There’s little that Ellen Mager hasn’t seen in her career as founder and owner of Booktenders' Secret Garden Bookstore & Gallery, a children’s specialty bookstore in Doylestown, Pa. But a little over a month after a water pipe burst, flooding the back third of her store, Mager has struggled with the uncertainty unleashed at a time when she had hoped to be planning celebrations for the bookstore’s 35th anniversary.
Mager was opening the door to her shop on January 8 when water began pouring in from above. She ran to a comic book store next door for help and while her neighbor placed a recycling bin under the waterfall, she started saving books. “I took the shelving that was in the back that was getting wet and pushed it to the front of the store and started pulling out the bad books,” said Mager.
The damage was extensive. Fifteen boxes of books were destroyed, many of them signed and collectible. Booktenders' was closed for nearly three weeks.
Having been alone at the helm of her small shop for so many years, Mager has dealt efficiently with each of the many issues that have come up since the flood. She salvaged inventory lists from her computer, cross-checked them with the boxes, and presented her insurance agent with a list of 400 books. Then she tallied a precise accurate estimate of lost sales of $1700 based on last year’s numbers. All the while, she sold individual books to eager customers looking for gifts for birthdays and baby showers, through the front door of her closed shop.
She said she couldn’t bear to turn them away. “I’m not on a front street so the people who came were coming for specifics.” Through it all, Mager has remained even-keeled, pointing out, for instance, that it is better that the flood happened in January, which is her slowest month.
But it is a lean time of year and Mager has little buffer to wait for an insurance check to arrive. She also says it’s more than just the numbers. The flood came within a foot of destroying four walls of priceless artwork drawn by the hundreds of children’s authors who have come through her store since 1995. The threat of that loss has left Mager rattled as she tries to reopen.
Among more than 100 one-of-a-kind drawings, notes, poems, and signatures are pieces by Lloyd Alexander, David Wisniewski, J.K. Rowling, Philip Pullman, Brian Selznick, Robert San Souci, and Brian Jacques.
With each one, Mager has a memory of the author’s visit to the store. “I loved Diane and Leo Dillon,” she said, recounting one such story. “Diane used to say that the paintings were done by a third person and I never understood that until I gave her a block and she started to draw and handed it to Leo and he picked up right up where she left off. Then they went back and forth like that for 10 minutes. I learned so much in those minutes and that’s the part of the wall.”
Not everything survived. Mager kept a U.K. first edition of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets with a personal inscription from a private dinner with J.K. Rowling in the store to share with children. After the flood, she found it sopping. “I sat there and cried. I was just beside myself,” Mager said.”
Day-to-day, Booktenders' is now back open and Mager has a list of ideas in mind. She’s having a sale to get inventory moving, asking around for tech help with an Indiegogo fundraiser, and starting to plan 35th-anniversary events. Her eye on every detail, she said she is watching her rugs like a hawk, preparing for the need to have them replaced, at the same time restocking the store with weekly orders. She is also working on a project to document the walls of artwork at the suggestion of her friend, children’s publisher Arthur Levine.
Mager said, “He said to me, ‘Do you have pictures?” Do you have stories? Make it into a book. Even if it doesn’t get published.’ ”
“He was right and it’s been such a great memory,” said Mager, who has been collecting stories on her computer and has made it through one wall of images. “It’s been therapeutic.”
Despite her resilience, Mager says the flooding has her thinking hard about the future. “I know that I can pick myself up, but I also have learned that I either need a partner or somebody to buy it and I can work for them,” said Mager. “This has been too much of a burden for me, figuring out things by the seat of my pants.”