Watermark Books & Café

An interview with bookseller Sarah Bagby

Sarah Bagby

Sarah Bagby owns Watermark Books & Café in Wichita, Kansas. Founded in 1977, the bookstore brings people together over books and eats via their dozen-plus book clubs—from Vampires Anonymous to the Classic Book Club—and their monthly Literary Feast, a discussion held over dinner and dessert, led by Bagby and Jedd Beaudoin, host of the local public radio station. Bagby was a nonfiction judge of the inaugural 2014 Kirkus Prize.

What is Watermark Books and Café known for?

Like most thriving independent bookstores, we’re known for our passion for books and reading, our partnerships and passion for our community. That’s how we survive. Also, our tomato bisque soup.

Which was your favorite all-time event and why?

This is a hard one, but I would have to say it was an event we hosted years ago when Ian Frazier visited our original store to promote Great Plains. He read a chapter about a small town called Nicodemus that was settled by African-American “exodusters.” He went to an anniversary celebrshelf space photo 2 ation of the town—now sparsely populated—and lyrically reflected on the beauty of a life where a Midwestern Harvard gradua te living on the corner of Canal and Broadway could dance with the celebrants of an all-black town in western Kansas. Frazier was overwhelmed by the 200-plus people who gathered in a great bookstore in Wichita to hear him read from his book.

Can you give us two or three highlights of the bookstore’s history?

Recently hosting Stephen King and seeing hundreds of people wait in the freezing weather for hours to hear an author! In 1977, the industry at large thought there was no way a bookstore would ever make it in Wichita. Now, close to 40 years later, when our competition was at a peak of four box stores—three within three miles of us—we are still in operation.

What is your favorite section of the store?

This is tough. It depends on my mood. When I want to rejuvenate, I tend to go to the art section, where I always discover an expensive book I have to own. Most recently, I found the new book from Chronicle on Blue Note Records (Blue Note: Uncompromising Expression by Richard Havers).

What are some of the bookstore’s top current handsells?

The 50th anniversary editioshelf space photo 1 n of Lunch Poems by Frank O’Hara; Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson and The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace by Jeff Hobbs; Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast; Family Life by Akhil Sharma; Being Mortal by Atul Gawande. Very excited about two books from Hachette being released in 2015: The Secret  Wisdom of the Earth by Christopher Scotton and The Light of the World by Elizabeth Alexander.

What is your ideal busman’s holiday?

Whenever I visit anywhere, I go to bookstores and linger. I browse and touch and meander, always discover something new or find a classic I have on my list. And I always buy things. My daughter lives in Southern California, and I have a few favorite stores in the LA area that we visit. When I buy books in different cities, I always remember those books in relation to where I was when I discovered or finally procured them. Like most bookstore people, for me, bei ng in a bookstore is one of the great pleasures of life.

Karen Schechner is the senior Indie editor at Kirkus Reviews.

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