Bloomsbury Books is turning 35 and book lovers are invited to the party. Ashland's iconic downtown bookstore has grown from small beginnings into a two-story hub of literary greatness that was previously named Best Small Bookstore in the state by the Oregonian.
From 2 to 4 p.m. Sunday, April 19, co-owners Karen Chapman and Sheila Burns will host a celebration of Bloomsbury's long life, and the staff and customers who keep it going strong. The party is free and open to the public.
Chapman has a thick scrapbook loaded with pictures and newspaper articles that tell Bloomsbury's origin story. The store started in 1979 when she and three other women discovered they shared a longtime desire to open a bookstore. “At the time, we all had small children and, individually, we couldn't run a bookstore alone,” said Chapman. The women, Chapman, Burns, Denise Harnly and Nancy Peterson, didn't know each other well at the time. “Something clicked with us and we decided to pool our talents,” she said.
Friends and financial advisors were not encouraging. “A business advisor told us we wouldn't last three years and warned us that partnerships usually don't do well,” said Chapman. “We figured we'd go into it with our eyes wide open and take it day by day,” Chapman said. “Honestly, we never had any serious partnership problems.”
Despite the rough economy, their plan worked and the store quickly thrived by attracting loyal book lovers like longtime customer Judy Schaeffer, the first member of the store's book club, which offers a 15 percent discount on purchases. “I still have my member card with the number one,” she said. “I remember when they were at the old house,” Schaeffer said, referring to Bloomsbury's initial location, a 700 square-foot shared space in the E.V. Carter House on Siskiyou Boulevard. “I was so happy to see a new bookstore in town,” she added. Chapman has fond memories, too. “I loved that space. It was small, but easy for the four of us to manage, since we couldn't afford staff at the time,” said Chapman.
Five years later, needing more room, they moved to a different space on East Main Street, near what is now the Music Coop. Shortly after, co-owner Denise Harnly moved with her family to Seattle. “That left Sheila, Nancy and myself, but by this time we were able to hire employees,” said Chapman.
Judy Schaeffer says that the employees are part of the store's charm. “The customer service has always been excellent,” she said. “They'll spend time searching for a book for you and call as soon as it is in. It's like getting a book from a friend.”
In 1991, again needing a larger space, the women moved Bloomsbury to its current location at 290 E. Main. “One of our original plans was to have a coffeeshop in the store,” said Chapman. “This space gave us room for that. The coffee shop space is leased by David Light and he has done an amazing job with it,” she added.
In 1997, the Bloomsbury team lost co-owner Nancy Peterson to cancer. Peterson was also a former state representative and Ashland City Council member. “She worked up to the end. We really miss her. Nancy was so dynamic and energetic,” said Chapman.
Although there have been changes over the years, Chapman says Bloomsbury has remained true to the original goals of its owners. “As far as how we wanted the bookstore to feel, a browsing atmosphere with nooks and crannies, and lots of quality books, it is the same,” added Chapman.
Even with the popularity of e-books and Amazon, Chapman says nothing compares to a real bookstore experience, to holding a book. “You can't experience an e-book in the same way,” said Chapman. You can't have a bookcase filled with them. Books on the shelf give your home a warm feeling and it's like a little history looking through old books and remembering where you were in your life when you read it.”
Chapman says she is looking forward to the upcoming celebration. Former co-owner Denise Harnly and the family of Nancy Peterson will be there, as well as many longtime customers. “We've made so many friends along the way and it will be nice to have everyone in one place, sharing memories,” she said.
Bloomsbury Books is at 290 E. Main Street. For more information, call 541-488-0029.
Reach Ashland freelance writer Angela Decker at firstname.lastname@example.org.