Interview with a Bookstore: Broadway Books
Where Customers are Cherished and Community Blooms
Roberta Dyer and Gloria Borg Olds, who met while working in a different bookstore, opened Broadway Books in 1992 after realizing that this particular neighborhood of northeast Portland was then underserved. The day they signed the lease, however, they learned that a Barnes & Noble superstore was moving in just down the street. Fortunately, Broadway Books managed to outlast the B & N, which has since relocated to a nearby mall. Following the retirement of Roberta and Gloria, Sally McPherson became a partner in 2007, and Kim Bissell a co-owner in 2015.
What's your favorite section of the store?
Sally McPherson (partner): I love the tables that display new titles, because I get all geeky excited about new books. For my own reading, probably fiction, science/nature, and history/current events. Picture books make me all giddy too.
Kim Bissell (co-owner): It might not be the answer that most would expect me to say, but it’s the poetry section of our store. We have so many interesting and thoughtful poets here. It seems that we could trace the story of our neighborhood, city, and state in the works of art stuffed into our poetry shelves.
If you had infinite space what would you add?
Sally: More books, a couch, and a wine bar.
Kim: Oooh, a wine bar would be lovely!
What do you do better than any other bookstore?
Sally: I wouldn’t say we do this better than any other bookstore, but I think we have a good reputation for hosting interesting events, keeping a well-curated inventory, supporting local authors and publishers, and making helpful recommendations, especially for gift-giving. About half of our staff are retired bookstore owners, so they know a thing or two about bookselling!
Kim: I concur!
Who's your favorite regular?
Sally: Oh my, I have so many! One of our favorites goes to the B&N and writes down ISBNs so she can buy her books from us. I get great book recommendations myself from our incredibly well-read and well-informed customers. The sad part about a store that’s been around almost a quarter of a century is having favorite customers who pass away. There are quite a few that I miss very much. But I meet wonderful new customers every day.
Kim: We have so many lovely customers, but my favorite is when neighbors run into each other in the store. One morning, in my first few months at the store, a regular customer and local author ran into a former student here. They stood at the counter and talked shop about writing, autographed books for each other, chatted basketball and jazz. Folks need a place to connect and commune about reading and writing. Thanks to our loyal community, we can make that possible.
What’s the craziest situation you’ve ever had to deal with in the store?
Sally: Recently we got a phone call from someone asking how late we were open because he was coming down to throw water on our shelves. Fortunately, that never transpired. We get our share of eccentric people who wander in, usually looking for some place with heat or AC, depending on the time of year, but they’re usually pretty easy to deal with. One of them used to come in and say “Hello Mrs. Book Lady,” and then proceed to rattle off a string of sentences that together made no sense whatsoever. I would say “thank you for the information,” and he would nod and smile and leave. And of course we get plenty of the “I heard about a book lately and I can’t remember the author or title but I think it might be about (blank)” queries. We actually enjoy the heck out of those challenges.
Kim: I love the crazy busy days right before holidays—the harried customers, the beautiful wrapping paper, the joyful music, the heavy rains and dark skies all feel conducive to selling special gifts.
What’s your earliest/best memory about visiting a bookstore as a child?
Sally: I spent much of my youth in libraries, especially at the library in Cannon Beach, where in the rainy months (usually most of June, back then) I would read my way through the entire children’s section, starting with the Nancy Drew series, moving on to the Hardy Boys, and then going on from there. The first bookstore I remember shopping in is the Cannon Beach Book Company, although back in the day I believe it was called Innisfree. In a happy turn of circumstances, I ended up working at the CBBC after I left the corporate world and before I became a partner in Broadway Books; it was one of the most satisfying times of my life.
Kim: My husband and I met and courted at the Tattered Cover in Denver. We would wander for hours and talk about all kinds of subjects in every area of the store. Shopping for books is still our favorite date night.
If you weren’t running or working at a bookstore, what would you be doing?
Sally: Shopping at a bookstore.
Kim: Me too!
What’s been the biggest surprise about running a bookstore?
Sally: The lack of time for reading. Surprisingly, I read more in my previous life, when I was flying for work every week and read on airplanes and in hotels at night. While some people fantasize about owning a bookstore and sitting with their feet up reading book after book, the truth is there is always more work to be done. I was also surprised at how challenging it is to keep the store’s inventory top notch, with new publisher catalogs and drop-ins coming every time you think you have a moment to rest. In spite of the challenges, it’s the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done. I cherish the relationships I’ve developed with customers, authors, and publishers–such a gift! We’ve even had several customers write us poems! Who else has a job where that kind of magic happens?
Kim: Being at the store is so much more fun than I could have ever imagined. I love hearing what people are reading, what they’ve loved and what they’ve hated. I’m also constantly surprised at the commitment of our customers to keep a stable bookstore in their community. Folks are willing to wait in line, wait for books they’ve ordered, come to readings, share store information with their friends and honestly, pay more than at big box retailers. All because they know that keeping our store vibrant has created a mecca in their community. How special to have inherited that respect from the booksellers before me.