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Mackinac's Island Bookstore: No Cars, Tons of Tourists, and Great Indie Books

Island Bookstore
The Island Bookstore's Jill Sawatzki, Steve Hamilton, Tamara Tomac, and Mary Jane Barnwell on Michigan's Mackinac Island.


Last month, just before the island’s season opened, a bevy of librarians from rural branches–and the two Michel(l)es from Foreword Reviews–gathered on Michigan’s Mackinac Island for the 2016 Loleta Fyan Small and Rural Libraries Conference. You may be familiar with Mackinac from Somewhere in Time, the eighties Christopher Reeve time-traveling tearjerker, but it’s a lovely setting in its own right, with omnipresent water views, bikes and horsedrawn carriages in place of cars, and more fudge stores than one can count.

The main objective of the librarians was to discuss current trends, and to trade ideas for facilitating patron needs. And, truth be told, to enjoy a perfectly picturesque lakeside setting—once business was done for the day, of course. During downtime, I wandered through town, but didn’t deviate from the librarian frame of mind too much; as soon as I happened upon The Island Bookstore, I knew I had to go in.

I was curious about the bookshop that makes a place for itself among souvenir shops and sweets joints, and on an island that relies primarily on tourists over a few month period each summer. And I was intrigued even more by the way that The Island Bookstore elected to stock its shelves—not just with bestsellers that travelers have probably already heard about, but with a generous number of independent titles that I knew from Foreword Reviews. After I made my inevitable purchase—a small press title that I had not heard of, but which sounded great—and left for the ferry, I wondered: how does a bookstore so unique and diverse function in a tourist destination?

Mary Jane Barnwell, one of the owners, was generous enough to enlighten me.

Can you introduce us a bit to The Island Bookstore?

We are a general, seasonal, independent bookstore that specializes in Northern Michigan titles and vacation reading. Our shop is located on Mackinac Island, which lies between the Upper and Lower Peninsulas in Michigan. It is a tourist destination, and has the distinction of being car-free. Ninety nine percent of our books are delivered by horse, and the other 1 percent are hand carried or by bicycle.

The store was started in 1975 by a retired banker named Cliff Olson, and it was located above Doud’s Market on Main Street. My sister and brother-in-law, Diane and Joe Brandonisio, and I bought the business from him in 1989, and two years later we relocated to our present location beneath the Lilac Tree Hotel on Main Street, right in the heart of downtown Mackinac Island.

We are celebrating our 41st year in business, and we are very proud of that.

What are the particular challenges of running a bookstore in a location that many consider seasonal?

Every year, we open a store with very little inventory, and every year we send most of the unsold inventory back to publishers. If you’ve ever had experience opening or closing a bookstore, you know how much work that is. It is physically and mentally demanding, but at the same time, very rewarding on both ends. In the spring it feels like Christmas, opening boxes to see what new titles we can sell, but setting up the store can be quite a challenge. Getting the store stocked and ready for a big push on Memorial Day weekend is difficult.

Closing the store in the fall is always bittersweet. We run a big sale in October to try to clear out as many books as possible to reduce our freight costs when we send the remaining stock back to publishers and distributors. We want new titles in the spring, but we also want our favorite backlist titles.

What do your employees do in the off-season?

Everyone on Mackinac Island works very hard in the summer. There are few year-round jobs here, so many people have to draw unemployment. Store manager Tamara Tomac and I work on the inventories for both stores. We take out books that we don’t think we will sell next year, and change the stock levels of backlist titles that we think will have slower sales. I like to say we “massage” the inventory. Tamara is our most important asset, and we connect throughout the winter to bounce around ideas on changes and improvements we’d like to make.

We also try to read as much as possible. We get advance readers copies of titles coming out in the summer, and have our suggestions ready for our summer visitors. Sometimes publishers send us copies of books we request, and sometimes we can download advanced readers copies on our iPad or tablet. Most of us prefer the actual book, but we’re willing to pick up a device if it’s something we’re really excited about. Our customers seem to be saying the same thing about wanting to hold the book, and not wanting to read on a device.

Your stock is diverse. How do you do your purchasing?

I order frontlist titles from catalogs or Edelweiss, a website that combines several publishers’ catalogs, and allows us to send orders to our sales reps, then into our inventory system. It has been a game changer in our industry. Years ago, I went through piles of catalogs from publishers, made notes, marked down quantities, met with sales reps face to face, then had to input each title into our inventory system manually. Now that ordering is now online, I don’t meet with as many reps, and the process is much faster.

I will say, though, that a face-to-face meeting with a rep, or even a meeting with a phone rep will result in a much bigger order from me. Sales reps can introduce us to books we might never consider and that is always a wonderful surprise for us and for our customers. I wish more publishers would take that to heart. This updated ordering process also gives me more time to look into smaller publishers to find the regional gems we are known for.

Our backlist titles are there because we pay such close attention to our sales history, our customers, and our own preferences. Each independent bookstore has it’s own personality and selection based on these things. That’s why so many people like going into independents—you just never know what type of book personality you’ll find. Big box stores don’t have the luxury of such personality. They can’t because they are run by formulas, co-op funding and bean counters.

I get a kick out of people coming in and finding something they would never expect to see in such a small store. Plus we pride ourselves on having something for everyone.

Who is your average customer?

We get people from all walks of life and most socioeconomic levels…school groups, senior bus tours, professional conferences and convention, groups of sailors, bikers and runners, and, of course, families. That is quite a diverse market.

What are the particular rewards of running a bookstore in a location that many consider seasonal?

I live in what I believe to be the most beautiful, romantic place in the world. This island is special to so many people, and I’m very fortunate to be able to live here throughout the year. And I always have something to look forward to, between opening the store in the spring, and closing the store for a winter hiatus. Most importantly, however, every day I try to remember to be thankful for this Island. And, I have what is the most wonderful job in the world - selling books.

Can you share a favorite or most memorable experience from the bookstore’s history?

During one our Harry Potter release parties, I told my young nephews, who were eager to help with our Midnight Party, that we could not look at the new books until the store opened at midnight. I found out later that they took flashlights, slipped into the 4 foot cubbyhole where we stored the books, and started reading them at 11 pm.

How/why did you get started in bookselling?

Back in 1989, the former owner was looking for someone to buy both his house and his store in one package deal. We just happened to be at the right place at the right time, and things worked out beautifully.

What’s next for the Island Bookstore?

I’m looking to publish another Mackinac Island book under my Mackinac Jane’s Publishing Company. I have two Island board books right now, and I’d like to add a different type of book to my catalog. Other than that, we hope to here working in the store for many years to come.

Michelle Anne Schingler
Michelle Anne Schingler is associate editor at Foreword Reviews. You can follow her on Twitter @mschingler or e-mail her at mschingler@forewordreviews.com.

Michelle Anne Schingler

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