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Bagby and Watermark earn accolades

Sarah Bagby, Difference Makers for Wichita 2019

Sarah Bagby has become very successful at running the independent bookstore, Watermark Books and Cafe.
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Sarah Bagby has become very successful at running the independent bookstore, Watermark Books and Cafe.

While a love of books was instilled early in Sarah Bagby, being a business owner wasn’t.

“I grew up in a house of readers,” said Bagby, who owns Watermark Books and Cafe. “I didn’t grow up in a family of entrepreneurs, so the reading part was natural, the ownership wasn’t.”

While it wasn’t a natural skill, Bagby has become very successful at running an independent bookstore. Last year, Watermark Books and Cafe was named the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce Small Business of the Year among businesses with 25 or fewer employees. This year, it’s among the five nominees for the national Bookstore of the Year honor bestowed by Publishers Weekly. The winner will be named in March.

Her success can be attributed to several things: her passion for Wichita, literature and authors; her forward-thinking and strategic planning that’s helped her thrive in a business pressured by national chains, Amazon and electronic books; her staff of like-minded book lovers; and readers in the Wichita community.

Bagby started working part time for the independent bookstore in 1981 and by the mid-1990s, she was the store’s owner.

The store has become much more than a bricks-and-mortar independent bookstore.

“It’s a place where people can go and find community,” said Bagby. And she likes that.

About a dozen book clubs meet monthly at Watermark, Bagby said, and local groups often use one of two basement meeting spaces – one decorated with a mural of Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” and the other featuring authors’ signatures.

She and her staff coordinate about 60 events and book signings, ranging from local authors to national favorites such as John Grisham, David Sedaris and Elizabeth Gilbert. Watermark has become known for not only bringing in big-name authors, but helping put emerging authors on the map. Most of the events are held at Watermark; events with a larger draw are held at other venues.

“I have this dream that every time we host a John Grisham or Liane Moriarty, all the hundreds of readers in attendance go home and read the same book,” said Bagby.

Watermark collaborates with other organizations to spread literacy and produce more readers. Working with the Wichita Community Foundation, Watermark helps send authors to Title I elementary schools – which have a high percentage of students from low-income families – and distributes free books. It also partners with The Opportunity Project to provide about 800 hardcover books for free to kids.

A previous board member of the American Booksellers Association, Bagby is starting a term on the Book Industry Charitable Foundation board that provides funds to bookstore colleagues experiencing unexpected financial hardships because of emergency or medical circumstances.

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