By Kika Panaitescu
What do independent bookstore owners and mothers have in common? Both are curators of ideas, philosophies, and potentials. Both are liaisons to the wider world. And both require excellent listening skills, because they’re in service to something that has a life of its own.
My first glimpse of North Bank Books came in the evening, when dusk had already fallen. The storefront gleamed with yellow light. Among the tidy rows of books I saw two of my favorite titles on display - which in a town as small as Stevenson made my heart skip a beat - and a set of enormous, cozy chairs next to the window. In the chairs were two children, quietly reading. It seemed too good to be true. But when I went inside, it got even better.
Megan, the soft-spoken woman at the counter, led me to the community room at the back of the store, where mundane-looking stacks of boxes belied the magic incubating there. As the space evolves, she explained, it will host children’s story hours (sometimes followed by craft-making related to the story) and zine-making for teens. Writing classes for teens and adults are in the wings, as are speakers, visiting authors, and panel discussions.
Co-owners Megan Harrison and Stephanie Lillegard are both mothers; their kids are a generation apart. Their collective background includes library arts, small business, elementary education and retail banking. They met in a university program. After its conclusion, they got to talking about the bookstore each of them wanted to open - and soon discovered they were talking about the same place.
“We both definitely had in mind that this would not be just a place that sold books,” Stephanie says. “Books are more like the path that takes us where we want to go.”
Megan’s young family sold their home in Idaho and moved to the gorge to join Stephanie, a long-time local, in realizing the vision summed up in their tagline: Literary Arts in Our Neck of the Woods.
The two women were still in the early planning phase when their space suddenly became available, months sooner than they had expected it to, and they opened their doors in December 2017.
“We’re from different generations, we have different areas of expertise and different interests in what literature we spend our time with,” continues Stephanie. “These cross over a lot, but they meet more than duplicate each other. And we want that for the bookstore - to be a place where viewpoints meet, rather than being limited to the set of experiences that goes with just one person’s life.”
Their approach arises out of self-described “humanist values” rather than radical ones, and they view their bookstore as a “community ecosystem,” beginning with their partnership.
“She’s doing the finances and I’m doing the window displays,” laughs Stephanie. “It takes all kinds. I think that a coalition of mothers in a culture that doesn’t really form coalitions is essential. And that’s part of our original vision….that this would be a place where those kinds of coalitions could form. And it works in two ways….the coalitions that form here, and the opening of gateways into what’s not here.”
This enthusiasm for connectivity is reciprocated. From the beginning, the community has expressed support.
“People were stopping by, popping their heads in the door saying, I’m really glad you’re here! I’m in a huge hurry but I’ll be back! And then continuing on up the hill. Everybody was like, Yay bookstore! They’re participating in it.”
That participatory element is what North Bank Books is after.
“I have three small children,” Megan adds. “And for me it’s been very isolating in some ways. You kind of get into that insular motherhood where you’re focusing on their needs and taking them to appointments and that kind of thing. For me this is a way to use my love of children and children’s literature to participate in the community. It’s important to me to create a place where children feel welcome and can come in and learn more about other people, cultures, and viewpoints…it’s important for my own children to realize they aren’t the only kind of people who feel the way they do.”
Bookstores like North Bank can be bridges where that exposure happens organically, at the pace of thumbing through tangible pages or attending an event alongside neighbors with whom a conversation can continue. Awareness deepens alongside a sense of belonging.
There’s a quality of enchantment that comes with browsing carefully tended shelves, letting yourself - or your child - be drawn to the texture and heft of a volume, and then inside an unfamiliar story or new perspective. Small town bookstores are havens of real time and place in a rushed, virtual world.
“This is learn-as-you-go for us,” says Stephanie, referring to their sudden opening. “We thought we would be able to plan it all out and then do it! Turns out this is more like real life, where the thing starts moving before you’re done planning.”
But where the planning gets interrupted and the doors thrown open, something wonderful happens. The dream takes on a life of its own.