Over 400 years ago, William Shakespeare wrote, “To be or not to be, that is the question.” This year Karen McSwain and Mo Anderson had to make a similarly hard decision about their bookstore, named after the historic shop in Paris, rather than the famous playwright. Luckily for Lewis County, Shakespeare & Company Used Books is now thriving in its cozy new location in downtown Chehalis.
The previous iteration, a charming two-story house on Pacific Avenue, no longer worked in the time of COVID-19. With multiple rooms and various sitting areas, the shop invited people to gather and create. The coffee, tea, and small menu of sweets, sandwiches, and salads made it a place one could stay for hours.
Yet even as Lewis County moved into Phase Two and Three, the couple realized they could not reopen as easily as other stores. For one thing, the small rooms and bad airflow did not work well for social distancing. Free-roaming cats made it impossible to keep doors open for cross ventilation. And as both a business and a residence, personal health concerns made the risks too high.
In March, McSwain switched their business model to offer takeaway meals. Soups, salads, lasagna, spring rolls, and other delights tempted customers on Facebook and Instagram. The specials usually sold out quickly.
Before opening the bookstore, McSwain and Anderson ran The Pearl, a much-loved restaurant focused on food from local farms, with everything made from scratch. It was common to have a line stretching out the door. Previous fans were thrilled to see a return of dishes inspired by The Pearl and the store owners were glad to be able to pay their rent. The name is an homage to Shakespeare and Company, a bookstore on the Left Bank of Paris, which was owned and operated by an American ex-pat, Sylvia Beach.
By midsummer, even the takeaway meals were not enough. Shakespeare & Co. announced at the end of July they would be closing for good. Understandably, the news saddened many customers. At that time, McSwain and Anderson intended to stay in Chehalis and open a brunch cafe in 2021, using the kitchen space they had already been renting to make their pastries and other food.
But the more they thought about those plans, the more they missed the “book” part of their bookshop. One day while standing in their rental on North Market with its kitchen in the back and long, narrow space with high ceilings up front, Anderson said, “You know, this could be a bookstore!” With some paint, vision, and inspiration, it is now a lovely spot for bibliophiles.
The new store is perfect for social distancing. Floating bookshelves display their wares in well-marked categories. Single chairs are arranged here and there with lots of space in between. The front counter has a gorgeous glass window suspended as a natural divider. In addition, the shop embodies the idea of reduce, recycle, reuse. The inventory comes from cast-off items given a second chance. The carefully selected furnishings are recreated into something new and beautiful, giving the spot heart and soul.
In a way, the owners feel grateful for the forced change. “This was an odd gift for us,” says McSwain. “An opportunity for all of us to collectively slow down and be more intentional about the way we treat each other and the planet.”
Through the years, McSwain and Anderson have been there for their community, by supporting The Forgotten Children’s Fund and Dining Out for Life, donating books to juvenile detention centers, or more recently, making high-quality meals for a Stay-in-Place shelter for seven months. They also regularly shine a spotlight on local farmers and their products, as well as neighboring businesses.
As a testament to their effect on Lewis County residents, many people rallied around McSwain and Anderson when they needed it most. After sharing the decision to close, customers and friends helped make the move easier by participating in pop-up sales of the books, furniture, art, and tchotchkes that brought life into the house on Pacific Avenue. People were very kind and supportive, with both their wallets and their words.
And when the new store opened, patrons were excited to return to something familiar and yet remarkable.
“These ladies not only offer amazing books but have created a beautiful, unique atmosphere, welcoming to all,” says regular customer, Dr. Alicia Spalding of Nature Nurture Farmacy. “We are very fortunate to have Karen and Mo bringing love and light to our community during some very difficult times.”
While the official hours are 12:00 to 6:00 p.m. Saturday through Tuesday, Shakespeare & Co. has been open almost every day since their reopening in early October. Mainly because as Anderson says, “Life is a joy. We love coming to work.” A visit to the new location will certainly share a tale or two as to why.
Shakespeare & Company
553 North Market Blvd.