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Spotlight Iowa City: Finding the fortunate life in books

BY JOSIE JONES | APRIL 29, 2010 7:30 AM

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At the age of 11, Will Ingles flipped a coin to decide where he’d apply for a summer job. Heads was a book shop, and tails was a bike shop.

In hindsight, such a simple toss determined a large part of his life. Now, 47 years later, he owns The Book Shop, 608 S. Dubuque St., which established its Iowa City location in May 1986, just a few blocks from the Pedestrian Mall.

Offering collectible and popular books in every category and genre, Ingles may sell one for a quarter while another, published in 1660, is priced at $5,000. And the books come from all over. Ingles finds his inventory at traditional stores, buys from customers, and works with estate lawyers.

The small, two-story bungalow stuffed with books also serves as a home for the owner, because, as Ingles said, he enjoys living the way “small merchants” used to.

“This isn’t the life for everybody, but I’m very fortunate,” he said and laughed. “Think how little time I have to spend commuting.”

You can typically find him tucked away in the back left corner of his bookstore. He sits at his desk in a big red chair surrounded by books piled to the ceiling. Some are in shelves and others in cardboard boxes or simply in stacks. And even though he’s the only one working, he’s not alone — his two indoor cats, Spot and Singer, keep him company.

The Des Moines native did have coworkers at The Book Shop before the economy went sour. Michael Bortscheller, a UI alum, worked at there for three years before graduating in 2007. He found Ingles’ sense of humor worked well on the job.

“It was always entertaining,” Bortscheller said. “There was always something to talk about, and when you’re working with books, you’ll always find something interesting in them to talk about.”

The atmosphere Ingles has created is one that astonishes most customers who enter, Bortscheller said. UI junior Lisa Stanforth agrees.

“It’s unique,” the English major said. “I was immediately taken aback by the number of books. It’s like a different world.”

And even though Ingles is constantly surrounded by books — The Book Shop is open 10 hours a day, seven days a week — he still finds his work to be a pleasure.

Despite the 70-hour week, in-store sales are slim because the independently owned bookstore lacks the customers a centrally located competitor typically attracts.

The majority of sales come from the store’s website — which, Ingles said, keeps the company afloat. The bookstore even makes orders on request for its buyers approximately three times per week. He said these orders have become a bigger part of the business.

Like the Internet, he is open to the many forms of changing technology that affect his career. But he doesn’t consider that a bad revolution, or even a challenge.

“I see anything that helps people to read as a good thing,” he said. “There are people right now reading on their Kindles or iPads who wouldn’t consider owning this or that book.”

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