Editor's note: This is one in a series of profiles of businesses nominated for the Wichita Regional Chamber of Commerce’s 2018 Small Business Award.
Sarah Bagby remembers what it was like working at Watermark Books in the early 1980s.
“Back then, you could get by just selling books,” she said.
Not anymore. Fortunately, Bagby and the staff at the store she now owns have proven adept at doing the things an independent bookstore must to survive in the age of Amazon.
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They dish up cappuccino, lunch and house-baked treats in the store café. They design and sell shirts, hats and other gifts, some emblazoned with Watermark’s own logo. They bring in big-name authors like John Grisham and Dave Barry, who appreciate being treated like “rock stars” in Wichita, in the words of one visiting writer. They maintain what Bagby calls a “robust” website where customers can order from four million titles without ever stepping foot in the store.
And still they keep the focus on Bagby’s first love – books.
“It’s really hard, but the product is amazing.”
Watermark is one of five nominees for the Wichita Regional Chamber of Commerce’s 2018 Small Business Award in “tier one,” businesses employing 25 people or less. Watermark employs about 23 to 25 people, most of them part time.
Bagby probably wouldn’t have been happy standing pat even if conditions hadn’t demanded it. She clearly loves tinkering with Watermark and is proud of the way it has evolved. Expanding the café when Watermark moved from its original location downtown to the College Hill neighborhood made sense because she and her partners “were good cooks and liked to cook. It still is a lot of fun. People gather there, have book clubs and birthday parties.”
Bagby says partnering with organizations and other businesses has been another key to success. The biggest-name authors Watermark brings to town typically present at Abode Venue, a mile or so west on Douglas, which Bagby said is getting a reputation in the literary world. Bagby memorably arranged for a band to accompany Dave Barry there in a rendition of a song he wrote called “Tupperware Blues.” Another author appeared for a talk and wine tasting across the street from Watermark at the Wine Dive.
“We’re known around here for bringing in big names, but in the industry we’re known for building authors, helping them get on the map,” Bagby said.
Watermark collaborated with the Wichita school district to bring authors to seven middle schools this spring, giving students a peek into what it takes to write or illustrate a book. It partnered with the Wichita Police Department and Wichita Community Foundation to distribute books free to families last summer. Bagby says a literate society “is the one I want to live in.”
Eleven book clubs meet monthly in the store. Its basement, decorated with a mural of Van Gogh’s “Starry Night,” is used for a variety of get-togethers, including the wedding reception of a couple who met there. A set of basement stairs leading to nowhere has been painted with the covers of the store’s canon — books like “In Cold Blood” by Truman Capote,” “My Antonia” by Willa Cather and “Ice Harvest” by Scott Phillips that have a connection to the region.
For the store’s 40th anniversary, Watermark reissued “Grasslands,” a book set in Kansas and written by a Kansan, Debra Seely, with a new cover featuring a painting from the collection of the Wichita-Sedgwick County Historical Museum.
“If we can’t be relevant to the people of Wichita, then we aren’t serving our customers,” Bagby said.
At the same time, Bagby loves that many out-of-town visitors find their way to Watermark, either sent there by Wichitans or a Google search. Bagby gives much credit to her staff, made up of fellow book lovers for whom “psychic compensation” is part of the pay.
Bagby spent six years on the board of the American Booksellers Association, which gave her some insight into the challenges her colleagues around the country face. She says that “a lot of iconic bookstores have sold recently, which is really good for the industry.” It means others “are investing in the future.”
But don’t look for her to follow suit anytime soon.
“I like it a lot,” Bagby said. “If I did (leave Watermark), I’d have a plan. I don’t have a plan.”
Address: 4701 E. Douglas