Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part story about Kenai’s Gwen Gere and her life among books. Last week, part one introduced Gere and the famous family business in which she grew up. This week, part two focuses on the rise and fall of that business, and what its existence meant to Gere and to Alaskans.
By Clark Fair
On the door leading into bookstore manager Gwen Gere’s office at Kenai Peninsula College’s Kenai River Campus hangs a red plaque that once hung in her father’s office at the Alaska News Agency in Anchorage.
A reminder to speak out for what one believes in, the plaque relays a World War II-era quote from Pastor Martin Niemöller, who voiced regret at not making his own voice heard during the Nazis’ rise to power: “First they came for the communists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me.”
Just as Gere’s father and mother, Russ and Doris Riemann — owners of the popular Book Cache chain from the late 1950s until the late 1980s — were devoted to the cause of literacy and the battle against censorship, Gere is similarly motivated. She grew up and has spent most of her life in the bookselling business, and her parents’ concerns have been her own for as long as she can remember.
Behind the desk in her KPC office hangs another reminder of the past and another tie to the cultural touchstone that was the Book Cache. Clipped into place near a window is a small, white, wax-paper cup bearing a tiny bouquet of colorful synthetic flowers; printed in black on the cup itself is the Book Cache name and address and the familiar log-storehouse logo.
“I have a stack of those cups at home,” Gere said. “For years, my mother had this giant coffee urn in the Book Cache downtown (in Anchorage), with little cups so people could come in and get a little coffee. All the drunks would come in and sober up on a Saturday morning — come in and have a cup of coffee and hang out. And Doris was their best friend. She never kicked them out.”
Russ and Doris Riemann were compassionate, not just about literacy, but also about their fellow human beings.
Shortly after Gere graduated from West High School in 1967, her parents successfully expanded the Book Cache into a second store in the new Sears Mall, what was then a fairly remote location away from the downtown area. The mall bookstore established the blueprint for future expansion efforts — find a concentration of retail business (often other malls) and open another outlet nearby. The Book Cache benefited from the business traffic already in place and contributed its own customers to the mix.
Soon, booming with the explosion of paperback sales across the country, the Riemanns expanded to the Anchorage International Airport, and later to the University Center and the Dimond Center. They also opened stores in a mall on Boniface Parkway, and in Eagle River, Fairbanks, Kenai and Soldotna, and eventually two stores in Maui.
At its peak in the early 1980s, the Book Cache consisted of 21 stores — 19 in Alaska and two in Hawaii, a favorite vacation spot for the Riemanns.
The Book Cache in Kenai opened in the early 1970s in a small space near the Carrs grocery store inside the Kenai Mall, and it eventually expanded once or twice as its popularity grew and prompted a need for additional retail space. Gere remembers driving to Kenai to help paint the inside of the first location. Her son, who was about 1 year old at the time, was given a brush and put to work on the lower walls.
Gere called the Kenai Book Cache a productive location and said that the Soldotna Book Cache was at least as productive when it opened about a decade later in the Central Peninsula Mall. By the time of the Soldotna opening, Book Cache had joined with Hallmark Gold Crown stores in many of its key locations, thus expanding its retail offerings and customer base.
By the time the Riemanns were interviewed for an Aug. 3, 1984, article in Publishers Weekly, Russ Riemann acknowledged that the total annual sales at their many stores were several million dollars, and they were still enjoying life in the bookselling business.
“They loved books,” Gere said. “They figured everybody ought to, and there should be a bookstore every place you turned around.”
So in 1988 when the Jim Pattison Group, a business conglomerate from Vancouver, B.C., came calling, the Riemanns said they were not interested in selling.
A year later, however, circumstances had changed. Although the bookstore chain was still performing well, Russ had been having some health concerns, and they decided to reconsider the Pattison offer, Gere said.
They researched the big company and learned that its emphasis was on wholesale, not retail, and that its desire was to buy only the Alaska News Agency, the wholesale parent of the Book Cache, and not the bookstores themselves.
and not the bookstores themselves. The Riemanns told the Pattison Group that they would sell either everything or nothing. And so Pattison purchased the news agency, the full inventory of the Book Cache and the business — not including the stores themselves, all of which were leased locations.
As the Riemanns began retirement with every hope that their employees and their business would continue unimpeded, the Pattison Group began to divest itself of its retail outlets. From 1989 to 1993, it almost systemically began closing doors.
In a Dec. 22, 1993, article in the Anchorage Daily News, the Pattison Group announced that by the end of January 1994 only one outlet — a 7,000-square-foot location in the University Center Mall — would remain open.
Already closed were stores in Fairbanks and Kenai and across most of Anchorage; also closed was the Book Cache’s flagship store on Fifth Avenue.
Over the next month, the stores in Eagle River, Soldotna and the Sears Mall ceased operations.
Soon the University Center itself fell on hard times, and the once-profitable Book Cache chain fell with it and was no more.
As the end drew near, according to the Daily News article, Doris Riemann said, “We can’t help but be dismayed. We had 17 stores when we sold — all viable businesses, and it was exciting. We had lots of good, steady customers and reading material available in all sections of town. We were pretty proud of it.”
Gere and her husband and children moved to Kenai in 1983, where she worked for her parents as an Alaska News Agency wholesaler in charge of a local warehouse. After her parents sold the company, she was downsized and went to work for K-Mart. About a year before K-Mart’s national financial collapse, she began a four-year stint with Fred Meyer,
where she remained until the KPC position opened.
Now back among the books, Gere has found a comfort level.
“At K-Mart and Fred Meyer, you’re figuring out the thousands of things you’re going to sell,” she said. “And here you’re figuring out, wow, other than textbooks, well, if I can sell eight or nine, I’ll be a happy camper. There’s really not a whole lot of give and take as far as textbooks are concerned. There’s a bit of leeway with some of the general reading I can carry, but most of it is textbooks.
“If I screw everything else up in this job, I’d better have the books when class starts. That’s the bottom line. All this ‘froofy’ stuff is fun, but I’d better have the books. And the faculty here is wonderful. I don’t ask them for anything unreasonable, and they, in turn, work with me. I mean, this is a great gig.”
Her sense of joy is accentuated by the memory of what she was once a part of.
“When they closed the last (Book Cache) store, it was actually — because of the way we grew up — like the death of a sibling,” Gere said.
The loss of the downtown Book Cache created pains that were particularly acute.
“It’s not like one of those misty moments in my misremembered past — like, ‘Oh, how wonderful it was.’ It was! It was kick-ass fun. It was a good life. It was a feeling that what you did was more than yourself because it affected more than that.
“And I think, by comparison, despite the fact that this (the KPC bookstore) is just a little thing, and it’s not my store, what we do here at the college is more than sell books, advise students, teach class. There’s a bigger picture. And I think, for me, that is why I like it so much. It’s more than all the parts. You can see the growth. You can see the excitement. You can see what’s going on. That’s a kick. I love it.”