Port Angeles bookseller Alan Turner spreads the words

Port Angeles bookseller Alan Turner spreads the words

One day a year, these two booksellers give away 3,000 books, large and small, to young readers.

Alan Turner and his wife, Cindy, came up with this idea more than a decade ago: Offer children, toddlers to teenagers, both candy and books on Halloween. Give them a choice of chocolate or The Berenstain Bears, kandy korn or Little Critters.

“The cynical part of me said they would take the candy,” Turner remembers.

“But they went crazy for the books.” It was, “Really, I can have a book?”

Yes, go ahead, pick one out.

As owner of Port Book and News, Turner is one of many merchants on the downtown trick-or-treat circuit every Halloween. Except his treats are picture books for the little kids, chapter books for the grade-schoolers and young-adult novels for the teens.

Every Halloween for the past 10 years, Port Book has drawn a crowd around its spread of free books.

Between 2,000 and 3,000 people stop by to choose from the array, which Turner organizes by age group.

Some might be coming back for seconds; “I can’t tell. I’m having too much fun,” watching kids get their hands on their very own book.

“It’s become a game to have more books than people. But man, there’s a lot of people,” Turner added.

This has driven him to comb thrift shops from here to Seattle, in search of gently used children’s books. He and Cindy open each one to make sure it’s clean and scribbles-free. They store the expanding Halloween booty in the basement until the big day, when they bask in the reward.

“There are people who come back to say, ‘I’ve been reading this book to my son or daughter all year, and it’s still our favorite,’” Turner said.

“That,” Turner adds, “is a thrill.”

With some youngsters, “you know this is the only book they’re going to get. Their parents don’t take them to the library.”

In what he calls his “desperate attempt” to have as many books to give away as humanly possible, Turner sometimes takes some off his own shelves. There might be some used books still in good condition that he adds to the sidewalk boxes. And sometimes, when people bring in used books Turner doesn’t need for his children’s or teen section, he asks if they would like to donate to the Halloween giveaway.

Turner also welcomes gently used books from donors who want to stop in at the store between now and Oct. 31.

And just think: “If this whole town did this, we could get national publicity,” he said, “as the town that gives away books on Halloween.”

Turner’s back pages

The story of how Turner became a bookseller on the North Olympic Peninsula reads like a good novel.

He grew up in Newark, N.J., and the minute he was old enough to walk down to the public library, he did. That’s where the adventures were found.

Later, at his urban high school, where the halls were the definition of chaos, he returned to the library, this time for peace.

Turner went to Rutgers University, earning a degree in sociology and urban planning, and then on to graduate school, where he sought a master’s in library science.

To pay his way, he worked at United Parcel Service. But he didn’t graduate; UPS offered him a management position. At the time, Turner thought that a better bet than the master’s degree.

“That was probably one of the biggest mistakes of my life,” he said.

But Turner was to rectify that mistake.

In 1979, he came to this area on business. He’d seen an article on Vancouver Island, so once his work was done, he explored the southern part of it.

Then, Port Angeles.

“I took one look at the Olympics, and I went home and quit.”

He had been living in tiny Beemerville, N.J., and working out of UPS’ Parsippany office. He and Cindy decided that, somehow or other, they would go West and start a different life. Perhaps it would be among the books they loved.

But when Turner talked with people in Port Angeles circa 1980, they were not at all upbeat. There seemed to be a pall over the town.

He and Cindy decided to move on, to Mill Valley, Calif., where they did run a bookstore for five years.

‘The wrong place’

“It’s a beautiful place,” Turner said — but it was the wrong place for him.

“I come from a lower middle class background. I needed a more working-class town,” while Mill Valley, which sits in Marin County just north of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, was a long way from that.

Cindy wanted to try Port Angeles again. In fact she said: “I’m going. Are you coming?”

Up here they came together in 1986, to open Port Book and News in a tight space beside the barbershop on Laurel Street.

“We started with my collection of Gary Snyder and Wendell Berry,” Turner recalled, “and some magazines we got on credit.”

This time, the community felt different. Things were looking up. “People’s attitudes had changed. The economy had changed,” he remembered.

Port Angeles’ economic climate was looking better, and other business people were willing to work with the newcomers. Angeles Millworks, for example, sold Turner the wood for Port Book’s shelves — on “net 30” credit.

It took much, much longer than 30 days — more like 30 months, Turner joked — to pay that bill.

He and Cindy built their bookshelves, and worked among them 12 hours a day, seven days a week. In their first two years, they had six days off: two each of Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day.

Port Book later moved onto First Street, where its front window is flanked by a blackboard. On it are quotations, questions, news of the nation and world — despite the downtown merchants who tell Turner he ought not to put such stuff out there.

You’ll offend people and drive them away, some retailers warn. But Turner believes his blackboard messages, pointed as they can be, attract more people than they repel.

“It’s obvious where my politics are,” and that’s on the left — so, sure, some people stay out of the store because of that.

Others, though, like the way he lives that freedom of expression idea.

“I think people appreciate it when someone wants to engage them in the thought process,” Turner says.

A while back, his blackboard messages criticized the Port Angeles City Council’s handling of HarborWorks, the costly public agency set up to acquire and redevelop the Rayonier mill site.

You’d better stop it, fellow merchants told Turner. The city could send in some inspector or other to retaliate, they warned.

That has not happened. Instead, Turner has had countless conversations with people about the issues of the day.

The bookstore business, he joked, “is just a front for the conversations I have with people.”

Watch Turner on any given morning, and you see he’s not much of a salesman. He greets most of his customers by name, but points out books only when asked about particular titles. His demeanor is more librarian than merchant.

“I’m here because I think books are important to the culture,” he said.

Along with stocking his store with some 60,000 new and used books, Turner brings authors to Port Angeles: Cheryl Strayed, whose memoir Wild was a national sensation, was one of this year’s highlights.

Turner is hit hard, however, by the uptick in online book sales and electronic book readers such as Amazon’s Kindle.

“It’s a disaster,” he said.

What Turner can’t understand is when people who live here choose to shop online, thus sending their money out of their own community. Internet shopping, whether it’s for books or shoes, not only hurts local business people, Turner said; it also precludes a face-to-face connection with another human.

What saddened Cindy the most, Turner says, is the untold number of conversations she never got to have with customers.

Cindy recently added another job to her plate: at Strait View Credit Union. Part of the reason is the Turners needed health insurance benefits. She still does the bookkeeping for Port Book and News, though, and Turner says the shop couldn’t live without her.

“My job is to incur all the bills,” he said. “Her job is to pay them, which is much harder.”

Port Book also employs three staffers: Michiel Dumas, Krystle Arnold and Helena Pohl. When Turner is away, they write the blackboard messages, so “when it’s tender poetry about the weather of the day or the turning of the seasons, it’s from one of the employees,” the owner said.

And if it’s a biting, questioning message, passers-by can bet it’s from Turner.

Yet he is no misanthrope.

These 26 years downtown have been good to him — not in revenue so much as in relationships.

The Turners raised their daughter, Cassidy, now 19 and an Olympic National Park ranger, here. They also helped other parents with child care: Moms and dads would come downtown to see a movie at the Lincoln Theater while their children would while away the two hours at Port Book, reading Gary Larson cartoon collections.

Those kids grew up, moved away — and in some cases moved back here to raise their own families. One of the sweet things about being here, Turner says, is meeting the kids’ kids.

“I love my town,” he said.

He also loves books, of course, and the ongoing conversation they fuel between him and those who walk in.

“I’m one of those people,” Turner says, “who is doing exactly what they were meant to do.”

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