Parnassus Books: Alluring to locals, visitors alike: Bringing carefully curated stacks to Ketchikan since 1985

A section of cat themed books mixes in with an array of other subjects and products at Parnassus Books on April 4. Staff photo by Dustin Safranek

Parnassus Books has been providing Ketchikan residents and visitors with quality books and service since 1985.

The independent bookstore operates year-round in a downtown that sees heavy tourism during the five-month visitor season. Locals and visitors are different markets and Parnassus Books works to serve both

Charlotte Glover, the owner and operator of Parnassus Books, keeps the store open year-round in what she describes as a "unique retail environment." Each of the downtown’s year-round shops has a unique focus, reducing direct competition between them.

Parnassus has been located at 105 Stedman St. going on 11 years now, and was previously located in the Five Star Building.

The original owner, Lillian Ferrence, treated the store as what Glover describes as a literary salon.

"She enjoyed literature with a capital 'L'," Glover said about Ferrence, affectionately referring to her to as 'Miss Lillian.'

After Ferrence, Maggie Freitag owned the business for a period of years and moved the store to its current location. Five years ago, Glover purchased the shop.

Glover didn't imagine she'd have a career as a retailer. Since the age of seven, Glover has been working in libraries. An avid reader, she eventually supervised the children's library at the Ketchikan Public Library for 22 years.

"I'm still a librarian running a bookstore," Glover commented. "My tribe is libraries."

"Parnassus, because of its longevity and place in the community, has always been open year-round. It was meant for the locals more than the visitors," she said about keeping the business open when many other retail shops downtown close to wait out the off season.

During the winter, Parnassus focuses on serving Ketchikan's residents. While Glover does stock national bestsellers, she has noticed over the years that locals tend to gravitate towards titles concerning Alaska and its fascinating history.

"Ketchikan wants Alaska books," Glover said.

When ordering for the store, Glover tries to stock books about Alaska and its communities. Not only is it what she notices her customers purchasing, but she also believes in supporting one's community and shopping local.

Shopping local is as deep in the business' roots as is carrying Alaska reading materials. Glover, who said she never have expected to own a retail store, is passionate about the practice.

"We have a really good, loyal group of customers that understand we're here for Ketchikan, and we need Ketchikan to be here for us," Glover said. "There's a lot of good energy downtown right now. We need people to not just take advantage of it, but join us."  

Parnassus communicates with about 100 distributors, sellers and publishing houses to ensure that customers' orders are being met.

"I think every retailer on this island will go the extra mile for you, if they know what you're looking for," Glover said, adding that communication is a large part of shopping local and giving back to the community.

During the winter, attracting attention to the store is an important part of business, especially during cold and rainy spells when residents may be reluctant to leave the warmth and comfort of indoors. She recalls telling a young boy who visited that the shop's bags for purchased items were pink because Ketchikan can be grey at times, and she wanted the store to be bright.

She advises new retail stores to be mindful of how the store looks and feels to customers. To keep the attention of customers, the store tries to change its displays at least nine times a year, covering major holidays and creating a summer scene that will last the season.

Occasionally, holiday attractions will spring up, such as February's "Blind Date with a Book." Shoppers were encouraged to take a wrapped hardcover book home, based on a short clue, and try out a new type of reading experience.

Glover said that one valuable lesson she's learned in operating the bookstore is about holding back when it comes to purchasing throughout the winter.  She quickly realized that ordering the newest novels didn't equal bolstered sales.

"It's really easy to get sucked into the idea that you need every book," Glover said. "Don't buy anything for the winter that you don't think you're going to need."

Throughout the busy summer, Parnassus Books is a highlight for many visiting cruise ship passengers. The store makes slight shifts to its business in order to keep tourists engaged and attracted. The sales that the store makes throughout the visitor season will help keep the business afloat during the slower winter.

"There's about 10 books that tourists really want," Glover said about her tourist customers, "What we're really going to keep focusing on in the summer is what we call the 'Top 10.'"

The "Top 10" titles include John Muir's works, totem guides and materials about the gold rush. Glover has found that most tourists know what they want when they come in the store.

"We sell more books if we narrow it down," Glover explained. "Because they are not browsers, by and large. They're on a very tight deadline."

Ketchikan visitors who stop in the store, Glover said, might not be familiar with an independent bookstore, especially one focuses on Alaska materials. She has spent over 43 years working with books, and as a show of "respect" for customers, strives to display the trusted "Top 10" and other merchandise in a way that visitors and locals alike can appreciate.

"We want to make it as easy as possible for them to say 'yes' to a book," Glover said.

 During the busy visitor season, Glover says many retailers come down with what she refers to as "summer fever" – the belief that the business will run as smoothly in January as it did in July.

"I always joke that Parnassus is a loaves and fishes bookstore," Glover said, "there's always just enough, but never any extra."

"I didn't realize that five more sales a day could make or break you," Glover said of operating Parnassus throughout the year. "If we lost five sales a day from where we are in the winter, we would be in a panic. You think someone else is going to shop local, but that's how tight the margin is."

Regardless of what type of customers are frequenting the store, Parnassus carries a surprising bestseller. Glover said that Parnassus' unlikely bestsellers are not books but greeting cards. Many of the cards are designed by local artists and depict beautiful Alaska scenery, which is enjoyed by tourists and residents throughout the year.

Besides trying to be conservative with purchasing inventory, Glover said, her best advice to budding retailers would be to make sure their establishment is inviting. Parnassus takes pains to keep inventory fresh and make sure that their customers can always locate a favorite title.

Glover noted that when buying, she prefers to display the new inventory as opposed to shelving it right away, which doesn't garner as much attention as a visual display would, leaving the store feeling the same as when the new stock was received.

Glover enjoys the energy of downtown Ketchikan, citing that she and her fellow independent retailers often spend time in and out of their respective shops, chatting and exchanging anecdotes. She said this is one of the aspects of working downtown she enjoys most.

Parnassus Books has seen more than a few changes. From the shift in ownership to the change from "literary salon," new and old customers alike keep choosing to browse the carefully curated stacks. Parnassus Books strives to serve both local and visiting customers, bringing a sense of local pride to Ketchikan.