Change is variable. It can be exciting but also nerve-wracking. For Michelle Bear, who is about to take possession of the much-beloved Edmonds Bookshop — an all-important component of downtown Edmonds life — it’s more than a bit of both. Beneath her calm exterior, the soon-to-be-new owner of this flourishing business can barely contain her anticipation.
“It is with great enthusiasm and deep respect that I am the lucky (and humble) next caretaker of this joyous community establishment!” declares Bear.
Having joined the staff in 2007 and taken over the assistant manager position in 2016, there’s no question that the new bookstore owner will be met with tremendous respect and enthusiasm. Bear maintains a calm exterior, though the excitement is palpable in her glowing smile and ecstatic expression.
“It feels great,” she says. She and current store co-owners Mary Kay Sneeringer and David Brewster have been discussing possibilities for at least a year, perhaps longer. “There’s been a chance to me to plant the seed, think about it, and immediately say yes, inside and out loud. Yeah, I want to do this!”
Sneeringer and Brewster, who took over the store from former owner and current staff member Susan Hildebrandt in 2001, will continue to take part in the bookstore’s daily operations. But Sneeringer is looking forward to retiring, stepping back and not running the business on a day-to-day basis.
“Michelle has been so crucial to our success over the last few years, I couldn’t see any way of the store continuing without her here,” Sneeringer says. “We knew we would try to figure out way to make it happen. A couple of very generous community members stepped up and became angel investors and helped it along the way. We’re so grateful. It’s all a result of what has been built and established.”
During her tenure as co-owner, Sneeringer has been committed to making sure the bookshop remained an integral part of the Edmonds community. “As we head into celebrating the 50th anniversary of the store, we can say it worked!” Sneeringer asserts. She is confident that Bear will continue that tradition. “The store will be in good hands. That was really important to me,” she says, laughing.
The timing of the announcement was related to an article in The Seattle Times.
“Paul Constant has featured several independent bookstores in the area in his column. We got a call a while ago that we were next,” says Sneeringer. “That was when Michelle and I had a discussion and talked about whether or not to spill the beans at that time. It would be a little premature, but it’s such a platform. She needed to take advantage of that. I left it up to her, and she told them!”
“I just exploded it right out,” adds Bear, laughing.
There are a few things to arrange before the transition takes place, but Bear anticipates a smooth, barely perceptible transition.
“Mary Kay will still be working here part time. On the outside it won’t look much different,” Bear says. “David’s been doing deliveries for us all during COVID and filling in for people on vacation. That will continue.”
Not surprisingly, keeping their small bookstore viable during a pandemic has been a challenge. According to Bear, it was a tough decision to close in March of 2020.
“I spent a week at home but still did online orders. I couldn’t not be here, and I knew Mary Kay was here checking in orders. It was just the two of us working up front, in the dark, processing online orders.” Fortunately, those orders took off. “People needed books and puzzles and things like that. We wanted to get these things to them.”
“There was a big upswing in people showing support for Edmonds Bookshop. We had people ordering big gift certificates that they didn’t even plan on using for a while. They just knew we needed cash,” Bear says. “Carol Doig made the extremely generous offer of some signed first editions of ‘Ivan’ books that we put up for sale and raised quite a bit of money. She also made a personal donation to us at the time. Every time we turned around there was something hopeful, some show of love from Edmonds, Shoreline, Woodway and Mukilteo. People had our backs.”
The time it took to return to some semblance of normal, where people could come into the store physically, was just about this time last year.
“People came in fully masked, we had someone at the door to make sure there were only seven or eight in the store at a time,” says Sneeringer. “There was a fraught sense. Everybody was anxious, nervous, up tight, but intent on buying books. Not just to browse but to fill up their arms, but go out the door with books. We had a good year.”
“We quickly saw that online orders, delivery and such were a needed shift. We’re continuing to do that,” adds Bear. “Rather than seeing it as negative, it’s been a positive outcome. We’ll continue that. It’s opened up a lot of opportunities. For everybody.”
Happily, independent bookstores are doing well overall. Sneeringer is convinced that it is because people in their communities buy books from them. “That’s the only thing that works. We are so grateful to our community. To all the people who buy books from us. They have made it happen.”
“We wouldn’t be in this position without community support,” adds Bear.
The gratitude is mutual. The bookshop has a far reach and loyal following throughout Edmonds and its surrounding communities. Local authors especially can count on the business’s participation in helping to promote their books. Author events are well publicized and attended, a highlight of life in the downtown district, and local writers appreciate the support they receive from Edmonds Bookshop.
“It’s a hard job writing a book, so we’re happy to help in any way we can,” Sneeringer says.
“With our small but mighty shop footprint, we have to be creative in how to shift things to have authors here,” Bear adds. “We typically have the space up front to feature them, to help place emphasis on the importance of writers to readers, to feature them instead of hiding them in back.”
It’s true that the shop, with its upfront picture windows and inviting lighting, makes the whole experience inside the store a pleasurable one.
Edmonds Bookshop also has the distinction of operating without interruption since 1972 and is approaching its 50th anniversary next year. Bear is in the process of generating plans for this momentous occasion, though currently she’s just thinking in terms of the next couple of months and the Christmas holidays. “I haven’t quite made the leap into next year yet,” Bear says.
If there’s any celebration, Sneeringer says, “There’ll be cake.”
Bear’s bottom line is to continue the traditions of this iconic enterprise that has for half a century been so admired and valued by Edmonds residents. She and her cohorts already have formed a perfect team. “It’s shifting to something slightly different that will allow Mary Kay and David a lot more freedom.”
“That’s the whole idea,” Sneeringer laughs. “Days off. Yay!”
Sneeringer is proud of the fact that Bear had been a beach ranger and nature educator for 10 years but a bookseller and book lover all along.
“Many hats,” says Bear with a laugh.
Amidst all the excitement, Bear maintains a balanced outlook on her job ahead. “We look forward to many more years of serving our community,” she says.
There is no question that she is the perfect person to keep Edmonds Bookshop evolving as it transitions to the next 50 years.
— By Erica Miner