WASILLA — Taylor Jordan opened Black Birch Books with a vision of, “having a safe place that felt like another world, where people could escape.” She is nearing her one-year mark in March. Owning the only bookstore in Wasilla, she said that she’s grateful to fill that role, a place every community should have.
“I’m honored to be Wasilla's bookstore,” Jordan said.
Black Birch customers are greeted by a big, doe-eyed dog named Grimm, Jordan’s Rottweiler/mastiff. Jordan said that he loves people, especially children; and babies are perhaps his favorite.
“He is one of the most loved critters in the city, let’s say the Mat-Su Valley,” Jordan said.
Jordan’s store is not just a place to buy books. She holds regular classes and workshops at the store, anything from arts and crafts to discussions about the world’s religions.
“We’ve got such a diverse community. It’s something that we should celebrate,” Jordan said.
Jordan is a self-proclaimed extrovert and she makes it a point to engage every customer. She often ends up talking to customers at length, sharing laugh after laugh. She welcomes everyone to come visit her shop, especially if they’re “weird” because they will fit right in.
“Bring on the weird,” Jordan said with a laugh. “We are a very interactive place. I’ve never been a bookstore that wasn’t.”
Black Birch is a hub for Harry Potter paraphilia, not just books, but trinkets like music boxes and magic wands. She has an entire section dedicated to Harry Potter, featuring official books from J. K. Rowling’s series in addition to other non-official, supplemental books like the “Harry Potter Insults Handbook.” Jordan also crafts and sells her own custom wands, keeping a steady supply of them on hand.
Black Birch is an eclectic hangout with unique gifts and other oddities, from vinyl records to beard grooming kits. It also features a spectrum of handmade items from local artisans, from jewelry to skin care products. Jordan said that she felt honored these various crafters trusted her to sell their items. She said that the best gift for the holiday season is classic literature with handmade Alaskan items at a close second. She said that she had to restock classic literature section six times during the holidays.
“That was the number one gift and that was a very smart gift,” Jordan said. “Everyone wants to give a gift that they know is gonna be a sure thing. Everyone’s read some sort of classic literature, whether it’s “Jane Eyre” or “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”, or “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.” They’ve read it before and they know who to give it to.”
Jordan’s love for literature grew as she did. She recalled a memory from childhood, talking about one of the first books that she read that really left an impact on her.
“I remember sitting on my mom’s bed as she was getting ready for work and I was reading “Alice in Wonderland.” You know, retrospectively, I guess it’s exactly what I wanted this store to be like. How weird is that right?” Jordan said.
Jordan said that when she was about 10 or so, she really felt the bookworm burrow into her brain after discovering R.L Stine’s “Goosebumps” series. She gobbled up Stine’s prose like candy.
“I destroyed Goosebumps,” Jordan said.
Jordan said that people should people should read whatever resonates with them. She said that she whole “wholeheartedly endorses” reading the classics. She also encouraged everyone to try out a unique style of reading, at least once.
“It’s going to sound silly but everyone should read a choose-your-own-adventure book,” Jordan said. “You get to be another person making decisions for that person and living the real consequences of that choice.”
Jordan said that she’d been thinking about opening a bookstore for several years but after getting injured during her military service, that idea became a reality quicker than she anticipated.
“My spine injury was unexpected so it kind of made me create a whole different life,” Jordan said.
Jordan spent 15 years in the U.S. Air Force. She served in the Air Force Security Forces, which is essentially the military police for the Air Force. She said that she’s a very outgoing and physical person that enjoyed being a “bad ass.”
“I couldn’t do any of it anymore because you had to be physically able,” Jordan said. “It was not a pleasant time when I got injured because I had to be like, ‘I’m no longer a bad ass.’ How do you make a new life with someone who’s been a bad ass for this many years and then you do something that’s maybe not? Well, you compensate by making other people feel important. That’s kind of what made this a good choice.”
Jordan likes to “blame” her family for how she turned out. When she was asked why she joined the military, she said that her aunt told her that she was a big fish in a small pond.
“And there’s nothing bigger than serving a nation,” Jordan said.
Jordan said that she was glad that she served in the military. She said that she grew as a person by living through the good and bad experiences, gaining new perspectives and opportunities.
“I’m lucky that way,” Jordan said.
Jordan was stationed in Ohio before the military moved to her to Alaska in 2010. She lives in Wasilla and before she retired from her service, she commuted to Joint Base Elmendorf–Richardson. She said that she devoured audio books during her drive.
So far, Jordan’s retirement has been fast passed, just in a new and surprising way. She busily stocks books throughout the day, attends to various projects and ceaselessly dotes on her customers. She said that she will scour her store looking for a particular book for a customer and if she cannot find it, she will order it for them. She noted that every time a customer buys a book, especially popular ones, she quickly replaces it because she can’t stand the idea of her customers having trouble finding the book they’re looking for.
“Here I am retired and I had this picture in my head: I’m gonna open a bookstore; I’m gonna read books all day; and drink tea and it’s gonna’ be great,” Jordan said with a laugh. “I have now read 23 chapters of a book and I’ve almost overdosed on tea to keep me alive because I don’t have time to eat.”
Jordan said that she has a great relationship with MyHouse, the homeless youth shelter. MyHouse sends over teens to work at the store as interns on a regular basis. Jordan said that it’s a stellar opportunity for the kids and for her store because the kids learn valuable work and life skills and she can’t afford to hire long-term employees.
“They’ve got a lot of really great kids,” Jordan said.
Jordan also built strong relationships with other independent bookstores like Fireside Books in Palmer and Title Wave Books in Anchorage. She said these stores are not her competition, rather the opposite. She said they all do things differently and feed off each other in a mutually beneficial way. They share resources and support each other. During her interview, a Title Wave employee brought in mounds of books for her store. She said that she is currently planning events with Fireside.
“Certain businesses in this economy thrive when they work together,” Jordan said.
Jordan said that her store and other independent booksellers like her friends at Fireside and Title Wave seem to be thriving off nostalgia. She said that as the technology advances so does a widespread longing for the opposite in some forms. She said that many people like to hold books in their hands and like the bookstore experience itself, being able to amble around a cozy enclosure of stories with a live person at their disposal.
“You don’t know where you want to go until you know where you’ve been,” Jordan said.
Jordan is an independent bookstore owner and as such, seems to be part of an almost niche culture in 2019, in the full swing of the digital age with Amazon, the ironically named online store that is notorious for killing small book stores around the county. Jordan said that she isn’t worried about falling in the shadow of the online and digital book trends because she part of a countering trend.
“It may be becoming a niche market but I don’t think it’s ever going away,” Jordan said.
One regular customer Tommy Naff stopped in for his usual cup of coffee and his literary saunter. He said that the store is a wonderful place to be and he always feels welcomed. He also noted that it was nice having Grimm be the first one to greet customers.
“I hope it stays in business for a long time,” Naff said.
Black Birch is right in the heart of Wasilla, located just off Main Street, across the street from the Wasilla Museum and Visitor Center.
Contact Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman reporter Jacob Mann at firstname.lastname@example.org