Fireside Books in Palmer, Alaska

Where did you first feel at home in a bookstore?

As a child, my first haven for exploration was Fireside Books in Palmer, Alaska. I would take any excuse to ride an hour into town and beg my parents to “just leave me” there. As a young Alaskan in a highly religious household, I had little room to explore what I then called “the Outside.” Given the remoteness of my location and limited access to the wide world of ideas, my personal world felt very small. Fireside offered the two things I needed most, together: comfort and questions.

At Fireside, I wandered the shelves for hours, asking questions I wouldn’t dare with a parent or pastor. I could explore religion, politics, science fiction, and fantasy — things taken for granted now, but forbidden fruit for me then. Fireside Books was instrumental in validating my curiosity and love for reading. This is why it brings me great pleasure, years later, to introduce Fireside Books to LARB’s international family of readers. Fireside is the first Alaskan bookstore to partner with the Los Angeles Review of Books’s Reckless Reader Program.

If a book is more than its cover, a great store is much more than its wares. Above and beyond the obvious — books on shelves — bookstores can double as channels for personal, intellectual, and community expansion. For wife-and-husband team Melissa Behnke and David Cheezem of Fireside Books, sharing and facilitating quality storytelling is more just business; it’s life. Fireside is one a mere handful of bookstores in the Matanuska Susitna Valley (a borough spanning 25,258 miles, according to the U.S. Census Bureau), and certainly the only one of its kind.

Serving a wide, somewhat remote region in a conservative state, Fireside is open to all who enter its doors regardless of political or religious affiliation. But Cheezem finds that those who frequent the store (sometimes traveling a distance to do so) come to elevate their minds in some way, thus elevating the region around them.

“In a way [Palmer] is a very conservative community, but we’re kind of an oasis in that,” Cheezem says. “Our readers are more open-minded and they read because it gives them a better, thicker, deeper appreciation of the world and each other.”

Fireside maintains a steady balance between mass appeal and local flavor. They keep their shelves fresh for the die-hard regulars, with a sense of “what’s good” for meandering visitors. Their bestsellers include fiction, children’s books, and Alaskan themed titles.

In any great story, fiction or otherwise, it’s crucial to understand the setting. For Fireside, that awareness of place is essential. Its booksellers serve a diverse community of readers, from lifelong Alaskans to international tourists. And while they’re serious about quality writing, they hold no airs about it.

“We’re not snooty. We believe in quality and the best writing and the best thinking, but…you don’t last long in Alaska if you’re a snob,” Cheezem says. “It doesn’t take a day to walk through [the store], either. We’re just not typical.”

Fireside is charmingly self-deprecating (case in point: visit their website, goodbooksbadcoffee.com), but don’t let that fool you. They’ve become something of an incubator for powerful new voices in literature. Dedicated booksellers, passionate readers, and powerful writing have merged to give Alaska’s Matanuska-Susitna Valley somewhat of a literary rebirth in recent years. Palmer has shifted from tourist pit stop to a local creative highlight. A number of book clubs and writing groups have proliferated, with Fireside Books as home base.

“I think in the last five or 10 years we’ve been more of a conduit for a more serious, literary community,” Cheezem says.

Where before, Alaskan readers’ best bet at meeting their favorite authors would involve a day trip into Anchorage (or, more likely, a flight out-of-state), Fireside Books has attracted a growing number of literary stars to the region.

Eowyn Ivey, Pulitzer-Prize nominated author of The Snow Child, used to work in the store herself and remains a loyal patron and fan of the store. To celebrate Ivey’s release of To The Bright Edge of the World, Fireside sold out the aforementioned Train Depot for an event with the author and illustrator. More recently, Meagan Macvie (whose novel The Ocean In My Ears is set in Soldotna, Alaska), recently visited Fireside for a signing and an intimate dinner with readers.

Pulitzer ties, author drop-ins, and community fervor aside, Cheezem and his staff of knowledgeable booksellers stay firmly grounded in the everyman camp. Fireside Books is, first and foremost, a cozy, lighthearted, independent bookstore. “We have quality writing, but…[it’s] not a yuppie bookstore,” Cheezem says. “[We’re] very down-to-earth.”

So whether you’re a literary genius, a daredevil traveler, or a curious kid in need of safe space, Fireside is open to you. Alaska is more than a place, just as Fireside is more than a bookstore. For all who inquire within, it’s home.

 

Not a member and want to receive special perks and discounts at Fireside Books and other participating stores? Become a member and we’ll send you a Reckless Reader card and all the perks!

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