The Mitten Word Bookshop
“Actually, we have been here for less than a year,” explains owner Jim Donahue, “and this space was originally an alley. It was just an open pass-through until a roof and false front were added many decades ago.” Jim and Ginny Donahue opened The Mitten Word Bookshop in April 2018, after having run a bookstore in Battle Creek. Their move to Marshall came about in the same fortuitous way as did their careers as booksellers.
Originally from New York (Jim from Brooklyn, Ginny from upstate), they managed busy careers in the medical field, moved through other states, and raised four daughters, before settling in Battle Creek over 20 years ago. Ginny worked as a laboratory technologist and Jim as a physician at the VA hospital. They had always loved reading, but never imagined they would postpone a well-earned early retirement by jumping into work as booksellers.
While searching listings for supplies for his model railroad hobby, Jim spotted an ad from a bookstore in Vermont that was closing and selling all of its furniture. Only days earlier he had read a news article about declining literacy rates in Calhoun County. That light bulb moment, ‘Let’s open a bookstore, and keep kids reading!,’ sparked the furniture being purchased, a downtown storefront scouted out and leased, and before long, their first store, Battle Creek Books, opened to the public.
Unfortunately, hard work, enthusiasm, and appreciative customers, were not enough to succeed against soaring rent. By late 2017, the Donahues feared they would have to close the business until, by chance, a Marshall resident heard of their plight and encouraged them to consider moving. The Marshall Area Economic Development Alliance (MAEDA) welcomed them with open arms, and their bookstore, renamed The Mitten Word, celebrated its move to Marshall last year with a ribbon cutting ceremony and an event featuring Michigan author Ellen Airgood.
The store’s opening coincided with the release of the movie The House with a Clock in Its Walls based on the book written by Marshall native John Bellairs and illustrated by Edward Gorey. The movie’s popularity boosted tourism in Marshall and helped The Mitten Word sell more copies of the book than even a certain major bookseller’s 42nd Street store in New York City.
Jim and Ginny are dedicated to the cause of improving literacy, and to inspiring a community through the love of reading. They offer discounts to veterans, law enforcement, teachers, and students, and routinely host authors from around Michigan and the Midwest. The Mitten Word carries books in all genres, but its children’s section is particularly impressive. Named in honor of Ann La Pietra, who championed Marshall’s book community and owned a beloved children’s bookstore for many years, the section is furnished with festive bunting and comfy kid-sized chairs and tables.
Seating for grown-ups can be found throughout the store, too. Jim and Ginny welcome everyone to come in and stay a while, “bring your coffee and even your pets!” they laugh. Their own canine companion, Frenzy, is a constant fixture in the shop. They and their staff strive to fulfill every customer’s wish, place special orders for any title, and even take full risk of getting used copies that are in good shape. Their book exchange program is a valuable resource for the community, and they donate any overflow to charity book sales or an environmentally-conscious recycler in Battle Creek.
Ginny and Jim are especially fortunate to have such a talented and enthusiastic young staff with Gail Berkompas, a Union City High School English/Spanish teacher, Shannyn Stevens, an English/Creative Writing major at Western Michigan University, and Gabe Aikins, a Ferris State graduate and busy writer for Substream Magazine. Opening an independent bookstore in the age of online retail giants and big box stores is not a task for the faint-hearted. The Donahues are up for the challenge, and look forward to forging strong bonds with their new hometown of Marshall and the wider community.