Laurie Swift Raisys

I’ve known Laurie for over 10 years, as we have raised our kids together in the same community.  After a couple decades of being full-time Mom and part-time employee in various capacities, Laurie purchased Island Books on Mercer Island – a community fixture for 35 years. The rest of the story:

AiAA: Laurie – today is November 22, 2016 and we are interviewing you because you did something a bit wild and crazy at the age of 50. You purchased Island Books on Mercer Island. Just for the record, how old are you today?

Laurie Raisys: 51.

AiAA: Before we dive into the bookstore acquisition what can you tell us about your background? 

Laurie: I was a military brat. My dad was in the Navy as a chaplain for 35 years and we traveled all over the place. We moved every two to three years. 

AiAA: Domestic or international?

Laurie: Both. We lived in Spain. We also lived in Japan and Hawaii.  I have an older brother and a younger brother, and as we were traveling I was always the one who would find friends we could play with because my older brother was too shy and my younger brother was too young.  The resilience I learned by moving every two to three years of my life has helped me as an adult.

AiAA: Okay. The life event we are discussing is you becoming the owner of Island Books as a 50-year-old, jumping into that pool.  Up until that point you were focused on raising four kids, heavy volunteering, and part-time employment.  Can you describe how that all came about?

Laurie: Well, one of the things the bookstore does are book fairs through all the schools. When my kids moved into the public school system I attended the book fairs at Island Books. Growing up, my mom and I were always huge bookstore people. Whenever there was a bookstore in any town we visited or lived in, my mother and I were always there. We've both been huge readers. I loved Island Books and my husband grew up on the Island, so my mother-in-law brought me here for the first time when I first started dating Victor and I've been coming ever since.

How I came to know about the bookstore being something that could be purchased was just by chance. I had become friends with Roger, who's the former owner, and I just watched him. I'd come in and chat with him.  There was a year when my contract work at Microsoft ended and I wasn’t working - so I would hit every single volunteer event at the bookstore when the schools had their book fairs.  I got to know Roger and happened to walk into the store at the right time for us to have a conversation. 

At Christmastime in 2014, he just seemed ready for a change and I said, “If you are, let me know and I’d love to talk with you (about purchasing the bookstore)."

He wrote me a Christmas card and handed it to me when we came in on Christmas Eve and said, "I've been watching you and I hear you." He goes, "Let's talk in the new year." January 6, he emailed me and said, "Do you want to get breakfast?" That's when it all started, and it took about six months for the deal to go through because it was ... You know, there are a lot of moving parts. He had been the owner here for 35 years. The book industry knew him. PNBA, the Pacific Booksellers Association, knew him, and here's this unknown person who just happens to be a highly involved community person, and that was the only recognition I had. The people knew our family through various activities. It was like wow, who is person? Do you know anything about books?

I don't think the bookstore, in buying it, was because I either had a dream of owning a bookstore.  I do happen to love books and love reading, but it wasn't that. It's more that it's just an amazing community place where people come and ... We get people every day who walk in just because the want to come to the bookstore and talk to us, or sit in the bookstore and look at the books or read their paper or grab their book and read it.

Laurie Swift Raisys

We have someone who takes a break every day and sits in one of our chairs. It's just an amazing little community spot that people feel at home in and they can come and talk with us or just, you know, walk in and it makes them feel better, or sit and wait out traffic, and I like that. I like that a lot. Being a community minded person, I like that a lot and it makes me feel good that people come in here and do stuff like that.

AiAA: You said that it took about six months from that breakfast to kind of work out all the kinks.  What were the more significant kinks that needed to be worked through?

Laurie: Just the lease for one. He was going to put the bookstore on the market. He tried to get a member of his staff to purchase the business - but it's a lot of work to be a store owner.  While Roger really liked me as a person, I think there was a part of him that thought I was just some Mercer Island stay-at-home Mom. 

It's been a lot of fun and we've brought a lot of different changes to the store. I think it's a warmer place to come and I think people feel that when they walk in the door. 

AiAA: From the time that you became the owner till now, what was the toughest period?

Laurie: We all made mistakes in the Fall.  We ordered too many books, we didn’t do a return right.  It was a great way to learn - just diving in and doing it ourselves.

Yes, there is the bottom line and whether you make money this year and will you make money in books? That's something that keeps you up at night - trying to figure out new ways to get people to come into the store.  Trying to understand the role of social media (i.e. Facebook for business) is crazy.  It’s not easy. 

My kids, while they know where I am every day and they all know how to get here, they know the bus to take from the high school, the bus to take from the middle school, they have a brother who can drive them or a sister if she's home. They can all get here and hang out or do their homework in the back or help around the store, but I'm here a lot of the time.

AiAA: What makes you stick with it?

Laurie: I mean I really like it. I enjoy not just being a small business owner. In this community it's a phenomenal thing because I have so much support. There are so many people who ... I mean I bought something that was well-established and well-loved, so I can't take any credit for that. I'm just keeping the ship moving. People say that when they come in. People are like, "Oh, my God, if this place ever went under," and you have lots of people that are so funny. They come up to me, "Like if you ever get in trouble you let me know." What kind of trouble am I going to get into?

AiAA: Yeah. What's been the most gratifying aspect of this experience for you?

Laurie: I think just all the stories you hear, all the people you meet, because people come in here and they just ... Sometimes they just ... Like they just need a place to come, especially after the election. There were a lot of people that just came in and they said, "I came in here after Bush was elected and Gore lost and I just needed to feel comfort." Those people, whatever your political station is in life ... We had a lot of people the day after the election that came in and felt that way.

We have people that come in and just sit down in a chair and read their own book. They bring their book in or they buy a book and they sit. I get a lot of hugs every day. People come in ... They're walking or they're ... I mean they'll just ... I don't, it's like a ... It connects you to the community so much in so many ways that you feel really good.  Like somebody comes in and they're like, "Oh, I need this book for my dad."

Again, I don't have 35 years with knowledge about books in my head, and there's even like moment that I don't know the biggest book in the world that's come out because my head is somewhere else and I'm dealing with something else instead of understanding what that Mann Booker Award was. You feel great when someone says "This is perfect. This is exactly what I needed." Or helping ...The cute little old people come in and they need a birthday card, and because I buy the cards I know almost every card over there.

It's like shoe shopping at Nordstrom. You know, you hear someone over there and you're, "Hey, can I help you out with something?" "I just need a card for this friend," and you can just go and pick a couple and say, "Here," and they're just so grateful for that bit of help, or the grandma that calls and needs a book a grandkid, and you can help that person get it. It's important and it's nice, so that feels very good.

AiAA: Okay. If you had to think of a quote that you like, a favorite Laurie quote, would anything come to mind?

Laurie: Make good choices and breathe. There's people on the staff that get mad at me because I always say this isn't rocket science. You know, we make people happy.

AiAA: What advice would you give a young adult today?

Laurie: Do lots of things. Take lots of opportunities to figure out what you want. It's so easy to get in a track and go down a path and then in 15 years be unhappy and not like what you're doing. I understand we all have to pay bills and everybody either has to pay back school or something, but find a lot of experiences when you're in high school and college to figure out what brings you joy and what you want to do and figure out how to do it.

It is so hard to be unhappy every single day. I'm not saying that that was ever me, but I've watched so many people just be unhappy in their work life. It's no fun to wake up every day and go to a job you don't like, so figure out what you think you're good at. Try lots of different places to work to understand if you want big or small, if you want to be responsible or just a team player. Those are important things to figure out. Obviously, you can't before you graduate from college because you don't have that many opportunities, but find them. Volunteer, do lots of different things to figure out what you want to do.

AiAA: What's a significant or silly childhood memory?

Laurie: Significant or silly? As I get older they all get really blurry.  Significant? One year we lived in Spain. I think I was 10, and this is significant and silly. I was always the one who was sneaking to find the Christmas presents around the house. When you live in military housing, they're not big places until your dad gets to be a higher rank, and he was, I don't know, five years in the military at that point. My parents went to a Christmas party and we had a babysitter, who my brother kind of distracted and I went around the house to look for Christmas presents and I found Christmas presents, all of my little brother's Christmas presents.

I pulled them all down right as he walked in the bedroom, and my little brother was five at the time, so I completely ruined Christmas for my little brother. He saw all those presents were under the tree on Christmas day and they were up in the closet. My parents were so mad at me. They had put my presents in the trunk of their car because they knew that I wouldn't be able to get in the trunk of the car, but didn't think that I would ruin it for someone else. It wasn't intentional, mind you, but I never looked for Christmas presents after that, I felt so awful because I loved my little brother and I just ruined Christmas for him.

AiAA: Okay. What about one of your proudest adult accomplishments?

Laurie: My kids. Are you kidding? I mean I got a second one who's going to launch soon and head off to college. 

AiAA: What is a value that you want to embody?

Laurie: Confidence. Trust. I want people to know they can come to me and I'm going to do what I say I'm going to do. 

Walter Boos