Store survives on book smarts

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Brenda Ahearn/Daily Inter Lake Cheryl Watkins, owner of Bookworks, searching for a book on Friday at Bookworks in Whitefish.

In the movie “You’ve Got Mail,” Tom Hanks tells Meg Ryan’s character to “go to the mattresses” as she tries to keep her family-owned bookstore alive under the pressure of the Goliath Fox Books.

But that was in 1998.

Forget the mattresses — the staff at Bookworks in Whitefish hits the books.

“The beauty of having a small store is that we’ve pretty much read everything,” owner Cheryl Watkins said.

Knowing the ins-and-outs of the inventory ups the ante on customer service, she said.

If a customer picks up a book that she knows isn’t particularly good, Watkins will steer that customer towards something better — even if it means losing a sale.

“If people pick up this book and ask what I think, I’ll tell them,” she said.

And if she doesn’t have what a customer is looking for, 98 percent of the time she can get it for them. It might take a little searching, but Watkins keeps good contacts with several publishing companies and will even do out-of-print searches when need arises.

“We just have a lot more options” to go about getting a book than the box stores, she said.

Bookworks is the last remaining independent bookstore still selling new books in the Flathead Valley.

Mary Pat Love opened the store in the early 1970s.

Since then, it has changed locations a half-dozen times and changed ownership nearly as often.

Watkins bought the shop in 1996 and moved it to its current operating space on Spokane Avenue in 2000.

Since the October closure of Books West in Kalispell, Watkins said she’s picked up a new crowd of customers.

Business is so strong, she’s looking at opening a second location in Bigfork. It’s just a matter of finding the right location, Watkins said.

Part of the store’s draw, is that it’s more than just a store, she maintained.

“It’s a lot of one on one ... we’re kind of like a community center,” she said.

And Bookworks has weathered some storms — especially when road construction in front of the store coincided with the pit of the recession last fall.

The loyalty of her customer base that kept books on the shelves during that time.

“I think half the people that came in didn’t even want to buy a book, they just wanted to make sure we didn’t go out of business,” Watkins said.

“People really go out of their way” to support local business, she maintained.

Perhaps The stiffest challenge to independent bookstores now is the digital reader. First it was Amazon’s Kindle. Now stores can’t keep iPads on the shelves. Digital books are cheap and a whole lot more portable than carting a library around.

But part of the culture of books is being able to share them with friends and family.

“There’s a whole social thing with passing books along,” Watkins said.

After all, are you going to lend your girlfriend your iPad the next time you think she needs to re-read “She’s Just Not That Into You?” With the price tag on those things, probably not.

Watkins’ other argument regarding the e-readers is that there isn’t currently a way to recoup your money. You can’t sell your used e-books to a store. You can’t donate them to a children’s book drive.

“When you’re sitting on $1,000 worth of Kindle — how do you get your money back?” Watkins would like to know.

“It’ll change things for sure,” she said, but until the whizzes over at Apple figure out a way for people to get their money back on pre-read items, she’s not too concerned it’ll put her out of business.

Until then, she’s content to continue doing what she does best — keeping up on market trends and serving her customers to the best of her ability.

Look for expansions to her wrapping paper and greeting card collections and for more titles on Montana and western history in the meantime.

On the silver screen, going to the mattresses didn’t get Meg Ryan too far. She ended up having to close up shop.

Watkins’ strategy of knowing both her customers and her inventory is working out a whole lot better — for her and the community.

Brenda Ahearn/Daily Inter Lake Sally Askevold, center, helps Joseph and Monika Puglielli of Whitefish with their search on Friday at Bookworks in Whitefish.

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