Lani Schroeder, right, longtime owner of Sunflower Books Etc., and staff member Sunny Greer, preside over a party given at the bookstore Saturday for customers and friends. Sunflower, which opened at 1114 Washington Ave. in 1980, is closing for good Jan. 31. CHRIS BAXTER/THE OBSERVER
A person doesn’t say goodbye to a 32-year second career and labor of love without shedding a tear or two.
Lani Schroeder, proprietor of Sunflower Books Etc., couldn’t help but choke up when she talked Monday about her decision to shut her homey, intimate little bookstore on Washington Avenue downtown Jan. 31. As she sat with a reporter in the little kitchen in back, telling what three decades and more in the business meant to her, her eyes filled up a couple of times.
She recalled long-time friendships with old customers and the ever-constant chance to make new friends of people who love books every bit as much as she does. She recalled hundreds of lively conversations about books and writers and the state of the world.
“I will miss everything about it. It’s a huge part of my life,” Schroeder said. “People don’t come here who don’t like to read or enjoy the atmosphere of books. It’s a great place for an exchange of ideas.”
A career educator, Schroeder moved to La Grande in 1976 with her husband, Ted, and their children. She went to work as director of the local pre-school program, and formed a friendship with Anne Stephens, a fellow educator.
Schroeder and Stephens had energy to burn, wanted an outlet for some of it and so formed a book-selling partnership. In 1978, Stephens bought the residential-style building at 1114 Washington, which had most recently housed a weekly newspaper called the Eastern Oregon Review. The building got an extensive re-model, with new flooring, a kitchen, and shelving and fixtures added. It opened as Sunflower Books Etc. in the fall of 1980.
Schroeder said she and her partner both had children and saw a bookstore as one way to foster in them a love for literature. They also wanted to share their love of books and reading with the community at large.
“I would say we wanted to provide fast, friendly service, promote literacy and give people a place for people to congregate and share ideas,” Schroeder said.
Schroeder said that at the time in La Grande, there was one store selling used books and another selling religious books. She and Stephens wanted to run a store that didn’t directly compete with those businesses, one that dealt strictly in new books covering a wide range of subjects. A unique feature was a coffee shop.
When an initial shipment of 70 cases of books arrived, it stirred excitement for the partners. But all those books weren’t enough to fill the store, and the women realized they had a long way to go before Sunflower met their expectations.
“We had whole shelves that were empty, so we had to gradually build up stock. If we had any money at all, we would reinvest it in inventory. It was three years before we felt we were getting it where we wanted it to be,” Schroeder said.
What eventually emerged was a cozy place where people could browse their favorite sections, pull a book down from a shelf, sit with it and sip coffee while they decided whether or not to buy. They could also talk books or anything under the sun with friendly staff or other customers.
“A lot of people would come from outside town to run errands, and they’d stop, have coffee, look at books and chat,” Schroeder said. “It was kind of a respite, quiet and private.”
In 1983, Schroeder went back to teaching, though she remained a strong supporter of the bookstore. Ten years later, Stephens decided to move away, and Schroeder became sole owner.
Schroeder said that was a good time to be a book seller. The economy was strong then, and the new way of reading — with e-books like those sold by Amazon — hadn’t yet intruded on the industry.
Those things changed, of course. In 2008 the national economy tumbled, taking the local economy with it. At the same time, electronic reading became a competitive force to be reckoned with. And Schroeder, 71, realized she had many other things she yet wanted to do.
Four years ago, she took herself off the Sunflower work schedule while she and her husband did some traveling and visiting with children and grandchildren. A couple of years later, she offered Sunflower up for sale, hoping to find a tech-savvy buyer who would know how to compete in reading’s modern era.
“I thought, there’s a lot of responsibility and the economy is turning and there are changes in the way people read books. I didn’t feel like I had the energy and expertise I needed. I tried for two years to find someone who had the interest in doing these things, but it didn’t work out,” she said.
January of last year, Schroeder made the painful decision to set an “end point,” a definite time when she would close the store. The end point, though, kept changing. First it was June, then it was September, then it was Dec. 31.
“I think we were all in denial,” Schroeder said with a laugh.
Now the closing date is set for Jan. 31, and Schroeder said there will be no more putting it off.
“We’re all pretty much bound to that. We’re locking it up and going away,” she said.
Schroeder employs five salespeople part time, staff members who say their jobs have always been more pleasure than work. One of those, Sarah Cunningham, has been with Sunflower eight years and marvels that she got paid to do something she loves so much.
“I think what I love most is watching kids come in and get their own books, watching another generation become enamored with books,” Cunningham, a former librarian, said.
She added that she will miss Sunflower’s small town, cozy ambiance.
“It’s a relaxed environment. We’re here for the customers, not to climb a ladder to get to a management position,” she said.
As for Schroeder, she’s looking forward to some skiing and some scuba diving, activities she still enjoys with her husband. And while she definitely plans to shut Sunflower’s door, she still harbors hopes that a buyer will come along and keep it going.
“I’ve always dreamed of a world where all children and all adults are exposed to print literature, and I’ll never turn away from that,” she said.