Walla Walla booksellers keep business local

Sean McNulty

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Walla Walla bookstores including North Star Comics and Earthlight Books provide used and new literature for the community. Earthlight Books buys and trades from local and regional sellers, and North Star Comics imports excess stocks of material from other areas, which frequently accumulate in the back and become more valuable. Photo Credit: Ethan Parrish

Bookstores are a colorful segment of local business in Walla Walla. Two local booksellers, North Star Comics and Earthlight Books, cater to different segments of the community with unique inventories and approaches to bookselling. Both, however, share a deep connection with the area.

North Star Comics:

North Star Comics sits on 2nd Avenue, a block away from the Marcus Whitman Hotel. The owner, Brice Jones, spent his high school and college years in and around Walla Walla. Now he runs the town’s only all-comics shop.

After returning to Walla Walla from living in Los Angeles, Jones had trouble finding jobs in his chosen field of computer science. At the time, there was no devoted comics shop in Walla Walla. By starting North Star Comics, Jones turned his childhood interests into his job.

“When I was younger my brother had a comic collection and I used to read that,” said Jones.   “It was always something that was interesting to me; it’s sort of a subculture that I kind of enjoyed. I’ve always been a fan of science and science fiction.”

North Star Comics stocks a few DVDs and a handful of games involving miniatures. For the most part, however, they carry exactly what the name says: comics.

North Star Comics caters primarily to college students from Whitman College, Walla Walla Community Colleg and Walla Walla University. They come because the comics industry: much like themselves: is getting a little older and a little smarter.

“The people who are reading nowadays are the ones who are making comics,” said Jones.

The college student of today was raised on big-budget superhero movie franchises and the pop culture obsessions of the Internet. Both pay heavy homage to comics. He or she is graduating into the comic industry and maturing the medium.

“The stories are a little bit more grown-up: a  little more realistic in some ways,” said Jones.

North Star attracts customers from as far as Milton-Freewater, Pendleton and Waitsburg.

“Sometimes we end up with [a] stock of things that were really popular elsewhere and didn’t go over well here,” said Jones. “Somebody from out of town couldn’t find it in Seattle or somewhere like that and ends up coming here and getting it.”

If North Star were in a hipper, more urban community, customers might buy through its stock regularly. In the niche market of Walla Walla, however, unwanted comics can settle in the back of the store and slowly become more valuable.

Who does this store sell those comics back to? The collectors, coming from near and far, who helped to get it off the ground.

“When we first started,” Jones said, “we bought a fair number of collections from locals . . . that kind of was, I guess, the core seed of the whole thing.”

To Jones, the idea behind North Star Comics is simple.

“I try and focus more on the needs of Walla Walla,” he said. “I didn’t start it to become a millionaire. I’ve always really appreciated a good story.”

Earthlight Books:

Photo Credit: Ethan Parrish

Earthlight Books, a new and used bookstore, is tucked quietly between Whitman College and the edge of downtown proper on East Main. The store’s inventory is roughly 70 percent used and 30 percent new books; there’s also an assortment of bookmarks, greeting cards and blank journals.

For owner David Cosby, however, it isn’t just about what’s being sold.

“[It’s] the people that you get to meet, for one thing,” he said. “Being able to be surrounded by books all the time, and being in an atmosphere that’s somewhat intellectual . . . not all the time, but you can be talking about Plato or you can be talking about the latest Spencer novel or something like that. But mainly the people.”

Before he had ever considered bookselling, Cosby had experienced another “somewhat intellectual”  Walla Walla atmosphere: Whitman College. After graduation, he took his history major to Europe. He came back to the States and tried his hand at a short-lived electrician’s apprenticeship. Eventually, he boomeranged back to Walla Walla on an offer to take over Earthlight with a friend. They operated out of a tiny room in a gas station parking lot. During the day, they managed the bookstore. At night, they worked from six until two at an Asian restaurant. In five years, the store had moved to a larger location and was self-sustaining.

The community that educated and employed Cosby informs his business stance. He’s spent most of his adult life in Walla Walla, and he’s not interested in moving the roots of his business out of the community.

“I don’t have to send all my money to Los Angeles or New York or places to buy books,” said Cosby. “I can buy them from people here in the valley, and keep the money circulating around here instead.”

Originally, Earthlight sold only new books; the shift to secondhand was intended to ward off competition from large chain bookstores such as Barnes and Noble.

“[We] couldn’t compete with a discounter,” Cosby said. “There was one other used bookstore in downtown Walla Walla called the Walla Walla Bookshop, run by two elderly ladies, Elmira and Almira Quinn. It had been here forever.”

Eventually, the Walla Walla Bookshop closed, and Earthlight cut their slice out of the bookselling market by turning to both new and used books.