Lucky for me Mary Harris is from South Africa.
A co-owner of Parkplace Books, Harris had just scolded me for a grammatical faux-pas in last week’s issue (I won’t say what. It’s embarrassing, and I don’t want people looking to see if I do it again.). I had come in to buy a book, and she had noticed me from my picture.
“You should know better,” she said after pointing out my error.
A “whoops” and a shy smile were all I could muster. She was right, so I thanked her for the correction and cursed my taste in verbs.
But then it was awkward.
A few idle pleasantries later, however, I saw an opening to flip the conversation. Harris let slip the reason for her accent, and I seized at the opportunity.
“Hoe gaan dit,” I quickly coughed out. It’s an informal greeting in Afrikaans, a guttural language of South Africa. It’s one of the few phrases I remember picking up from my travels — and I know it came out more as a wheeze than an actual sentence — but she understood and flashed a grin.
Mary and I had just developed a rapport.
We chatted briefly about African politics as she went to grab my book. I’ll be back for more, I thought to myself.
It’s a scene I imagine is repeated many times over every day at the store. Of the 10-15 customers I saw during my two visits last week, more than half chatted with Willow and Harris like people who know each other on a first-name basis.
It’s also a scene that almost played out for the final time last week. One of the last independent bookstores on the Eastside and one of just a handful in the city (Kirkland’s other bookstores are primarily spiritually centered), Parkplace dodged a financial bullet last week. Short $8,000 on a bill owed to a supplier by the end of April, Harris and her partner, Rebecca Willow, took the unusual step last week of sending out an e-mail appeal to the community asking for donations to help keep the store open.
Within four days more than 350 people responded with enough money to cover the bill.
Seems I’m not the only one who has grown fond of the store.
“We have consistently heard the message of ‘thanks for letting us know, you have to stay alive,’” Willow said by phone last Friday.
Willow said she knows Parkplace must find ways to better compete with larger retailers — either by finding a niche or building an online presence — in the age of the online marketplace. All businesses must.
But she also admits the store won’t be able to stay open without the help of people who make a point to shop locally. In the end, a small-scale operation like Parkplace will never be able to directly compete with the Borders, Amazon.coms and Barnes & Nobles of the world. It doesn’t have the inventory or resources.
What Harris and Willow rely on is a reciprocal investment into the community. Their store might charge a few dollars more for a book, but it also supports 55 local book clubs. It might not have the book you’re looking for on hand (they say they can meet just about any request in 1-3 days), but it hosts a children’s reading program twice a month. It might not have the best sales, but you know you can go in and bend an ear or two (you can bet Harris and Willow are up to date on the latest Kirkland happenings).
And this same type of scenario can be applied to most of Kirkland’s small independent businesses.
Which brings up an interesting question: Does Kirkland value operations like Parkplace Books? Surely a city with an average annual household income of $108,000 has the means. In Parkplace’s case, we’ll find out over the next few months whether it has the “wil” (to “want” in Afrikaans).