When the proprietor of Key West Island Books decided to close the store this past spring, intending to shutter the Florida island's last remaining bookshop, longtime employee Suzanne Orchard bought the business. "I can't live in a town that doesn't have a bookstore," she said. "Plus I didn't want to work anywhere else."
Orchard had worked for two different owners over the course of a decade and even ran the shop for a year and a half after the sudden death of Marshall Smith, who originally hired her. When the last owner confided his plans to sell and offered her the store, "it was the absolute worst time" for Orchard to consider buying it. Her husband, Paul, a chef, had been out of work with a broken leg, and finances were tight. But facing the liquidation of the store, a 40-year Key West fixture, she decided to take the leap--a decision that came with sacrifices. Paul sidelined his dream of opening his own restaurant so they could buy the bookstore.
Located a block off Duval Street, the city's main commercial thoroughfare, the store does brisk business with vacationers and cruise ship passengers and also has a strong following among residents.
The store is chock-full of new, used and rare books covering nearly every inch of space. National bestsellers are steadily popular with vacationers, in particular page-turners by James Patterson, Gillian Flynn and other thriller writers, and suitcase-friendly paperbacks sell much more abundantly than hardcovers. Since buying the store in May, Orchard has been focusing on increasing sales of books with a local connection, ones that customers won't find everywhere else.
"People can get books anywhere now. You can read a book on your phone. There is free stuff out there. There are so many ways to get books," said Orchard. "When tourists come in and want something different, I have a lot to show them."
Key West Island Books owner Suzanne Orchard with Jon McIntosh, island resident and illustrator of The Adventures of Angus and Edmond by Gunna Dickson.
Books on Key West history, traditions and lore are among the store's top sellers. A display near the entrance showcases titles like David L. Sloan's The Key West Key Lime Pie Cookbook, which combines recipes and anecdotes about the island's signature dessert, and Tutu: The (Almost) Hemingway Cat, a children's picture book. Another prominently placed display features books by Key West and South Florida authors, while a floor-to-ceiling wall section is devoted to the most famous writer ever to call Key West home: Ernest Hemingway. (Orchard's recommendation for those who have never cracked the spine on one of Papa's tales is The Old Man and the Sea.)
Two of the titles Orchard expects to sell well this holiday season are both mysteries set in Key West. Tom Corcoran's Crime Almost Pays features a pair of rookie investigators first introduced in The Quick Adiós, the most recent mystery in his Alex Rutledge series. With several years in between publications, customers have been clamoring for Corcoran's latest and turned out for signed copies when he appeared at the store last Friday.
Alibi for Evil by Michael Haskins is the latest in a series centering on Mick Murphy, a former journalist who crime-solves his way through Key West, stopping off at island landmarks like the Schooner Wharf Bar along the way. Haskins will be at Key West Island Books for a signing on December 18.
Around the time she took over the store, Orchard had the idea to move excess inventory by creating a display offering discounted titles priced at $6.98 each. She then decided to use it for a good cause. A friend had hosted a benefit for Orchard and her husband when he broke his leg, which inspired her to do something similar for two members of the community. For several weeks all proceeds from sales of the books in the display went to help those friends facing unexpected medical costs. It's something that Orchard, a 24-year Key West resident, will consider doing again in the future should there be a need.
The week between Christmas and New Year's is traditionally the store's busiest, due in part to annual visitors stocking up on local-interest titles published during the previous year. Orchard has had people e-mail and call her after they've returned home from a Key West visit to thank her for book recommendations. Some customers making repeat trips to the island no longer pack reading material and just show up at the store asking her to make selections for them.
Although nearly seven months have passed since Orchard officially took over Key West Island Books, "it was only recently that I walked through on the way out and said, 'Goodnight, my little store,' and realized that it's really mine," she recalled. "I had a lot of pride in it just when I worked here, and I felt like I treated it like it was my own. And now it actually is." --Shannon McKenna Schmidt