The Writer’s Block Bookstore & Café: Spenard’s Living Room
By Mara Severin
Special to Glacier City Gazette
The story of The Writer’s Block is one of transformation: the unfolding of a dream into brick and mortar, and the alteration of a toxic neighborhood eyesore into a welcoming neighborhood lodestar.
At its Grand Opening in March of 2018, the space was filled with a lively crowd. Patrons sipped wine and beer, browsed the bookshelves and listened to an impressive line-up of local musicians. The milk steamer hissed behind the coffee bar. Children darted through grown-up legs or camped out on beanbags thumbing through picture books. It was a warm and joyful scene that erased the memory of what once stood on a troubled strip of Spenard: the pornography shop simply known as Adults Only.
A community center and social hub
When founders Vered Mares, Kathy McCue, Dawnell Smith and Teeka Ballas decided to throw their collective hat into the world of book selling, they knew it was a risk. The group of entrepreneurs (or as Vered lovingly calls them “this nutty band of women”) knew they needed a bigger vision.
“We wanted to create a community space that was self-sustaining,” says Vered. This meant expanding their vision beyond the bookshelves. “We had to look at other components,” she says. “We wanted a café, a beer and wine bar and a performance space, and we wanted it to be integrated so that all of those things flowed together.”
The result is eclectic and inclusive. Reading the events calendar is like looking at a mosaic of all things artistic: a songwriter’s showcase, a Japanese sake tasting, a weekly open mic, frequent poetry readings, book launches and even a regular evening when you can spin your vinyl on a community record player.
It’s as if your favorite college-town bookshop grew up along with you.
A principle of The Writer’s Block is to operate within a Spenard-centric orbit. All of the food served, with the exception of the Russian pelmeni (purchased from a neighborhood chef) is made in-house from scratch. The coffee and teas are sourced locally and while the beer taps change up regularly, they exclusively feature local brews.
“We buy from the community and sell to it,” says McCue, about their commitment to local small businesses. “We want to raise each other up.”
Featured artists are also mostly home grown.
While national acts appear on The Writer’s Block stage including Tim Easton, Michael Kirkpatrick and The Holler!, Nick Jaina, and Watsky (who sold out the room leading him to do an impromptu performance for waiting patrons in the parking lot), local talent is their bread and butter. Acts like The Forest That Never Sleeps, Ava Earl, Hope Social Club, Jonathan Bower, Emma Hill, Snow Drifters, Todd Grebe and Friends, and Hot Club of Nunaka are the anchors of the music calendar.
As for the writing community, The Writer’s Block has hosted book launches for noted local writers like Jamey Bradbury, Dan Walker, and John Straley. But there is no “Alaskan” book section, says Vered. Being a writer from Alaska isn’t a “genre,” she points out. Instead, local writers are integrated into the overall stock. “I love seeing Lori Townsend next to Amy Tan,” said Vered.
Living outside the bubble
Ultimately, says Vered, their neighbors are their most important local resource.
“Spenard is a weird place,” she says, showing a gift for understatement. Its residents are an eclectic lot encompassing a wide range of backgrounds and espousing myriad points of view. But they’re all friends and neighbors,” says Vered. “And they’re all welcome here.”
“We have a false sense of being surrounded by people who think like us,” she continues. “We all live in a bubble. But sometimes it’s ok to let it be popped. This is a safe place to do that.”
McCue recalled a recent exchange among patrons at three separate tables. Two people playing chess, two academic-types, and two older, more conservative patrons (by her best guess) found themselves in a debate on a heated current event. “The tables are close together and sometimes it’s hard not to chime in,” she says. Debate became conversation. Conversation became understanding. And understanding became conviviality, which ultimately became another round of beer.
It’s a hard space to be angry in, McCue says. “How can you be angry when you’re next to a little girl reading ‘The Hungry Caterpillar’?” she asks. “How can you be angry when you’re eating bread pudding?”
“We want to bring the best that we can to a neighborhood that wants us here,” says Vered. “If they didn’t want us here we wouldn’t survive. Our neighbors call it their living room,” she adds. “It’s like the living room of Spenard.”
“The only thing missing is a fireplace,” says McCue.
“Where are your brooms?”
November’s earthquake offered proof of the community’s support.
Glasses shattered, books scattered and even a heavy filing cabinet took a dive. When the doors opened that morning, they were not the only ones who got to work.
“Our first customers walked in and asked for brooms,” recalls Vered. “They said, ‘We’ll sweep up. You make the coffee.’”
Throughout the day their friends and neighbors dropped by to check in and to pitch in. By the end of the day it was like the earthquake never happened.
“They kept showing up and we’re so grateful,” says Vered.
It seems like the feeling is mutual.
The Writer’s Block
3956 Spenard Road
Tue.–Fri. 9 a.m.–10 p.m.
Sat.-Sun. 10 a.m.–10 p.m.