A slice of local life -- Muir Cohen, happy to keep books in Hood River

Muir Cohen holds a recent favorite in the science fiction section.

Photo by Trisha Walker
Muir Cohen holds a recent favorite in the science fiction section.

Muir Cohen wanted to open a bookstore after he retired. It didn’t quite work out the way he planned.

Muir and his wife, Jenny, purchased Waucoma Bookstore from Charlie and Sally LaVenture on April 1, 2008. And while the two had never owned a business before, the bookstore has proven to be a successful venture.

Muir grew up in Parkdale, and remembers riding his bike “all over the place up there.” He has fond memories of waking up to the running of orchard fans, which he admits was probably not a favorite for the farmers, but for him “was a soothing way to wake up.”

In high school, he worked at Big Winds, taking the “beginner van” to the Hook and renting boards to beginning windsurfers. After graduating from Hood River Valley High, Muir entered the University of Oregon’s computer science program, eventually transferring to Oregon State to major in computer engineering.

The Cohens met at U of O through mutual friends right before Muir transferred schools. Jenny also began at U of O as an art major before transferring to OSU to major in management and information systems.

“I like to claim she followed me, but she likes to say otherwise,” Muir said.

After college, two moved to Beaverton. Muir was writing software for a computer company, and Jenny worked for Bonneville Power as an analyst in the businesses accounting department. After 12 years of living away from the valley, Muir wanted to move back, but wasn’t sure what he would do once he got here.

That’s when a family friend sent him an email about Waucoma Bookstore being up for sale,” he said. “I always told people when I retired I was going to buy a bookstore. We figured it was a perfect time to jump on it, since we were already moving back to Hood River.”

Once they took ownership of the bookstore, the Cohens made only small changes; moving some of the sections around, or making them smaller or larger. They expanded the selection of non-book items and, with regrets, stopped selling Charlie LaVenture’s pottery.

“When they sold the store to us, they were planning to move to Colorado,” explained Muir. “He stopped doing pottery. That was a disappointment to a lot of people. We still get people looking for it, and we would have continued with it if he’d been able.”

The one big change for both the store and the staff was the computerization of the inventory.

“When you own a business for 30 years, that’s all in your head,” he said. “But when you’re just starting out, it’s hard to wrap your head around 20,000 titles.” There are more steps for the staff at checkout, but it helps the Cohens keep track of what is in stock and what is selling.

What did not change were the store employees — those who wished to stay were able to keep their jobs. Depending on the season, Waucoma has between four and seven part-time employees working anywhere from one to four days a week. Muir and Jenny work full-time, with a day that begins at 10 a.m. and — sometimes — ends at 6 p.m., not including the hours spent at home, looking through huge book catalogs and placing orders.

When they first started out, they had planned for Jenny to take over Muir’s father’s business. His parents, Ron Cohen and Christie Smith, still live in Parkdale, and his father owns Middle Mountain Tax Services. But they quickly discovered that they were both needed to keep the bookstore running. “And it’s more fun,” said Muir.

“We didn’t know what was going to be involved,” he said. “It takes more than just one person to run (the bookstore).”

In an age where independent bookstores are seeing a decline in patronage, Waucoma is doing well. Muir believes the economy is improving, which helps all businesses. And being downtown during tourist season is a plus.

“We usually have a lot of people in here,” he said. “Not everyone is buying stuff, but it gives us an opportunity to entice.” The store also enjoys a loyal local following. “We have a really supportive town, and a lot of people make an effort to shop locally,” he said.

Although Waucoma carries a large inventory of books, special orders are welcome. Muir and Jenny order books every day, and while it usually takes a day or two for orders to arrive, “if you hit it right, it can be within 15 hours,” said Muir. Staff has also been able to help customers find out of print books.

Waucoma carries Kobo e-readers and offer e-books on its website, waucomabookstore.com, and receives credit for e-book sales that go through the website. “We’ve really seen a leveling off of the e-reader,” said Muir. “When a piece of technology comes out, there’s a huge spike and people are excited about it. And then people get used to it and aren’t as excited about it anymore. Now we have people coming in going, ‘I had an e-reader, but I really like the feel of a book.’”

The Cohens believe in giving back to the community, most often donating books to those coming in looking for raffle or auction items. They have also created the Waucoma Bookstore Literary Scholarship for graduating seniors, based on a short story and an essay contest. (This year’s winner was Hood River News intern Gilberto Galvez.)

Aside from First Friday events, the Cohens try not to schedule many events during the summer months. They tried to hold summer events the first couple of years they owned the bookstore, but have since cut back because so much of their traffic depends on the weather. On good days, their major competition is activities that take place outside.

Still, Cohen is philosophical about that. “You’ve got to deal with the wind, but the wind is what keeps us in business. The beauty would bring some people to town, but it’s the wind that brings most people to town.”

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