Democracy Dies in Darkness

Inspired Life

A bookstore owner was in the hospital. So his competitors came and kept his shop open.

February 25, 2019 at 8:00 AM

Seth Marko and Jennifer Powell own the Book Catapult in San Diego. (Vanessa Diaz)

Hearing that your husband needs immediate open-heart surgery is terrifying, especially when he’s been healthy his whole life.

When Jennifer Powell heard the sudden news about her husband, Seth Marko, 43, she spun into action. First, she found care for their 3-year-old daughter, Josephine, so she could be at the hospital for her husband’s 10-hour surgery.

Then Powell’s mind went to their “second kid” — the Book Catapult — the small independent bookstore the couple owns and runs in San Diego. Their only employee had the swine flu and would be out for at least a week.

Powell, 40, closed the store to be with her husband in the hospital. She didn’t know for how long.

Her close friend Scott Ehrig-Burgess and his wife were watching Josephine. But Ehrig-Burress, who works at another bookstore in town, wanted to help more.

“We were all sort of overwhelmed and in shock,” Ehrig-Burgess said.

He thought maybe he could help with the Book Catapult. He had worked there a few times when his friends first opened the store, in late 2017. He still had the keys, he knew how to work the register. He could try to keep it afloat.

“I thought, ‘I’ll pretend this is my store for the week,’ ” Ehrig-Burgess said.

He started calling mutual friends in the book-selling community to tell them that Marko was in surgery.

“People were like, ‘What can I do to help? Do you need somebody to be in the store?’ ” Ehrig-Burgess recalled. “I called four booksellers and had four volunteers.”

Within a day of Marko’s Jan. 27 surgery, Ehrig-Burgess had eight volunteers to help him keep the store open. They all worked at competing bookstores in the San Diego area and were willing to juggle their schedules or work during their free time to pitch in. One couple came down from Los Angeles.

“Once I started to tell our book-selling friends what was going on, I had an entire roster,” Ehrig-Burgess said.

Each morning, he would go to the bookstore he manages, the Library Shop. Then at noon, he’d race across town to the Book Catapult to open it and give instructions to the volunteer. Then he’d head back to work.

“I’d train them how to use the point of sale, wait a few minutes to be sure nothing caught on fire, then leave,” he said. “I’d call every hour to be sure everything was okay.”

Then he’d return at 6 p.m. to close up.

“The customers didn’t even know,” Ehrig-Burgess said.

Related: This shop owner’s wife fell ill. Now, customers line up early to buy all the doughnuts.

Marko’s surgery was a success. Ehrig-Burgess went to visit his friend in the intensive care unit and told him the Book Catapult was open.

Marko said he was overwhelmed.

“I probably cried a little bit,” he said. “The bookstore is like having a kid. You put so much into it.”

After about a week, the Book Catapult’s full-time employee, Vanessa Diaz, recovered from the swine flu and came back. Powell and Marko’s parents flew in to help out.

Marko was in the hospital for 11 days and is now home recuperating. He fatigues easily and is unable to lift more than a few pounds, so the friend-volunteers are still around when needed. Marko plans to return to his second job, as a sales representative for a book publisher, in April.

“We’re slowly pivoting toward putting it back on them,” said Ehrig-Burgess, who also started a GoFundMe for Powell and Marko. “They’re doing 80 percent now.”

Julie Slavinsky, 57, who works at the independent bookstore Warwick’s, is one of the volunteers who helped out. Slavinsky said when Ehrig-Burgess called to let her know about Marko’s heart, she offered to volunteer at the Book Catapult that Saturday. She and Marko used to work together at Warwick’s.

“People don’t like to ask for help. You have to say, ‘Hey, I have a few hours, do you need me?’ ” Slavinsky said.

While she was volunteering at the store, she rang up some customers and suggested titles to others. When a rainstorm caused water to leak through a window, she moved book displays around. Then she came back the following week to run an event, a reading from an author.

Related: A small bookstore had to relocate. Hundreds formed a human chain to move its books.

Slavinsky said although the Book Catapult is, strictly speaking, a competitor to her employer, she doesn’t see things that way.

“The book world is a little bit different,” she said. “I see this as helping somebody in the community. It’s the community coming together.”

Powell said she can’t offer enough thanks to all those who have helped her and her husband.

“Seth is the guy who is always the reliable one,” she said. “It’s bouncing back to him when he most needs it. It’s nice to see that happen.”

Powell also said the past few weeks have been an affirmation that she and her husband “did the right thing.”

“Maybe opening a bookstore wasn’t as crazy as we thought,” she said.

Read more:

‘Something told me to check the vehicle one more time’: How a state trooper saved an infant trapped underwater

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Allison Klein has been a reporter at The Washington Post since 2004, with a hiatus from 2013 to 2017. She anchors the Inspired Life blog, writing about surprising or unusual tales of humanity. She spent many years covering crime, policing and police policy. Previously, she worked at the Baltimore Sun and the Miami Herald.

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