Face Out: ABA Board Member Jenny Cohen on Her Life Among Books

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In the latest installment of our series profiling American Booksellers Association Board membersBookselling This Week talks to Jenny Cohen, co-owner of Waucoma Bookstore in Hood River, Oregon. In May, Cohen was elected to her first three-year term (2019–2022) on the ABA Board.

Bookselling This Week: Please talk about your early experiences with reading and books.

Jenny CohenJenny Cohen: My parents are not big readers. They tend to read magazines and newspapers, but not books. Because they know that reading is important, they made sure to read to me every night when I was young. My mom used to leave me at the B. Dalton at the mall because she could run her errands and know that I wouldn’t leave the bookstore. Yes, she was one of those parents. I am a fast reader, so my mom quickly gave up on buying books and took me to the local library. After that, I went to the library almost every day. My mom said that I would check out about 20 books or more, bring them home to read, and then go back to the library next day to return the ones I had read and borrow more. By the time I was in high school, my mom discovered that there was a free book exchange in the basement of her employer’s building and she would take me down there to get books. I read a lot of romance books in high school because of the free book cart. I grew up in Portland, Oregon, but I didn’t know about Powell’s Books until I was in high school, when one of my friends took me there so we could buy used books for our required reading list for English class. It was amazing.

BTW: Did you hold other positions in the book industry before becoming a bookseller?

JC: No. I was a financial analyst at a government agency prior to buying the bookstore. I had never really considered that my love of books could be a career. As the child of an immigrant, I was always told to work hard, get an excellent education, and become a lawyer, accountant, doctor, nurse, or engineer. I ended up getting two business degrees — one in management information systems and another in finance, management, and human resources. Both of my degrees have been invaluable in running our bookstore.

BTW: How did you begin as a bookseller, and how long after starting in bookselling did you begin to feel that you had found a special vocation?

JC: I became a bookseller when my husband, Muir, and I purchased Waucoma Bookstore. Muir always said that he planned to buy a bookstore when he retired. We were living in Portland, Oregon, and knew that we would eventually move back to Hood River, where Muir was born and raised. I had plans to take over my father-in-law’s tax accounting practice because I had recently become a licensed tax consultant. We had no idea what Muir would do since there weren’t any computer engineering jobs in Hood River. The previous owner of Waucoma sent an e-mail to family and friends announcing that she was ready to retire and sell the bookstore. Multiple friends forwarded the e-mail to us, and after much discussion, research, and soul-searching, we decided to put in an offer. I ended up only working one tax season for my father-in-law because I do multiple jobs for the bookstore — book buying, gift buying, marketing, coordinating events, and maintaining our website.

I knew that I had found a special vocation when I went to the PNBA trade show for the first time. It was great to connect with other booksellers and share information. We’re all competitors but are very supportive of each other. You don’t find that in many industries. I’ve met a lot of booksellers at trade shows and Winter Institute over the years, and I know I can reach out to any of them when I have a question or need help with something at my store. 

BTW: What do you think was the most important factor that led to you buying your store?

JC: The bookstore is one of the oldest existing businesses in Downtown Hood River and we wanted to continue its legacy. Muir grew up with the bookstore and we didn’t want to see it disappear. It had a solid financial history and consistent revenues year after year, which didn’t hurt.  Many people said they breathed a sigh of relief once they found out that a local was purchasing the bookstore and it was going to continue.  

BTW: When did you first become a member of ABA? What motivated you to join?

JC: The bookstore was already a member of ABA and we continued the membership after we took over. Sally and Rose, the previous owner and manager, said it was important to maintain our ABA membership because of all the great resources. I got a scholarship to Winter Institute 5 in San Jose, and that is when we really started networking and taking advantage of the education that ABA offers. From there, we transitioned our website to IndieCommerce and we’ve been going to Winter Institute every year since.

BTW: What do you think are some of the most important changes in bookselling since you bought your store?

JC: I think that technology has really changed how we do things. We purchased a store that did not have a point-of-sale system. It was difficult to track inventory, what was selling, and trends. I’m a numbers person, so we computerized a year after taking over the store. Shortly after that, we found out that we could upload our data into Above the Treeline, which would allow us to compare our sales trends with other indie stores across the U.S. Being able to see our sales history while ordering also saved us time. Above the Treeline and Edelweiss have really made the buying process more efficient and inventory management decisions easier.

The call for more diversity, equity, and inclusion in the industry has been an important change. I first started attending trade shows and conferences in 2008, and I was often one of very few people of color at these events. I’m excited to see more inclusive and diverse books being published. I’m Filipino-American and there weren’t any characters that looked like me when I was growing up. My son is two-and-a-half years old, and he will be able to read about characters that are like him when he gets older. I just met author Erin Entrada Kelly, who is Filipino-American, at Children’s Institute in Pittsburgh. I had her sign all her books for my son and I’m saving them for when he is older. This is also the first year that I’ve been able to read multiple new release books written by Filipino-Americans.

BTW: What are your key goals as an ABA Board member for fostering the book industry, and bookselling in particular?

JC: One of my key goals is to support bookstores and booksellers through education and finding creative solutions that make it easier for stores to work with publishers and other industry stakeholders. We’re seeing an influx of new bookstores, new ownership, and a new generation of booksellers. When I purchased my store, ABA had a program for “emerging leaders” because there were not many young bookstore owners or booksellers in the industry. It has been really great to see a new generation of booksellers at Winter Institute the last few years. ABA education and programs have been invaluable to our bookstore, and I want to make sure new booksellers are getting the education, resources, and mentorship they need to prosper.

BTW: What are you reading now?

JC: I just finished Faker, a rom-com by Sarah Smith, and I Was Their American Dream, a graphic memoir by Malaka Gharib. Both are Filipino-American writers. I’m currently reading A Good Provider Is One Who Leaves by Jason DeParles, and I’m listening to Hollow Kingdom by Kira Jane Buxton. Every morning I read my son his favorite book, Bruce’s Big Fun Day by Ryan T. Higgins.

BTW: You get a day to walk through any city, town, or landscape with any one writer. What writer and what place?

JC: A tour of Portland, Oregon, with Beverly Cleary! We could compare notes on the city we both grew up in. The grade school I went to is on Klickitat Street, and I loved the Ramona books because Ramona lived in my neighborhood. Cleary’s books have several locations that were part of my life. My grandparents’ house is on Knott Street, where Henry Higgins had a paper route. I often walked with my dad to Grant Park, where Henry dug up earthworms. One of my friends lived on Tillamook Street, where Ellen Tebbits lived.