The Vaults Are Full at Oskaloosa Bookstore

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Book Vault in a century-old, three-story former bank.

The town square of Oskaloosa, Iowa, and its 18-month-old independent bookstore, Book Vault, became part of the electoral process on July 4, when Illinois senator and Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama stopped in the city to campaign.

Obama spoke to a few hundred people crowded into the Smokey Row cafe, which adjoins Book Vault. Others who came to see Obama formed a block-long line on the square.

Book Vault's co-founder and manager Nancy Simpson told BTW that when she learned of the campaign stop just six days before the event, she was faced with a shortage of Obama's book, Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance (Crown), and the store's planned closing for the Fourth of July holiday.

Simpson, who quickly scrambled to restock the book, kept the store open during Obama's appearance and was rewarded with good sales as the presidential hopeful signed every copy offered. "It was great," she said. "We hope [all of the presidential candidates] come here because of the Iowa caucuses. [Republican candidate Rudolph] Giuliani would probably draw an even bigger crowd around here."

Simpson and store co-founder Julie Hansen are known for accomplishing big jobs in short timeframes. The idea for the bookstore came to them in the spring of 2005, and the store opened, as scheduled, in a former bank on December 5, 2005. After being told repeatedly that it was madness to open during the Christmas season, the two librarians -- Simpson, who is retired from the Oskaloosa Public Library, and Hansen, who currently works at William Penn University and serves the store in an advisory role -- opened to much acclaim and healthy sales.

The Mystery/True Crime Vault on the second-floor balcony.

The two women were responsible for completely renovating the century-old, three-story building, complete with three vaults.

"We were told that the original marble tellers' walls would have to go -- that they created narrow lanes and the traffic flow would be terrible," said Simpson. "At Christmas, it's a problem," she admitted, "but maintaining the character of the building was too important to us."

The refurbished space, with period fixtures and an illuminated stained glass ceiling, is striking. With a total of 2,300 square feet of retail space, the store includes a third-floor meeting room with a seating capacity for a hundred. The second floor, a balcony, houses the children's section, including a vault. Another vault houses the mystery and suspense titles, and the third vault, Iowa-related books. In the rear of the first floor is a full test kitchen, suitable for demonstrations and classes.

Book Vault's Children's Room.

"We sell gourmet food, kitchen items, utensils, bowls, towels, and an extensive cookbook collection," Simpson said. The store holds a monthly "Cooking With Books" event tied to a specific cookbook and often featuring a regional chef. Children's cooking events and a monthly cookbook book club make more good use of the kitchen.

Book Vault hosts several other book clubs and at least one or two author appearances per month. Many are notable regional authors, such as Laura Moriarty and Michael Perry, courtesy of the Midwest Booksellers Association's (MBA) Midwest Connections marketing program.

Simpson told BTW that a recent appearance by local author J. Coburn (Selections From The Serial Killer Cookbook -- The Handbook for America's Youth, Provoke) had angered a number of the city's church and community members who called for the cancellation of his talk.

In response, Simpson contacted Chris Finan, president of the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, for information and support in handling the situation. The event went on as planned, the picketers never materialized, and "the people who attended had a terrific exchange, a give-and-take with the author," Simpson recalled. "And it was great to know that whenever I need help, I can call ABFFE, ABA, or MBA.

"I'm a firm believer in the support that these regional and national organizations give us," she continued. "One of the very first things I got excited about was the Book Sense Picks list. I saw it on a visit to the Tattered Cover. They were unusual books that I might not have known about. We still rely on those lists -- we feature a shelf of the current picks."

The test kitchen is used for cooking demonstrations and classes.

Simpson noted that Book Sense gift cards "have been wonderful" for the store.

The next big event for Book Vault will be the release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Scholastic). The store, in partnership with the public library, is holding a midnight party Friday night and a reprise party at 10:00 a.m. on Saturday morning. Those who purchase the book in advance receive free tickets to the party. For anyone who may find the book price prohibitive but still wants to join the party, the Oskaloosa Public Library is offering free tickets in exchange for seven hours of volunteer work in the library.

"We got special permission from the police to break [Oskaloosa's midnight] curfew [for young teens]," Simpson said. "They'll get their books and as long as they are off the streets by the time the bars close at 2:00 a.m., it's okay." --Nomi Schwartz