Local bookseller gets recognition

Sarah Bagby likes the perks that come with running a successful bookstore.

"It is fun when a prestigious editor writes you an e-mail and asks you to read this book and asks, 'What do you think?' " said Bagby, the owner of Watermark Books & Cafe.

Bagby had better get used to an even bigger role in the literary world. She has just been named to the nine-member board of directors of the American Booksellers Association, a trade organization that represents about 1,450 independent booksellers across the nation.

"It is a big honor," she said, and one she says she wouldn't have without an assist from Wichita book lovers.

"It's good not only for us but for Wichita to be players in the national dialogue about literature."

With its loyal clientele and location in quaint College Hill, Watermark appears to be the quintessential independent bookstore. On a recent morning a young woman with a baby sat in a comfy chair near the children's section; an older gentleman perused the staff's picks section; as noon neared, customers in business dress lined up to order sandwiches with names like the "Lolita" and "Catcher in the Rye" from the bookstore's cafe.

"It's a great neighborhood bookstore, but our reach isn't limited to the neighborhood," Bagby said.

Nevertheless, Watermark faces the same challenges as the ABA membership as a whole: After a couple of decades of fierce competition from big bookstore chains, the big threat now is the Internet, from which readers can order books in both traditional and electronic form.

The ABA, based in Tarrytown, N.Y., is a service organization — organizing trade shows, offering industry information and business help — and an advocate, lobbying government on issues from taxes to free speech.

As a board member, Bagby will travel to New York four times a year for meetings, with weekly telephone conferences in between. Besides Bagby, the board's current membership comes from bookstores in big cities or one of the coasts.

"They're very active and very involved," ABA spokeswoman Meg White said of board members. "They're often the spokespeople for the industry. I do think it will raise Sarah's profile among her peers. And because she is a smart, articulate businessperson, she will become a leader."

Bagby said the ABA's "shop local" program is important, but so are efforts by independent bookstores to compete with the likes of Amazon on the Internet.

"This year is kind of the tipping point for e-commerce and downloadable content," she said. "We definitely want to be a competitor in that forum."

What independent bookstores have working for them, she said, is an "incredible mind share" made up of sellers and buyers who love literature. And publishers realize that.

"We're kind of the curators of their market."

'Good business model'

Although she comes from a family of readers, Bagby, 51, didn't set out to become a bookstore owner. A liberal arts major, she took a part-time job at the old downtown Watermark Books location, which was founded by Bruce Jacobs in 1977, because she needed the money.

After becoming manager in the mid-1980s, Bagby worked out a deal with Jacobs to buy the store over time. Today she owns 90 percent of it.

The cafe was added when Watermark moved to its current location, in the Lincoln Village shopping center at Douglas and Oliver, in 1996.

"We wanted to do a couple of pastries and coffee," Bagby said, smiling. "It's probably about 30 percent of our business now, and it obviously brings people in. It's a good business model. Independent bookstores like ours have to have something like that."

Indeed, Bagby believes in having as many things as possible going on in the store.

Ten book clubs meet in a big basement room; Bagby said the bookstore does business with 100 more book clubs around town. Bagby brings in authors for book-signings on a regular basis. They've ranged from former presidential candidate Mike Huckabee and nationally known novelist Lisa See to Kansas writers and well-known children's book authors like Mo Williams. The cafe hosts live acoustic music and art exhibits on a regular basis.

Although not every event brings in a big crowd, Bagby said authors and their publishers usually come away impressed.

"We're right up there with every literate community there is," Bagby said.

Watermark regulars Richard and Elvira Crocker, who returned to Wichita after living for 30 years in the Washington, D.C., area, said they were glad to find the same kind of independent bookstore they'd enjoyed in the nation's capital.

"As far as I can tell, Watermark is the only place in town where you can buy a same-day copy of the daily New York Times," Richard Crocker said. "And they make a great macaroni and cheese."

Personal preference

Outside work, Bagby is a dedicated distance runner who's completed several marathons. She and her husband, Eric Cale, director of the Wichita-Sedgwick County Historical Museum, have a 19-year-old daughter who's just finished her first year of college.

Retreating to her office in Watermark's basement, Bagby can't move very far in any direction without running into a pile of books. She picks up some promotional material for an upcoming autobiography of Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards, titled "Ladies and Gentlemen."

"This is going to be big," she said.

And as for the future of books as we now know them?

"It will be interesting to see what the business is like in five years."

Bagby knows what her personal preference will still be.

"I like looking at books," she said. "I like looking at the design of them. I sound old-fashioned, but I'm not a Luddite. I have a cell phone."

What she's reading

Asked recently what she was reading, Watermark Books owner Sarah Bagby praised these two mystery novels:

* "Innocence" by Scott Turow, the sequel — more than 20 years later — to the best-selling "Presumed Innocent"

* "The Scent of Rain and Lightning," by Merriam, Kan., author Nancy Pickard. The story is set in Kansas.