BACKGROUND: ICONOCLAST BOOKS
“By November I called my school and said I’m not coming back.” Sarah Hedrick had fallen in love—both with Ketchum, Idaho and her new job at a little bookstore called The Book Cellar. The small mountain town and its vibrant culture provided the respite and nourishment she craved during a semester off from teaching at an inner city school in Boston. She also fell for a quick-witted ski bum that wandered into the Book Cellar to feed his insatiable appetite for literature. But Gary Hunt—the longhaired, globetrotting ski bum, discontent with his career as a part-time waiter and bike repairman—was too humble to ask her out.
Instead he moved to Seattle, where his friend Royce Wilson taught him the basics of the used book business over too many glasses of Scotch. Gary started out scouting garage sales and estate auctions for Seattle’s book dealers. Soon he scraped together enough to open Iconoclast Books as a tiny store in Seattle’s Green Lake neighborhood, where he bought used books, sold a few, and read a great many more. In 1994, he packed the entire store into a reluctant U-Haul and coaxed it over the mountains back to Idaho.
Gary reopened Iconoclast in an underground dive below Perry’s restaurant in Ketchum. “He came to me like, ‘Tada! Now I own a bookstore. Come be with me,’” recounts Sarah. “And I was engaged to be married to somebody else, because he had been flipping gone in Seattle. And I loved him, but I went ahead and got married.”
Gary slowly expanded his business. His roots began to grow. He ran the Great Books Club at the Community Library. He moved Iconoclast into an old house downtown. The store had a fire pit and benches out front, where Gary hosted his “Thinking and Drinking Club.” He screened vintage films on an old projector. He hosted readings and poetry slams. He sold cigars. He rented foreign and independent films. He moved the store again into a bigger house downtown. And, during those years, he married.
Meanwhile, Sarah became a mother of three. She continued working at the Book Cellar, which moved downtown and became the Main Street Book Café under a confederation of new owners. “It was big and beautiful and in this historic building, but there were too many people and not enough books,” she says. Sarah eventually left the bookstore when she could see that it wasn’t going to survive.
A few years later, her son lost his first tooth during a meal at Perry’s restaurant. “Can we go show Gary?” he asked. “That’s who he was to them: the friendly neighborhood bookseller,” explains Sarah. The family walked into the bookstore and were shocked by what they saw: Gary, who always wore his hair long, had buzzed it completely off.
“What’s going on?” asked Sarah.
“I just moved [my ex-wife] down to Malibu,” sighed Gary. “We finally decided to get a divorce.”
“Really? There’s a bunch of us going out this week who are all recently separated and divorced,” said Sarah. She and her husband had parted ways a few months earlier. “Do you want to join us?”
“And that was it,” Sarah remembers. “My kids already knew and loved him. I had loved him forever.” The two dynamos joined forces in the book business. They moved Iconoclast into the three-story brick building where the Main Street Book Café had been. They expanded into new books. Sarah grew the children’s section. She partnered with schools and community groups. “We were doing really, really well,” she says, “despite books being the worst retail item you could sell as far as profit margins go.”
In September 2007, Iconoclast’s five-year lease was about to expire, but the pair had locked into a purchase price—or so they thought. Just before closing, the sale fell through. Iconoclast had to find a new home, and find one fast: the holiday shopping season was just around the corner. They began renovating a new space near the Community Library.
“We had books in both stores in November,” Sarah explains. “We had a point-of-sale system not yet running here, but still functioning there. I think our phones worked here, but not over there.” On Thanksgiving weekend, Sarah boxed up books for shoppers at the new store and let them take the books over to the old store to pay for them. “They loved it. I never once worried that somebody wouldn’t show up there.”
The cost of the move saddled Iconoclast with extensive construction debt just as the credit crunch and recession began squeezing the business. Then, in May 2008, tragedy struck: a car accident took Gary’s life. Sarah was left with four kids, ages 2–12, and little time to mourn. She knew Iconoclast would founder quickly without someone at the helm, and her children and employees depended on its survival.
The financial situation was worse than she had suspected. In the week following Gary’s death, the State Tax Commission cleared their bank account and threatened to seize the store’s assets for unpaid bills. Gary and Sarah had pledged their time, merchandise, and use of their space to an exhaustive array of local causes for years. Now it was their family’s turn to be on the receiving end of that generosity. “Our community has four children to raise,” Ketchum’s mayor told Sarah. Local customers bought books profusely. A member of Gary’s book club at the library gave Hedrick a $5,000 check to buy time with the Tax Commission.
“I had the option, with everybody in this community, to walk away,” Sarah says. “And I couldn’t in a million years envision doing that.” Sarah sees a bookstore like Iconoclast as essential to a thriving town. “It’s not just about the books on the walls,” she says. “Incredible things were born out of bookstores. It is about supporting intellectual curiosity, but it’s also [that] they’re hubs of communities.”
After a few hours in Iconoclast, it’s clear that Sarah’s boundless energy keeps this hub buzzing. She doesn’t just find people books; she finds them friends, dates, and jobs. She makes connections. People seek her conversation as surely as a jolt of espresso from the café.
Iconoclast’s future is still precarious, however, as Amazon and a new Starbucks nearby chip away sales. “It’s up to my community,” Sarah says. “If we’ve made it through the recession, and I’ve made it through losing my husband and business partner, why would they worry about me? … But if they realized every time they were pushing that pay button on Amazon, how close they were to closing our doors, I do believe they would think differently.”