Auntie’s Bookstore is being sold for the first time in its nearly 40-year history to the owner of Merlyn’s Comics and Games.
Merlyn’s owner John Waite announced Tuesday afternoon he’s buying the revered independent bookstore from original owner Chris O’Harra. Waite said the deal takes effect Wednesday, and he plans to retain Auntie’s current staff.
“It’s going to be business as usual,” he said. “We’re not going to change hardly anything. I personally have this idea that bookstores in the 21st century are going to be hubs for community, culture, arts, that sort of thing. And that’s what Auntie’s is all about.”
O’Harra, 66, said she decided to sell the business several months ago due to health issues. Waite, a longtime friend, patron and business associate, jumped at the opportunity. They both declined to talk about the terms of purchase, including the price.
Auntie’s began as the Book and Game Company in a cramped corner of the Flour Mill in 1978. O’Harra and Shannon Ahern were the original owners.
“It was like 1,000 square feet,” O’Harra recalled.
In 1994, when that spot became too small for the thriving business, they relocated to the Liberty Building on West Main Avenue and gave the store a new name. Sprawled across the first floor, Auntie’s sells a bit of everything: books and board games, trinkets and toys, props and puzzles, cards and stationery.
O’Harra said the store’s growth has been “an incredible transformation.”
Ahern left the business in 1999 but has continued working with O’Harra as the owner of the Liberty Building. He’s also a part-owner of Uncle’s Games, which sits adjacent to Auntie’s.
The pair also founded Merlyn’s Comics as a science-fiction complement to the Book and Game Company, which had several locations in the Northwest.
Waite was one of their earliest customers, frequenting the Book and Game Company as a 12-year-old.
“I remember him as this pesky little kid who used to hang out at the store, and he would always ask about ways he could help,” O’Harra said.
Waite managed Merlyn’s for 10 years starting in 1983, then founded a competing comic book store in North Spokane and ran it for several years. In 1999, he bought Merlyn’s from O’Harra and Ahern.
“He’s been a customer, a manager, a staff member, a competitor,” Ahern said. “I think he’ll do a great job with Auntie’s, and I’m looking forward to it.”
Waite is delving into a tough industry. With growing competition from booksellers like Amazon, small stores including Auntie’s have been forced to downsize.
“It’s certainly not as big as it was 20 years ago,” Waite said. “But there’s a resurgence among small, independent bookstores. I think the world is ready to get more books and get off the computer for a bit.”
Ahern added, “Bookstores can do quite well, but you have to be more than just a bookstore.”
Waite said he’s eager to continue hosting events such as writing workshops and book-club meetings.
Although reluctant to part with Auntie’s, O’Harra said retirement will offer some much-needed reading time. Managing the store, she said, has kept her too busy.
“I live in an apartment in the Liberty Building,” she said. “I’m going to continue living here, so I’ll be close to my baby.”
O’Harra said Waite shares her vision for Auntie’s: a community hub, a place for art and culture and thoughtful conversation.
“That’s what the store really needs.”