New Anchorage indie bookstore aims to boost sales by offering food, wine, beer

  • Author: Annie Zak
  • Updated: February 5, 2018
  • Published February 5, 2018

The Writer’s Block Bookstore and Cafe, Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2018. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

At the Writer's Block Bookstore & Cafe one recent morning, people shuffled in to buy coffee, browse bookshelves lining the walls or set up shop at tables to read or work.

Anchorage hasn't had a space like this in years — an independent bookstore that sells new books.

Writer's Block opened in mid-January in Anchorage's Spenard neighborhood. The owners aren't just depending on selling books for success; they hope to carve out a niche as a community hub that fosters an atmosphere for arts events, while supplementing book sales with food, wine and beer.

The bookstore's arrival marks something of a return for a market that was largely snuffed out in Alaska's largest city after the arrival of Borders and Barnes & Noble in the mid-1990s.

"The big bookstores, there are usually places where you can kind of hang out, but it doesn't feel as comfortable," said Dawnell Smith, one of the Writer's Block owners, on a recent weekday as people sat at a nearby table chatting, a Tom Waits song playing low in the background. "I think in a place like this, books are treated more as part of your family or part of your artwork."

A large stage in the middle of the cafe anchors the space. Sections of books include fiction, nonfiction, cookbooks, classics and so on. One big goal of the shop is to highlight works by Alaska authors, which are spread throughout the shelves.

Artist Chad Taylor helps set up an art installation at the future home of the Writer’s Block Bookstore & Cafe in April 2016. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

The shop is on a piece of land on Spenard Road that formerly featured a storied porn shop with a sign out front that simply said, "Adults Only." After an erotic art show in 2016 to mark the transition to a literary cafe, that building was torn down and a new one designed by 61 North Architects went up.

"We don't see it as revitalizing the community," Smith said. "We see it as seeing in the community what's already vital."

All four of the owners have other jobs. Smith works at environmental law firm Trustees for Alaska. Kathy McCue is an emergency room doctor at Alaska Native Medical Center. Teeka Ballas is a teacher, and Vered Mares has a book publishing company.

Smith hopes including a cafe, drinks, readings and other events will make the spot a viable business, even as Alaska is in a recession.

"Those things all together allow it to be economically possible," she said. "I think doing a bookstore on its own is really hard."

Two of four Writer’s Block Bookstore and Cafe owners, Vered Mares, left, and Kathy McCue, pause from cleaning booths in the former Adults Only shop in December  2015.  (Erik Hill / ADN)

Anchorage has had several independent bookstores in its history: Cook Inlet Book Co., Chapter One, Alaska Women's Bookstore, Metro Music and Book, and local chain Book Cache before it was bought by a Canadian company. But when the national chain bookstores came to Alaska, the indies were able to hold on for only so long.

"We were sort of collateral damage" after people flocked to Borders, Barnes & Noble and Amazon, said Sandy Harper, co-founder of Cyrano's Theatre Company. Cyrano's used to have a bookstore component, and a piece of that store — a long sign that reads "BOOKS & CAFE" — now has a new home at Writer's Block.

Title Wave Books in Spenard focuses almost entirely on the sale of used books, but that wasn't always the case. For a while it also carried new books and merchandise like gifts, but around 2010 it reverted its focus to secondhand books.

"Our customers were telling us they loved the fact that they could bring in books, receive credit," said Angela Libal, owner of Title Wave. That store opened in 1991 and has been at its current location in the Northern Lights Center strip mall since 2002. "We saw some pushback on new kinds of merchandise."

She gets a lot of inquiries about hosting author signings and events, but she said publishers typically don't send their authors to used-book stores. The way she sees it, the more opportunities for events and signings there are in town, the better.

She doesn't view Writer's Block as direct competition to her store, because their business models are so different. Smith feels the same way about Title Wave and Barnes & Noble.

The Writer’s Block Bookstore and Cafe, Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2018. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

The new bookstore is also, as Smith sees it, a response to a growing hunger for community spaces. She pointed to two other Anchorage arts hubs — the Church of Love and Anchorage Community Works — as examples.

"I think all these spaces are part of an interesting movement by people," she said, "and we just combined it with books."