Village Books in Bellingham is an amazing home for books and literature in the Pacific Northwest. It’s also a place where I’ve built many fond memories and spent many wonderful afternoons.
In the early 1990s, I moved to Bellingham to work for the local newspaper, The Bellingham Herald and to attend grad school for English Literature at Western Washington University. I applied to Western and went to Western largely because my literary hero Annie Dillard had been on the faculty at Western and wrote several of her most famous pieces while living and writing at Western. Although she’d departed by the time I arrived at Western, I hoped that some of her spirit and her influence still held sway in the region (little did I know at the time, but she was working then on her first and only novel The Living, which is set in the Bellingham region).
In fact, I think Dillard’s influence did remain present in the old Fairhaven district there in Bellingham, and most especially in Village Books, established in the 1980s by Chuck and Dee Robinson. At the time they opened the bookstore, Fairhaven was a downtrodden industrial district: by the time they sold the bookstore off in the 2000s, Village Books was a beloved icon, and Fairhaven had risen from the ashes to become a beautiful and restored downtown district.
When I arrived in Bellingham, I had just come from 4+ years of teaching elementary school (in fact, The Eagle Tree is based partially on my teaching experience). I missed working with children at that time, and I approached Village Books about telling stories there regularly. Village Books happily signed me up as the resident storyteller for several years, and I told stories there every Tuesday night. Sometimes I read children’s books aloud, sometimes I told a classic tale, and sometimes I used mime and improv to create stories on my own. I remain grateful to Village Books for trusting me as their storyteller.
I also enjoyed many hours of evening readings at Village Books from a variety of authors. I met one of my literary heroes — Sheila Nickerson, former poet laureate of Alaska — there at Village Books, and I met Sherman Alexie there for the second time. When I had a free evening, I found myself migrating towards Village Books, to discover what new experiences they had for me that evening.
In 1996, I even read through my graduation ceremony with a book from Village Books (reading thru such ceremonies is an old tradition of mine). When I finished grad school and left Bellingham, I continued to enjoy Village Books from time to time, bringing my family and friends to visit the bookstores on weekend excursions from the Seattle area.
Village Books has a wonderful backstory as well. In 1980, Chuck and Dee Robinson came to the down-trodden Fairhaven district in Bellingham and opened Village Books on a wing and a prayer. When the Robinsons opened Village Books in 1980, interest rates were higher than 20 percent and Fairhaven was a “rather sorry looking place” with empty storefronts and vacant lots, Bellingham historian Brian Griffin said in his book, Fairhaven: A History.
The Robinsons weathered tough times in the bookstore business. In the 1990s, economic malaise threatened small businesses like theirs. And big box retailers like Borders and Barnes & Noble threatened to take them out too. Finally, the rise of Amazon also was a storm cloud on the horizon. Finally, after much travail, the Robinsons found their way to a new vision of a bookstore as a civic hub, and as a special place where you could find not only new books, but also specialty, used and self-published indie books. They created a genuinely welcoming place for book lovers of all ages, and that spirit has become a thriving bookish community.
Over time, they added the iconic Colophon Cafe and the store Paper Dreams in the same building. They even created The Chuckanut Radio Hour, a radio variety show they launched in January 2007 with a featured author as a guest. Writers who have been on the show include Sherman Alexie, Tom Robbins, Cheryl Strayed and Ruth Ozeki.
In 2016, the Robinsons decided to retire from the book business, after 36 years. Instead of sellng off to some conglomerate, they sold the store to their own booksellers — their friends and colleagues who had been handling most of the day-to-day operations of the bookstore over the past few years. The new owners became longtime employees Kelly Evert, Paul Hanson and Sarah Hutton. The trio bought the Fairhaven and Lynden locations of Village Books along with gift store Paper Dreams.
“Our confidence in them is so strong,” Chuck Robinson said in an interview, adding the new owners shared the values the business was built on and will continue its community-oriented focus. Evert and Hanson have each worked in the business for 5 1/2 years, and Hutton for 11 years. They have years of experience as managers, booksellers and retailers.
Village Books is one of my literary touchstones, and I’m happy to share that bookstore experience with my readers! Enjoy!
[Read more BOOKSTORE POSTS]
Pinterest – Ned Hayes Bookstore Board