Waucoma Bookstore celebrates 25 years

Sally LaVenture knew little about bookstores when she moved to Hood River in 1975 except that she liked them. But after a year of living on a "community" farm on the Westside, she found herself the owner of Waucoma Bookstore -- then a funky shop in the basement of what is now the Carousel Museum that sold an eclectic array of items ranging from tea and herbs to birthing books.

"There was all kinds of weird stuff," LaVenture recalls.

Twenty-five years and two downtown locations later, LaVenture is celebrating a quarter-century of bookselling in Hood River this week. In honor of the occasion she's offering in-store discounts, free author appearances and an official party in conjunction with the downtown-wide First Friday. (See story, this page.)

LaVenture's 25 years as owner of Waucoma Bookstore has been more than just a successful career. She's created a sort of second family in her long-time employees, raised (with her husband, Charley) two daughters who share her love of books, and evolved her store along with the changing town over the last two-and-a-half decades.

But she laughs when she looks back on Waucoma's fledgling beginnings. "I didn't know what I was doing," she says. She kept the store's name only because the previous owner had lots of leftover stationery. She kept the birthing books, the herbs and the coffee the previous owner had, then was left to figure out how to get an inventory of books. Lacking a better idea, she drove to a book distributor in Seattle and filled her Volkswagen bus with 25 boxes of titles.

"I tried to be well-rounded, but I didn't know," she recalls. She didn't know what people in Hood River would read, and she didn't know how her store would be received in a community where, she says, "we stood out."

She and Charley bought $100 worth of wood from the Hanel mill and built shelves for her new inventory, then opened the doors. "It was pretty slow at first," LaVenture says. But customers began to trickle in, and before long she was faced with unknowns.

"I was not a business person," she says. "I didn't even know anything about paying taxes." And other dilemmas soon arose: "It never occurred to me that people would want to order books," she says. When that started to happen LaVenture panicked, then called a friend who owned a bookstore in Portland for advice.

"I said, `Help! How do I do this'," she says. And so began her education as a bookseller.

LaVenture moved Waucoma to the lobby of the Hood River Hotel in 1979 -- at a time when the building was crumbling into disrepair. After three years there -- culminating in a leaky ceiling that caved in and ruined many books -- she was offered the chance to buy the building where Waucoma now is. She jumped on it, did some remodeling and -- for the last time -- hauled her inventory up the street.

By then LaVenture had begun her "second family" at the store with employees Merle Anne McVay and Peggy Dills Kelter. McVay remains the bookkeeper for Waucoma, even though she now lives in Portland. Dills Kelter left last year to pursue her art interests, but remains part of the close-knit Waucoma family.

Rose Kelly joined Waucoma in 1987 to round out the long-time employees that LaVenture says she couldn't do without.

"They've really made this store possible," LaVenture says.

LaVenture has watched Hood River's growth during the last 25 years through the eyes of its only bookseller, changing her inventory with the evolving population.

"I carry a lot more varied kinds of books than I used to," she says. "A lot more business books, and the novels have changed." She rarely used to carry hardbacks, she says. Now she sells lots of them. "People want more quality books," she says. "We've got very educated readers here."

She's weathered the often stormy waters of being a small, independent bookseller in the era of Barnes and Noble megastores. While it's easier being an "independent" in a small town, she says, she's also affected by Hood River's proximity to Portland.

"It's easy for people to go to Portland to buy their books," she says. Still, LaVenture has felt more of a squeeze from the advent of the Internet.

"We used to get calls asking if we had a title," she says. "Now people call and say, `What's your price?'" But being in a small community has also had its advantages on that front.

"We have a lot of loyal customers," she says. "People come in with their Amazon.com print-out and order from us." But LaVenture has had to come up with new ideas to stay competitive -- like selling high quality educational toys along with books.

"We've had to diversify," she says. But LaVenture believes it's the customer service Waucoma offers that keeps people coming back.

"We're all so excited by books," she says. "And we pass that on." LaVenture and all Waucoma's staff members read a wide range of books and write reviews for the "Recommended By" table -- a section of the bookstore that has become very popular over the years. "Some people come in and just buy from that table, without questioning it," Laventure says. Her staff of book lovers are also able to give personal recommendations on favorite books -- often even loaning their own copies.

"That kind of stuff brings people back," she says.

The Waucoma staff's willingness to do legwork for customers' needs -- from doing book searches to researching categories to come up with recommendations -- is also something people can't get at larger bookstores. And LaVenture feels that, despite the ease of Internet book browsing, it lacks a reality that people want.

"I think people will always need to look at a book and hold it," she says. "Seeing it on a screen -- or even in a catalog -- is not the same."

LaVenture has lately toyed with the idea of selling the store. Along with Waucoma's 25th anniversary, LaVenture recently turned 50. "All these numbers were coming up," she says, laughing. But when it came down to it, she decided she wasn't ready to "let go."

"I still love unpacking a box of books," she says. And, along with the close relationships she has with her staff, LaVenture also values her interaction with customers.

"I have some of my greatest conversations with customers," she says, adding that many of her lifelong friends are people she met at the store. "There are some really interesting people in this town, and those are often the kind of people who are drawn to bookstores."

Now a seasoned bookseller, LaVenture looks forward to bringing Waucoma into its next quarter-century.

"I realize how much I enjoy turning people on to books," she says. "It's definitely a part of me."

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