In many respects, they are saying goodbye to an old friend. The independent bookstore that opened in 1980 in the lobby of The Olympian Hotel, 116 Legion Way S.E., is going out of business July 31.
Some might suggest the closure is another example of the demise of the independent bookstore in today’s high-tech information age. After all, the American Booksellers Association – the trade association for independent bookstore owners – has seen its membership plunge from 5,500 in 1995 to 1,410 in 2010.
But there’s more to it than that. Fireside Bookstore owner Jane Laclergue soon will turn 65. She has more things to do in life – play with her grandchildren, spend more time with her husband, work when she wants in her garden and release the ties that bind her to the store.
“I want more freedom,” she said this week. “I’ve never been away from the store for more than two weeks at a time.”
Thanks to several hundred loyal customers who are willing to pay a little more for a book than they would if they bought it at a chain bookstore or online, Laclergue has made a decent living since purchasing the bookstore from its original owner, Coke Funkhouser, in 1995.
But in the same breath, she said the recession has been hard on business. To rejuvenate the bookstore, she would have to enter the world of online sales, which she’s not inclined to do.
“I don’t even have a website,” she said in a matter-of-fact way.
Her longtime customers are stopping by to say goodbye, and take advantage of a going-out-of-business sale that features books marked down 30 percent.
“One customer bought $400 worth of books the other day,” she marveled.
Typical of Fireside’s regular customers, Bill Marshman expressed sadness upon hearing the news but empathized with Laclergue’s desire to retire.
“I just don’t want the bookstore to go away,” he said.
Fireside fans are quick to ask the question: Have you found someone to buy the store?
“I’ve tried quietly to find a buyer ever since my husband retired more than four years ago,” she said. “I have no one.”
It’s no coincidence Laclergue gravitated to the bookstore business. Born in Harmony, N.C., in a hospital that later became a library, she always loved books. She said her best childhood memory was waiting for the bookmobile to visit her rural neighborhood in the summer.
A bit of a bookworm, she was voted “most studious” by her high school senior classmates and remembers plowing through nonfiction books and biographies like there was no tomorrow. They remain her favorite read.
A registered nurse specializing in pediatrics much of her adult life, Laclergue started working at Fireside in 1988, learning the bookstore ropes from Funkhouser.
“I learned so much from her – the importance of getting to know your customers and how to display books effectively,” she said.
When ordering books from catalogues, she relies heavily on what she knows her customers like to read.
“When I run into one of my customers in the grocery store, I may not remember their name, but I know what they read,” she said.
Laclergue has always been a strong supporter of regional authors, hosting book-signing events for the likes of Jim Lynch, Michael Pyle and Ivan Doig.
“A huge part of my business has been supporting local authors,” she said. When the Olympia-based Lynch launched a book tour this spring for his third novel, “Truth Like the Sun,” he made sure the first event was hosted by Laclergue and Fireside Bookstore. The bookstore owner and author are like a two-person mutual admiration society.
“I don’t have to work hard to sell his books,” she said.
“She was terrific at putting my books in the hand of people who might enjoy them,” Lynch said. “I feel like I’m losing my favorite business partner.”
What will she miss most about the bookstore? It will be her many faithful customers and the joy of browsing through book catalogues to order books.
What will she miss the least?
“Dusting the books,” she said without hesitation. “It’s almost a daily chore in the summertime.”
As customers pick through the inventory, she knows she will have some books left over at the end of the day. She will sell what she can to other area bookstores and donate the rest to the Friends of the Olympia Library.
Even the bookcases, many of them handsome, sturdy originals from the store’s early days, are for sale.
Laclergue isn’t sure what will happen with the small retail space she has worked in as an employee or owned for 25 years. Nor does she have a hard-and-fast opinion about the future of independent bookstores.
“I do know this: the public’s wallets will decide if we’ll continue to have independent bookstores,” she said.