Hitting the High Watermark in Wichita

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Watermark Books in Wichita, Kansas, is nearing the 30-year milestone, but remains brimming with youthful enthusiasm. Founded in 1977, the store has relocated twice, once in the early 1990s, and 10 years ago, when it also added a café. The 5,000-square-foot store now anchors the oldest strip mall in Kansas, Lincoln Heights Village, which features many locally owned stores.

Still running the store are Bruce Jacobs, one of the founding partners, and managing partner Sarah Bagby, who joined the staff shortly after Watermark opened at its first location in downtown Wichita. Bagby told BTW that Watermark moved from a major retail street in 1996 to a neighborhood: "This is a historic district and a lively place where people walk their kids to school and go into the other small stores -- there are florists, a local bank, a jewelry store, a clothing store, a furniture store, a pizza restaurant, and a diner. We belong here. We love it."

Bagby attributes part of Watermark's success with creative ventures involving the store's café. "We went into the café business kicking and screaming; we didn't want to begin a whole new business," she said. "We started with a few pastries and some coffee, and we all like to cook. Gradually our menu expanded, and we now serve lunch and dinner and we've catered events of up to 150 people. Amy Kellogg is the café manager. She is one of nine children and grew up watching her mother always with a book in one hand, stirring something with the other. The two acts, cooking and reading, have always been linked for her."

Watermark has been able to link food and books effectively in a number of ways. Said Bagby, "We showcase cookbooks. Each month we feature one cookbook and Amy adds dishes from it to the menu. That has been a great way to market cookbooks. We like to find good cookbooks on our own -- not necessarily use the big name, celebrity chefs. This month we're featuring Tate's Bake Shop Cookbook [The Best Recipes from Southampton's Favorite Bakery for Home-Style Cookies, Cakes, Pies, Muffins, and Breads, by Kathleen King, St. Martin's]."

Bagby continued, "This past fall, we introduced monthly 'Literary Feasts,' sponsored by our local NPR affiliate, KMUW. The first Friday night of the month, the café serves a dinner with a theme from the selected book, followed by a discussion in the store, led by someone from KMUW. Tickets are $25, with a limit of 30 people. We usually sell out. This month, the book was the Man Booker Prize winner, The Sea, by Irish novelist John Banville [Knopf], so the menu included Shepherd's pie, Irish soda bread, and Bailey's cheesecake."

Bagby told BTW that the books selected have been "intelligent choices, for serious readers." But not everything at Watermark is so weighty: humor abounds on the store's website, and store-run book clubs include "kid lit for adults," "chick-lit," mysteries, and children's story time. Visiting authors, recent and future, include Jill Conner Browne, Kansas native Sara Peretsky, and Jeff Ruby, co-author of Everybody Loves Pizza (Emmis Books).

Of the four large chain bookstores in Wichita, three are within three miles of Watermark, according to Bagby. The competition has given the store reasons to finetune its marketing and customer relations. A weekly customer e-newsletter keeps patrons well aware of store happenings and developments. Each week, a featured book is discounted, and many frequent shoppers are offered various coupons for discounts.

The staff is encouraged to read new books and post reviews on the website. Staff reviewers also submit favorite selections to the Book Sense Picks, and the store reports to the Book Sense Bestseller List. Book Sense lists are posted in the store, along with regional lists. Copies of Book Sense Top Ten lists, produced on tear-off tablets, are included in monthly billing statements to bookstore customers for house charges.

Active in the Midwest Booksellers Association, Bagby is currently on the Board of Directors. At an MBA/ABA forum last year, she was "inspired to get gift cards" after the Book Sense gift card demonstration. She was struck by the convenience of the cards, and they will soon be arriving at the store.

The store's publishing component, Watermark Press, has published a number of books still in print, although no new titles are forthcoming. Among its most well-known books are Leaving Las Vegas by the late John O'Brien and local favorites Cows Are Freaky When They Look at You by David Ohle and others and Watermark Guide to Fishing in Kansas by George Stanley. Rare books are sold by Watermark West Rare Books, located in the store's former building.

Bagby emphasizes that Watermark "wants to be about the books we love." Although people may be purchasing the blockbuster mega-sellers elsewhere, Bagby said, "If we have good books and people trust us -- we can sell them all kinds of terrific books." --Nomi Schwartz