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Kingfisher Books focuses on filling 'gaps'

It's no secret that independent bookstores are in trouble.

With the recent advent of centralized, on-line booksellers like Amazon, coupled with the rapid proliferation of mega-chains such as Barnes & Noble and Borders, the very idea of a little, neighborhood bookstore is being threatened with capitalist extinction.

Supporters of independent bookstores say there are all kinds of reasons why this is a very bad thing for anyone who truly loves to read, ranging from the loss of the tactile pleasure of browsing new books to the potential threat that a monopolized publishing industry poses to the whole concept of artistic license and free speech.

Karl King, the owner of Kingfisher Books in Coupeville, is well aware of this crisis and its many implications, both for his own business and for bookworms at large.

"There's long-term concern for small book sellers in general," said King, who — along with his wife Ruth — opened the store about five years ago. (Prior to that, the space was a liquor store, which King also managed for about 20 years — a fact that the late, great drunk American writer Charles Bukowski probably would have found extremely amusing.)

King said that, beyond any immediate economic concerns, he finds it worrisome that the big chains are beginning to "dictate public taste" by having such a large influence over what does and does not get published. Many literary agents, for instance, are now sending new manuscripts directly to Barnes & Noble in order to solicit their opinion on the potential salability of a title — an unprecedented practice that raises some dire ethical questions.

"That shouldn't be," said King about such corporate previewing of books in draft form. He admitted, though, that "there's only so much a small press can do" in terms of competing with these bigger publishing houses.

According to King, one of the ways he himself stays competitive and vital is by "concentrating on some gaps that the larger stores don't cater to." He is a strong supporter of Northwest-based writers as well as local independent publishers like Sasquatch Books. He also carries a lot of arts and crafts, gardening and cooking books.

Other than that, King describes his inventory as "catch as catch can" and, even more humorously, "some of all of it."

Of course, this "odds and ends" approach to literature is exactly the sort of thing that one looks for in a small, independent bookstore — especially one on Whidbey Island, where there often seems a paucity of good, well-rounded bookstores. Within the cozy confines of Kingfisher's many walls and many shelves, one can browse among a wide variety of books covering a diversity of subjects, ranging from women's studies and ecological writing to kids literature and sci-fi to self-help and spirituality. From Annie Dillard, Ayn Rand and Rick Bass to Herman Melville, Nicolai Gogol and Jack Kerouak.

King also maintains a substantial variety of mysteries in both hardback and paperback, many penned by local authors. He said that books in this genre always sell well. (Among his own favorite mystery / psychological-profile-type writers are James Patterson and Michael Connelly.)

In short, there is indeed a little bit of everything at Kingfisher (and, King added, if you can't find what you're looking for, he's more than happy to special order titles through Ingram, his local distributor). Supplementing Kingfisher's book trade is a decent selection of gifty-type items like candles, cards, jewelry and pottery done by local artisans.

The most notable aspect about Kingfisher Books, however — and the thing that makes independent bookstores so valuable — is the wonderful sense of local flavor and deep history one gets while strolling among the table displays, which feature an impressive spread of books on Northwest history and sociology, Native American lore and art, as well as myriad travel guides, hiking guides and travel adventure writing.

"In general," said King, "we support the local economy to the best of our ability."

About a year and a half ago, King started up what is now a back room full of used books that is surprisingly well stocked. King said that this second-hand lit section, which he hopes to expand, is that it offers "quite a lot of things that people might not find elsewhere."

This, even though used books comprise only about 5 percent of his stock, he said.

King said that, while he and his wife Ruth have always enjoyed reading, they went into the business of selling books "cold." They did, however, receive some valuable help and advice from local bookstores and other merchants. And, King said, "we're still learning."

King said that he and Ruth usually order those new books that they both agree on, a process that he refers to as "selection by committee." Still, King often has found that, when he goes it alone, "there's a lot of books that I think will sell that don't."

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