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A luncheon and a mouthful of noodles brought a major change to Peggy Durbin’s life.
Colleen Olinger, the former owner of Otowi Station Science Museum and Bookstore, was looking to get out of the bookstore business. She was hoping to pursue other interests and obligations and turned to Durbin to take the reigns of the store.
Durbin’s first reaction was to spit out her lunch in surprise but she followed it up with a request to think over the business proposal.
Her answer to Olinger was a yes.
Three and half years later, Durbin and co-owner Michele Vochosky are still going strong at Otowi.
It took a lot of work to get to this point. Durbin said they turned to the Small Business Center, the bank and their lawyer for assistance in obtaining the business.
“Michele and I worked like little factories,” Durbin said.
Plus, Durbin said Olinger was a very generous mentor.
The store was officially Durbin’s and Vochosky’s on Dec. 1, 2005.
With the store under new ownership, Durbin and Vochosky set to work making some changes.
“We had installed a new point of sales and inventory system with a barcode reader so we no longer had to put in the ISBN (and other information) anymore.”
Additionally, they configured a work room to have better flow and added some new displays.
The changes appeared to work.
“People came in (and would) say the store is a lot brighter, more open, more inviting,” Durbin said.
Which is great, she added, because, “we want people to feel immediately at home when they come in.”
Plus, new computers and a new phone system were installed.
Despite the work, Durbin seems pleased with the decision she made almost four years ago.
“It’s a book store,” she said, “what’s not to love?”
“I love our customers and talking with people and being their filter,” Durbin said.
The whole staff is passionate about books and reading, she said.
It’s just really cool, Durbin commented, to hand someone a book she enjoys and for them to say, ‘oh, this sounds good.’
Besides, Otowi’s customers come from all over the U.S. and the world so “it’s such a delight to talk to them and find out what brought them to Los Alamos,” she said.
Los Alamos, Durbin said, is “like the world’s largest cul-de-sac … we do live in such a remarkable place.”
Another benefit to owning a bookstore is having “first crack” at the new books.
Not only does Otowi provide books, but many of their authors come to the store for book signings.
A few of Durbin’s favorite visiting authors include Margaret Coel, who “is just a delight,” local author James Doss, “he’s such a sweetie” and an Oprah Book Club author Bret Lott.
Michael Orenduff and CJ Box are also among Durbin’s favorites.
All the authors, she added, have been great. “You want them for neighbors. They’re just so nice.”
So how has owning the bookstore impacted Durbin?
“I read a lot more,” she said. “I’m not as shy as I use to be about approaching people.”
Durbin said she likes initiating discussions about books.
Owning the business is not about the money, she added, it’s about making a connection with people and introducing them to things that they had not thought about.
“(It’s about) having a connection that builds community (and) makes our lives richer, more complete and doing that through books,” she said.
Also, it is wonderful to get a child who is not interesting in books really take off with reading.
The challenges include competing with on-line sales and big box stores. While the Otowi can’t compete with price, “We mop the floor when it comes to customer service,” Durbin said.
Plus, on-line sites and big-box stores don’t contribute to local fundraisers or support the local library.
“We’re tenacious, too. If we can’t find the book, we will scrounge out-of-print sources to find the book. We won’t quit,” Durbin said. “We’ll work hard to get people exactly what they want.”
Durbin may have owned the store for three and a half years, but she has lived in Los Alamos since 1951.
Although she went away for college and taught at a rural school in Maxwell, N.M., she moved back in 1981. Durbin taught English at Los Alamos High School and worked as a technical writer at Los Alamos National Laboratory, before retiring and then returning to the workforce as a bookstore owner.
“We’re so appreciative of our local, loyal customers,” Durbin said. “They’re so supportive of local businesses.”