If there was ever a time when Lynne Almeida, owner of Spellbinder Books in Bishop, Calif., realized how important an independent bookstore is to a community, it was on 9/11. It was less than a year after she bought the shop. As soon as she heard about the terrorist attacks, she rushed to the store.
“It was amazing,” she recalls. “The store was packed full of people the whole day. Not to buy things. But because they couldn’t sit at home listening to that horrible stuff by themselves. And that has happened a number of times when upsetting things on a national level have (occurred).”
The Sierra is home to a surprising number of small, independent bookstores that are flourishing. Spellbinder, which opened March 1970, is likely the oldest example.
When Almeida was a high school student visiting her grandparents in Bishop, if you had told her she would one day live and own a bookstore there, she would have said, “You’re nuts.”
Over the years, however, Almeida gained appreciation for the area’s outdoor activities—and for books. Between undergraduate and graduate school she tried several summer jobs. But it wasn’t until she was hired on campus at the Stanford Bookstore that she found her passion.
Although she worked her way up to a buyer at Stanford, management changes led to dissatisfaction with her job and the cost of living in the Bay Area was climbing, so Almeida began a new chapter of her life in Bishop in 1997. She took a 75-percent pay cut to work at Spellbinder Books, then owned by a couple nearing retirement, and worked for them for two-and-a-half years to learn about the business. In 2000, she became Spellbinder’s fourth owner.
The bookstore has become important to the town, participating in events such as Community Reads with the local school district and arts council. Every December, Spellbinder hosts a fundraiser for ICARE (Inyo/Mono County Animal Resources and Education) to provide emergency medical care to pets. In fact, she met her husband, Mike Slates, at an ICARE board meeting.
The shop also serves as an auxiliary visitor center. “You’re expected to know the books you have and also a good place to eat in town and also about some guy who had a ranch here 50 years ago and also where’s a good place to go hiking,” Almeida says with a laugh.
Yet, when the recession hit, the store struggled. To survive, Almeida changed her product mix. She started selling used books in addition to new ones. She also began moonlighting as a dog agility teacher (pet owners help their dogs negotiate an obstacle course). Today, she still teaches the classes. “I have that as my bread-and-butter job so that I don’t have to rely on income from the bookstore,” Almeida says, adding her collie, Willow, has competed in the National Agility Championships, winning some prizes and ranked as the No. 2 or 3 collie for the last several years. This year’s championships will be 11-year-old Willow’s last competition.
Almeida’s dog, Calvin, a cavalier King Charles spaniel, is the one you’ll most likely see at Spellbinder. According to Almeida, “We call him our customer service manager.”
To be successful in a small town, Almeida also learned to diversify her stock to include more than just books. She added gift items, especially ones from local artisans, including Frances Cholewa
and Tom Meyers pottery, and jewelry from a Bishop silversmith.
Spellbinder sublet the space behind the store to Pupfish Café as well. The bookstore uses the restaurant’s space for author events it hosts in the spring and fall, and dining customers frequently browse her aisles while waiting for their order.
But mostly, as Almeida first realized on 9/11, independent bookstores are more to a community than just retail space.
“What other retail locations are there where not only are you welcome, but it’s almost the expectation for you to come in and look at stuff for an hour and not even buy anything,” Almeida says. “Maybe you find a kindred spirit or a like-mind in the people working there or somebody that you run into that’s browsing in the same section as you. You make a human connection. That’s something you really can’t get online.”
124 South Main St.