Book lovers in our community felt disappointed—and frankly, guilty—when word went around last winter that Bay Leaf Books was closing. The store, filled with an assortment of carefully selected, meticulously organized, high-quality used books, had graced Newaygo's main street for more than three years, after moving from nearby Sand Lake.
We all loved having a bookstore in town. Maybe we just didn't love it enough. That's where the guilt came in. If only we'd visited more often, bought more books, might that have made a difference?
As the initial shock wore off, our conversations turned from what we should have done to what we still could do. Was it too late to rescue the shop? If not, how could we do it? Most of us were still thinking in terms of buying more books—maybe even pledging to purchase a certain number a month.
John Reeves had a bigger idea: buy the whole, honkin' store.
He paid a visit to owner Gabe Konrad, who told him recent life changes had prompted the decision to close the brick-and-mortar store and concentrate on his mail-order book business. The two men kicked around some numbers, and John left, excited with the idea of recruiting friends to go in together on the store.
"It turned out only one was interested," John says. So John, his wife Marsha and the friend pooled their money, and Flying Bear Books was born.
It took some doing for Flying Bear to achieve liftoff, however.
"In my mind, I was going to buy a bookstore, turn the lights on, open the doors and sell books," John recalls, laughing now at the thought.
"We were thinking, we'll move a little furniture, create a comfortable place where people can hang out," adds Marsha. "As we got into it, it was clear there was more and more that we wanted to do. That's when it struck us that, oh, this is a big project!" The biggest "to-do" was entering all the books into a database, to keep tabs on what kinds of books are selling best.
Previous owner Gabe, who's been selling books through catalogs and specialty shows for more than 20 years, knew the store's inventory inside and out. John and Marsha, on the other hand, were not only getting acquainted with the store's contents, they were brand new to the book business. Unlike "book guy" Gabe, "we're just readers," says Marsha.
John researched software packages, decided on one, and started entering books, with the goal of having 10,000 cataloged by the store's March 1 opening. The process turned out to be so time-consuming, only 2,000 had been entered by then.
While John focused on the inventory, Marsha coordinated painting, cleaning, rearranging and signing up artists to sell their work in the shop. Neither labored alone, though.
"We put out the word that we could use any help we could get, and people showed up weekend after weekend," says Marsha. "It was so heartwarming. I just felt embraced by the community."
Two helpers, Rod Geers and MaryAnn Tazelaar, stayed on to work part time. Other friends have volunteered to pitch in when John and Marsha go on vacation.
The new bookstore owners are committed to maintaining the same high standards that Bay Leaf Books was known for, and the store's organization is the largely the same. "Gabe's thinking was, if he had three books on a topic, he would create a section for it with a shelf card. That was his criterion," says John. "So we don't throw cards away, we keep them even if we might run out of the three books in that area, because I might go to a sale and find three more books on that subject."
The strategy pays off in sales, he adds. For example, "one young lady in her twenties came in looking for books on how to survey land. It turned out we had four books on surveying. She bought three."
The Reeveses did move the military section from the front of the store to the center "to soften the entry," says John. They also hope to increase the indigenous section, with a special sub-section for Anishinaabe literature.
As for other directions, time will tell.
"For me, it's a learn-as-you-go process," says John. "Every day I'm learning something new about books or how they're categorized." Or, he says, popping up and rushing to the front window, "learning to turn over the OPEN sign." The biggest surprise so far: "It's a business, and I have to start thinking of it like a business." He's brainstorming ideas to draw in customers—perhaps a book club or a more informal monthly get-together where people just talk about whatever they're reading. He'd also like to find ways of supporting local authors and working with schools and community groups.
All of which makes it clear this undertaking is not just a business proposition to its new owners.
For Marsha, holistic nurse with an interest in all aspects of healing, changing the store's layout and getting it working in a different way was "a form of healing." And, she adds, "I know that there's healing that goes along with learning, and there are a lot of opportunities for people to learn here."
What's more, owning the bookstore is just plain fun—way more than John and Marsha expected. "Every day, John comes home with a story about something funny or about helping a kid who came in with a cool question," says Marsha. "It's really a delight."
Flying Bear Books is located at 79 State Road in Newaygo. Hours are Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Phone: 231-414-4056.
Bay Leaf Books still operates as an online bookseller. Visit here.
Written from the heart,
from the heart of the woods
Read the introduction to HeartWood here.
Nan Sanders Pokerwinski, a former journalist, writes memoir and personal essays, makes collages and likes to play outside. She lives in West Michigan with her husband, Ray.