Six weeks ago, Auntie’s Bookstore wasn’t on John Waite’s radar.
Today, he owns it.
Well … almost.
“I still don’t have a key,” he acknowledged a bit sheepishly while sitting outside the locked building at 402 W. Main. “And I can’t get into the cash register.”
Waite spoke barely above a whisper, having strained his voice talking at length with Auntie’s co-founder and owner, Chris O’Harra, and her employees, trying to learn everything he could about managing the independent bookstore.
Waite is best known for operating Merlyn’s Comics and Games three blocks to the east, and running for Spokane City Council.
Since news broke that he was buying Auntie’s, Waite’s personal Facebook page has recorded hundreds of “likes” and “loves,” along with more than 200 comments, many of them urging him not to change anything about his new acquisition.
During a recent interview, Waite discussed previous brushes with bankruptcy, the right and wrong reasons to buy a bookstore, and what he’d like to change about himself.
S-R: Where did you grow up?
Waite: I was born in Montana and moved here in 1973, when I was 8. I attended Bancroft Elementary, graduated from North Central, and earned a teaching degree from Eastern.
S-R: What were your early interests?
Waite: I was into science fiction and fantasy. The first movie I saw in a theater was “Silent Running,” a 1972 film with Bruce Dern and these little robots (set in a future where all plants on Earth are extinct). I also watched “Creature Feature” on TV.
S-R: Did you enjoy reading?
Waite: Yes. I bought my first comic book at a garage sale in 1973. It was a DC Comics Tarzan issue. I’d never seen anything like it, and was hooked. When I was 11 or 12, I worked at a store called the Comic Rack in the old Fox Theater building, and got paid in comics.
S-R: What other jobs did you have?
Waite: I washed dishes at Pioneer Pies, and was a page and janitor for the Spokane Public Library. After college, I subbed for District 81 for two or three years and coached volleyball at LC with Buzzy Welch.
S-R: When did you get back into retailing?
Waite: I never left. I started working at Merlyn’s in 1983, and in 1992 opened my own comic and game store at the North Division Y called Gorilla Bob’s. I don’t know that we ever made money, but it paid the bills. I ran that until 1999, when I bought Merlyn’s from Chris (O’Harra) and Shannon (Ahern).
S-R: Were your businesses ever at risk of failing?
Waite: Oh, yeah. Repeatedly.
S-R: What did that teach you?
Waite: To be brutally honest with yourself.
S-R: Has Merlyn’s been lucrative?
Waite: No. Anything you do with comics and books is something you do for the love of it, not the money. But it’s provided work for a handful of people, and allowed me to buy two buildings in the first block of West Main, which is now one of the hottest parts of downtown.
S-R: How has Merlyn’s evolved since you bought it?
Waite: Game sales have gone up, and comic sales have dropped. Nationally, comic and book sales over the past 10 years have been hard. Competing with online retailers is really tough, but I think customers are starting to appreciate the value of connecting with other people.
S-R: Will your purchase of Auntie’s have any impact on Merlyn’s?
Waite: No. We’re keeping Merlyn’s exactly as it is, and Auntie’s exactly as it is.
S-R: What do you like most about your job?
Waite: I love when the latest games and books arrive. It’s a whole new world of fun stuff every week.
S-R: Do you collect books and comics?
Waite: Yes. I have thousands of comics, and probably 1,000 books – novels, history, World War II books. I’m a sucker for any of that stuff.
S-R: Have some of your comics become valuable over time?
Waite: Not really. But I never thought of them as investments. I bought them for their artistic and literary merit.
S-R: What led to your buying Auntie’s Bookstore?
Waite: Chris approached me.
S-R: What was the sale price?
Waite: I can’t tell you the details. Hundreds of thousands of dollars, obviously, but less than $1 million.
S-R: What was that based on?
Waite: Inventory, sales, debt, good will, and the potential for growth. Auntie’s has a great staff, a great reputation, and I think the internet and Amazon have done as much damage as they’re going to do.
S-R: In general, what’s a good reason to buy a bookstore today, and what’s a bad reason?
Waite: A good reason is you love books. A bad reason is you expect to make a bunch of money.
S-R: What’s your business philosophy?
Waite: Don’t spend time chasing dollars. If you’re honest in all your dealings and make your customers happy, the money will follow.
S-R: You’ve spent your career sharing fantasies. What does your crystal ball say about the future of independent bookstores?
Waite: This is definitely an evolving business model. We’re coming up on the 40th anniversary of the original Book & Game Company, which is where Auntie’s began. My goal is to make sure Auntie’s and Merlyn’s are around another 40 years. And every day I think about what we need to do to make that happen.
S-R: When people find out you sell comics and games, what do they ask?
Waite: “How do you make money?”
S-R: What do you tell them?
Waite: The key is to work hard, watch your margins and don’t overpay for things. I grew up poor and have been close to bankruptcy a bunch of times. But I put money back into my businesses and my buildings, and didn’t go out and buy fancy stuff.
Waite: Once. When I opened my first store in 1992, I paid $13,000 for a big neon sign. That was so dumb.
S-R: What qualities do you look for in employees?
Waite: People who are outgoing and positive, and can communicate well. We can teach them the rest.
S-R: How many times have you run for a City Council seat?
Waite: (laugh) Maybe five or six.
S-R: You’ve never advanced past the primary. Is that discouraging?
Waite: I don’t run expecting to win. I run to raise issues I think people should be talking about. Ten years ago, I spoke in favor of gay marriage and reforming marijuana laws, and look how far we’ve come.
S-R: Does that not-needing-to-win attitude extend to Auntie’s?
Waite: No, because I didn’t buy Auntie’s to make a point. I bought it to grow the business, keep the public happy, and make sure my employees still have jobs 10 years from now.
S-R: If you could change something about yourself, what would it be?
Waite: I don’t relax well. I tend to give 100 percent every day.
S-R: And you just bought a bookstore.
Waite: There you go.
This interview has been condensed. If you’d like to suggest a business or community leader to profile, contact Michael Guilfoil at email@example.com.
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