By Tom Hallman Jr. The Oregonian, Portland, Ore.
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Stephanie Csaszar says the idea of owning a bookstore took root more than 20 years ago when she was captivated by the movie "You've Got Mail."
The Oregonian, Portland, Ore.
Given the state of the publishing industry, Stephanie Csaszar's decision to start a bookstore in downtown Gresham three months ago seems like the plot of a business thriller ending in disaster.
Csaszar knows the bottom line is critical to the future of "Books Around The Corner," but she hopes to do more than sell books. She wants her store to have a soul that keeps people coming back for the sense of community.
Hers is the only general interest bookstore in Gresham selling new titles, and she wants to use part of the space at 40 N.W. Second St. as a hub for those who live and work in downtown Gresham.
She expects people to linger, no pressure to buy, and talk with strangers who become friends, something she believes is more important than ever because people live such isolated lives.
"Every ounce of me went into this store," she said. "All my savings. My name on the loan papers. All the planning. I worked 14-hour days getting it ready. When the doors finally opened, the outreach from the community made me cry."
The notion of owning such a store took root more than 20 years ago when Csaszar, then 14 and living in Michigan, was captivated by the movie "You've Got Mail," which detailed the struggles of a small bookstore owner facing competition from a corporate chain.
"All kids have dreams," she said. "Not all come true. I accepted that."
She got serious about finding a traditional career and earned a master's degree in psychology.
She worked for years in a suburb near Detroit as a therapist counseling drug addicts who had severe mental illness. She later concentrated on a forgotten part of society, homeless children and families.
The nature of the work took an emotional toll on her and she quit, returning to the world of books by earning a master's degree in library science. She had graduated from the program when her partner accepted a job in Portland in 2016.
"I found out how hard it is to get work as a librarian here," Csaszar said. "I did finally get three on-call, part-time jobs at three different libraries, all of them on the west side, a ways from where we got an apartment in Gresham. I loved the work but not the instability of being on call."
Csaszar and her partner talked about where she could work. And then the former therapist turned to a therapist for guidance.
"We discussed what I loved and how I could use my degrees," Csaszar said. "I said I wanted to make a difference for people. The idea of opening a bookstore took shape while working with my therapist. I talked it over with my partner a few days after my 34th birthday and he supported the idea."
Always a researcher, Csaszar began talking to local business owners who had shops in Gresham not far from her apartment.
"One man said there would be good days and bad," she said. "He told me there'd be days when not one customer would come into my store. Then, kind of joking, he told me that the space next door to his place would be open for a lease in a few weeks. I went next door to look in the window. It was vacant. I knew it was meant to be. I had to follow my dream."
She came up with a business proposal and pitched it to MESO, a Gresham-based nonprofit that helps low-income people become entrepreneurs.
Part of the process was coming up with a marketing plan, requiring Csaszar to research the state of the bookstore industry. She found that electronic book sales have slipped. While Amazon and the large chains dominate, independent bookstores in the right location can hold their own. Downtown Gresham, she believed, was the right spot. She presented her proposal and got a loan. That, and all her savings, allowed her to buy stock and remodel the space.
"The day I signed the lease was as scared as I've ever been," she said. "But I also felt more alive than I've ever been, too."
Business was excellent during the holidays, slowed lately, but has been picking up again as regulars return. Two arrived last week just after the lunch hour.
"There's nothing like a bookstore," said Rahne Collier, who lives in Gresham. "I wander, see something that intrigues me and buy it."
She scanned the shelf.
"Oh," she said, "I found something."
She took the book to the front counter and paid for it.
Csaszar hasn't forgotten her past professional life. She has contacted a long-term homeless shelter in Gresham to build a relationship with the people who call the site home. She donated books because she believes books make a difference in a life.
"When I was a therapist, I worked with an 8-year-old girl who watched her father attempt to kill her mother," Csaszar said. "I worked with her for nine months. There was not one book in her house. On the last day I was with her, I brought her a book. She hugged it close to her body and cried."
That child has always stuck with her.
"With the world as scary as it is there's no better way to escape than by getting lost in a book," Csaszar said. "I provide a warm and inviting place to do that."