which she acquired from Anchorage collector Gene Bryner. Many are jewels in the collecting world. The 1928 edition of George O. Young's Yukon Trophies Won and Lost, for example, might fetch $1,000.

In the store's entryway, she keeps a series of mid-century romance novels based in Alaska and the Yukon.

On the cover of one 1938 volume, a demure heroine in furs is framed by a tall, strapping man dressed in what looks like a Mountie uniform. Snow swirls around them. Splashed across the cover is its title -- Lamp in the Valley.

"They're all stories about a girl who comes to Alaska and finds a hunk of a man," Kirker said. "A gold miner or something."

Across the railroad tracks is Fireside Books, which husband and wife David Cheezem and Melissa Behnke opened four years ago.

"We think of our customers as anyone who likes to read, and some who don't like to read and come in and find out they do," he says. "We stress our independence."

Fireside carries new and used books. "We might have a little more new material now, especially with our Christmas catalog, but we generally aim for 50-50, new and used," Cheezem said.

Behnke was born in Alaska; her parents were early homesteaders near Big Lake. She met Cheezem in the Lower 48 and they returned to Alaska 10 years ago. They wanted to open a bookstore for several years, but they were waiting for the right location.

"We'd always said that if this (storefront) ever opened up, we'd try to get it," Behnke said. "The spot did, and we took it."

The downtown Palmer location is a big part of the store's success, Cheezem said.

"People will ride out even from Anchorage, not just for the bookstore but for the Palmer downtown experience," he said.

The couple work full time at Fireside, and Behnke's mother, once a Palmer librarian, helps out. The quilts that decorate most walls are her handiwork.

Next to the register is the section Cheezem takes the most pride in: the staff recommended picks, where he, his wife and their employees try to point customers toward less well-known titles. One favorite is Someone to Run With, a novel by David Grossman.

"We try to meet everyone's needs and still maintain a quirkiness," Cheezem said.

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About the Author: Matt White is a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News. (Reprinted with permission.)

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