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Bookends: personal service in relaxed setting by the Bay

Bay St. Louis — There’s no mistaking that Bookends is a bookstore with heart and personality. The cheerful 1920s cottage sits languidly under huge oak trees with trailing Spanish moss, just off busy Highway 90 in view of the sparkling bay. Pink window boxes and a white picket fence lend a welcoming touch. Customers enter through a screened porch with inviting rocking chairs and shelves of paperback books for buying or swapping.

Susan Daigre, the owner of this independent bookstore, says, “People like to be where they feel good. They walk in and smile and we smile back.”

The tenacious bookseller opened her business 17 years ago against all odds. She said no one thought it was a good idea. Independent bookstores are a dying breed. Even the American Booksellers Association tried to dissuade her, telling her there was not a good population base in the area to support the store.

“I don’t give up easily. Every community needs a bookstore even in this technological age,” she said. “I have a fabulous customer base and it’s very personal here. They love the store and the store loves them back.”

The four-room cottage was built as company housing for the oyster plant that was located where the Bay-Waveland Yacht Club now sits. Wooden floors, scatter rugs and colorful posters heighten the warmth of new books. Some distinctive shelves came from a drug and hardware store that was in the New Orleans French Quarter.

Bookends is for the whole family. There’s a lively children’s room and a sitting room complete with a sofa where Daigre says visitors often “hunker down” with a good book. The kitchen sports original cabinetry and ceramic tile along with every imaginable cookbook.

“I’ve watched a whole generation grow up here, from story hour to graduation,” she said. “I’ve even had people tell me they live here because of the bookstore.”

One of those satisfied customers is Jane Lee, who lived in Madison 23 years and moved to Diamondhead six years ago. She especially likes the personal, “hand- selling” service.

“I fell in love with Bookends because of its atmosphere. It’s extremely reader friendly,” she said. “To me, it’s the social center of Bay St. Louis.”

Lee finds the book signings more relaxed than any she’s attended elsewhere and says she’s met wonderful people at Bookends.

Daigre credits her staff, Amy Ott and Angela Sallis, with providing much of that service and atmosphere. “They’re great,” she said. “We have lots of fun and we all read so we can really recommend books to our customers.”

Her family is another reason Daigre says she’s been able to survive the rigors of being an independent bookseller. Her husband, Ambrose, is a tug boat captain on the Mississippi River and daughter, Chevonne, is a social worker in Houston who’s getting ready to go to graduate school.

“I really, truly love what I do and I have the most supportive family,” she said. “I couldn’t do it without them.”

Not being able to set her own prices for books is Daigre’s biggest challenge. She faces fixed prices and says as more publishing houses become big conglomerates, it becomes even harder to compete with the big boy chain stores and the Internet.

“I have to make decisions based on what works for my store,” she said. “It’s an incredible amount of work. I order from three wholesalers every Monday and I’ve spoiled everyone rotten with special ordering.”

While Daigre doesn’t have the luxury of discounting her book prices, she does offer discounts for book clubs and schools. Several book clubs have formed through Bookends and she services them with special orders.

She is also involved with the community by serving on the board of the public library and providing children’s programs there. She conducted a story time on Wednesdays this summer and helped with the summer reading program. She also invites children’s authors to visit and takes them to the library.

“Bookends is a unique local business that has been recognized nationally and we’re proud they chose Bay St. Louis as their home,” said Tish Williams, executive director of the Chamber of Commerce. “Susan Daigre is a wonderful citizen who gives back to the community.”

The store was honored as the city’s Business of the Year last year by the Chamber and City of Bay St. Louis. In December 2002, it was featured in Southern Living magazine.

Daigre feels that small, independent businesses are the heart of a community and says Bay St. Louis supports these businesses well.
As the past president of the Mid South Booksellers, she thinks independent bookstores can do well if they’re in the right spot.

“As long as people care about personal service and communities support them, they will survive,” she said. “Without that support, they won’t.”

Independent booksellers — 1,300 strong — have united nationally to publish Book Sense Picks to recommend choices for adult and children’s books, audiobooks, mysteries and paperbacks. These pamphlets are available free at all participating independent bookstores. Gift certificates are also on sale and can be used at any participating store nationwide.

“We’ve bound together to be proactive…,” Daigre said. “We are helping each other and being very supportive to get a branding thing going on.”

Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at mbj@msbusiness.com.

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