Saturday, October 18, 2014

Molded by the Bookstores of Our Youth: Steve Ashley Keeps On Booking in Jackson, Wyoming

Writers are molded by the bookstores of their youth.  Or, maybe it's their public library; or, it could be that shelf of books in their family's living room.

In my case, it was The Valley Bookstore.  Growing up in Jackson, Wyoming in the 1970s, there were two stores devoted to selling new books: Teton Bookshop and The Valley Bookstore.  I divided my time equally between the two.  As a teenager, I didn't buy a lot of books--I was a low-budget library checker-outer--but I have fond memories of whiling away afternoons in both bookstores, touching new dustjackets, riffling through pages, and staring at author photos and putting my face in that space on the back flap.  All the time, I was being molded by my bookstores, my writerly clay patted and carved and fired in a kiln.  I have Steve Ashley and The Valley Bookstore to thank for the way I turned out as much as I do the Teton County Library and Mrs. Schlinger, my ninth-grade English teacher.

Teton Bookshop eventually closed, but The Valley Bookstore continues to hold its own in Jackson and, in the hometown newspaper clippings my parents regularly send me, I was happy to see an interview with store owner Steve Ashley in a recent issue of the Jackson Hole News & Guide.  The newspaper has very generously allowed me to reprint that article by Jennifer Dorsey here for those who might be interested in seeing a small, but significant, part of my humble beginnings as a writer.

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Steve Ashley has a 1950s-era photo of his father’s store, Jackson Sporting Goods, which sat a short distance from the Wort Hotel.  Next to the sports store is the Valley Shop.  Ashley remembers going in there at age 10 or 11 and buying every James Bond book in stock.  The young bookworm grew up to take over the book side of the Valley Shop and create Valley Bookstore.

In an era when one bookstore after another around the U.S. has folded, he has kept his going for more than 35 years.

“I have a box of bookmarks from bookstores across the country,” he said.  “I was looking through it, and I was amazed at how few were still around.”  The following is his story, edited and condensed.

Photo by Bradly J. Boner
Q:  Can you share a bit of Valley Bookstore’s history?

A:  The bookstore goes back to ’48.  It went through a number of owners and combinations.  The Valley Shop was owned by Dick and Fran Lange.  They had books, and they were kind of a stationery store with art supplies.  Then they sold to Wes and Virginia Marks.  They had camera supplies and books and stationary.  They sold it to Grant and Maralyn Larson.  He moved it across the street to the Pink Garter when it was first built.  It was kind of tucked in where Pinky G’s is.  They had office supplies and books.

Q:  How did you acquire the business?

A:  In 1977 I was pining for the West, so I came home.  I was living in Boston.  I went to Middlebury College in Vermont.  I was a history major.  That was not marketable.  The one thing I did know was books, because all I did was read from the youngest age.  Grant decided he would sell the book side of the Valley Shop.  My father co-signed a loan.  I bought the books and changed the name to Valley Bookstore.  Grant moved the office supplies business.  There were three bookstores in town at that point.

The Valley Bookstore is located in Jackson's quaint Gaslight Alley

Q:  When did you move from the Pink Garter to Gaslight Alley?

A:  It was probably in the early 1980s.  We started in a small space where Cowboy Coffee is now.  We needed to grow, so we moved [to the back area].  We grew and grew.  We were a 4,500-square-foot bookstore.  It was one of the best bookstores in the West.  We also expanded to another store, the Muse Stand.  That was a newsstand with music and magazines.  We brought newspapers in from all across the country.  That lasted about five years.  That was the heyday.  We had both stores and 40 people working for us.

Q:  How many employees do you have now?

A.  In the summertime we have six people.  I have employees who have worked for me for 21 years.  Karilyn Brodell has been here for 21 years, Stacey Smith 19 years, my son Owen on and off for 13 years and Erika Stevens 13 years.  My wife, Anne, goes back to the Pink Garter days.  I hired her when I opened the bookstore to work for me.

Q:  What do you do?

A:  I’m losing my hearing.  That’s why I don’t work upstairs.  I’ve always been the person who orders the books.  Now I do the receiving, too.  I’m the behind-the-scenes guy.  I make sure we’re the kind of bookstore I want to be by getting the right books in.

Q:  What kind of customer mix do you have in terms of locals and tourists?

A:  When we first got into the business we relied on tourists quite a bit.  Summers were quite important.  In the ’80s and ’90s, when wasn’t a factor in Jackson Hole, there wasn’t a choice: if you wanted a book, you came downtown.  For that reason, locals carried the bookstore.  That’s changed to the point where we are now back to where we were in the ’70s, where we need our summer business, which is tourists, to make it through the rest of the year.

Q:  How does that affect your product mix?

A:  I choose a mix of books for the summer for tourists to come in and say, “Jeez, I might never see that book again.  I’d better grab it now while I can.”  I want them to feel like they found a special spot.  In the offseason we do cater more to the locals.  I’ll bring in more literary fiction that the locals won’t necessarily have read about or seen.  The bookstore swings as the seasons go.

Q:  What sells best?

A:  A bookstore should reflect your home.  In that sense we should be full of nature history and Western history, so people can come in here and understand the land they’re in.  Jackson is a literary community.  People here read good books.  We’ve always had the best fiction and a big biography section.  Lately the children’s section has really taken off.  People are less inclined to buy children’s books over the Internet.  In the summer a third of our sales are children’s books.  There are so few independent bookstores, let alone ones with gorgeous woodwork like ours.  When people come into Valley Bookstore it’s a unique experience.

Q:  What are some examples of books you promote in the summer?

A:  What we try to do is find local histories that would appeal to residents and tourists and put them out front.  White Indian Boy, about Uncle Nick Wilson, for example.  Astoria: John Jacob Astor and Thomas Jefferson’s Lost Pacific Empire: A Story of Wealth, Ambition, and Survival by Peter Stark is another one.  It’s about the second group of fur traders to come through Jackson Hole.  I just finished it, and I loved it.  There’s a book by Mary Beth Baptiste, Altitude Adjustment, about her being a [Grand Teton National Park] employee here for years.  It’s a book that locals would like to read, because it’s all about us, but it also gives tourists a really good sense of what the valley is about.

Q: has been a big competitor?  What else?

A:  There are all kinds of stores selling books.  The big box stores like Costco and Sam’s Club.  And you see books in a lot of different stores now.  If you’re a fishing shop, you have fishing books.  If you’re a kitchen store, you have cookbooks.  It all makes good sense.  But that wasn’t a part of the landscape in the late ’80s.  So that shifted.  And there were these big chains that were selling books at 40 percent off.

Q:  What about Kindles and other e-readers?

A:  I do think they have been a piece of the puzzle when it comes to the closure of some bookstores, but what we have found is that after people got them they found they liked to use them but not all the time.  Customers tend to mix it up, buying an e-book when it is convenient, but many still prefer the smell and feel of books made of paper or the bookshelf lined with books, and I suppose something for the bathtub as well.

Q:  Valley Bookstore has downsized from the 4,500-square-feet days.  How else have you coped with the commodification of books?

A:  We did a couple of things that were smart.  We started “Sanctuary on the Square.”  We were “a quiet place to come, and 10 percent off if you’re a local.”  We still do that.  It was just so people knew we were doing what we could to give them the best possible value.  As kids we’d go in and help my dad in his shop.  We drank a lot of soup in those days, and we’d fill the empty cans with worms.  There were 12 worms, and you always put in a 13th worm.  You always do just a little bit more to make sure your customer is satisfied.

Q:  What makes Valley Bookstore unique?

A:  We’re just a bookstore.  Ninety-five percent of the store is books, and that’s because it’s what I love.  I think it’s important for the community, for children and adults to have the opportunity to hold a book and smell a book and have the epiphanies those books provide.  Books for me have always been some of my best friends.  When I was at the Holderness School [a prep school] back East, I read The Lord of the Rings and then went back to The Hobbit.  It was late ’67.  The Doors came out with the album Strange Days.  Great album.  I read Tolkien listening to that album again and again.  I was 2,000 miles away from home.  It grounded me.  It gave me something that made me feel really good.  Books have done that for me many times over the years.

Q:  Any other good book memories?

A:  We lived through the Harry Potter years.  We had the midnight book-release parties.  My kids grew up with the books.  They gave them a sense of what friendship can be, what justice is.  One year, when the second [Harry Potter] book came out, the books were shipped by freight, and they were still in Salt Lake City the day of the party.  So I had to get in our Suburban, drive down to Salt Lake City [a 600-mile round trip], pick up the books and get back by midnight.  Everything could have gone wrong in so many ways.  People wanted the books.  In the end that’s what booksellers do is get book for people.

Q:  Are you glad to have been a bookstore owner?

A:  This has been a great business.  If you’re going to sell something, hands down selling books is the best thing there is.  With books you have something new coming out very week.  At the same time I get whatever books I want.  If you have a bookstore in Jackson for 35 years, you hire a ton of people over that time.  One of the things I love is that when I go to the grocery store, chances are I’ll see someone who worked for me and is still a friend.

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