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Top shelf

The people who run Bloomsbury Books in Ashland say they are flattered their shop was named best bookstore in Oregon by Mental Floss — topping even Portland’s legendary Powell’s Books — but it’s not going to change the homey and personal way they do business.

The hip and popular media page Mental Floss, with 20.5 million unique monthly viewers, named the best book shop in each state, honoring the 40-year-old Bloomsbury for “working to make the pleasure of reading as pure as possible,” while providing a “cozy on-site coffeeshop ... for you to relax with your new tome.”

The shop was started in 1980 by four women, two of whom, Karen Chapman and Shiela Burns, still own and operate it, sticking to its original purpose — a responsive, independently owned shop that met the literary-minded fans of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and was adored by locals.

“Tourists are surprised to see an independent bookstore in business and thriving, especially people from California, where they’ve lost so many in the past 10 years,” says Chapman. “When you’re small, you can navigate up and down and adjust inventory with trends. Big chains and mall stores have a lot of trouble doing that.”

Amazon has made it difficult for many businesses, but Bloomsbury is “so lucky” to have tourists, notes Chapman, saying it gives many people pleasure to pull out their credit cards and support an indie bookstore.

Another scare happened when e-books exploded on the scene about 2009, and “everyone said it’s bye-bye for books, but that turned out to be so untrue, as they leveled off five years ago,” says Burns. “People love to hold the whole book. That’s the way the brain works. ... It’s almost a meditation. It’s the way I calm down.”

It’s hard to describe, say the owners, but Bloomsbury has got that “thing” that makes people want to come in, relax, browse, buy a new book and go get coffee upstairs — and on warm days, chill on the back patio.

“It’s our selection and our customer service,” says Burns, “and the fact that our whole staff loves to read, and they write up these little cards we put out describing why a book is wonderful.”

Store manager Anita Isser, a presence for 30 years, observes, “People say they like the size. Some stores are so great they overwhelm you as you look for aisle 37.”

Bloomsbury is noted for being able to find and special order any book, and John Gaffey, a veritable human search engine for 15 years, makes that happen.

Bloomsbury survived a big hit in 1997 when owner Nancy Peterson, a much-loved state representative for Ashland, died of cancer.

“She was a close friend, and her energy was so important to us,” says Burns. “It changed all of us. It was very profound.”

“It left a big hole in our hearts,” says Chapman. “We closed the store for a day and people piled up flowers by the front door.”

Bloomsbury appeals to that bygone ideal where “a literary society is everything. It’s how you want to live,” says Burns. “It so enriches your world, as Thomas Jefferson said.”

And her idea of redecorating her home, she jokes, is adding another bookshelf.

They like to tell the story of one lifelong customer who grew up hanging in the children’s section, then moving onto fantasy and other genres — and when he moved back East and was about to marry, he and his bride came home to Bloomsbury Books to wed in the fiction section.

“In his ceremony, he talked about all the books he’d loved,” says Burns. “It was very touching — and this was his church.”

John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

People walk past Bloomsbury Books where it has been a staple in Ashland for 40 years. Photo by Denise Baratta
Bloomsbury Books of Ashland is the choice of Mental Floss Magazine's top bookstore in Oregon. Photo by Denise Baratta