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OPINION: Sun sets on Sundance, and Reno loses more than a bookstore

John L. Smith
John L. Smith

On the last day in May, Sundance Books and Music owner Christine Kelly’s morning was filled with heartfelt thanks and hugs from devoted customers who through the years had become familiar faces and even friends.

There was much work left to do on the beloved independent bookstore’s last day in operation, but Kelly took time for the people for whom Sundance had meant so much over the past four decades.

In those last few hours, the normally smartly curated magazine rack was depleted along with the selection of new arrivals, best-sellers, and shelves set aside for Nevada authors and themes. Just around the corner, curious kids and their parents perused the room reserved for young readers. Looking back, she had known some of those parents when they were the young readers.

How the time had flown. She recalled the whim that in 1984 brought her through the door of the original store, then located in the Keystone Shopping Center. She thought it might be fun to work in a bookstore a few hours a week. Before long, she was managing the store and eventually became its owner. She found that the atmosphere suited her temperament and her curiosity, and she learned just how good and engaged her town is.

Early on Kelly realized that a bookstore, especially a feisty independent doing business in an age of corporate behemoths, needed to be about more than selling books and magazines. It was a place where people came to pass the time, pursue reading passions, meet people, and explore new ideas. In a time of public and political polarization, considering new ideas is more important than ever.

Contrary to what you might think, independent bookstores are increasing nationwide with more than 200 opening in 2023 and 2,433 overall. That’s nearly twice as many as existed in 2016. Kelly understands why. In a noisy world, people continue to search for understanding, information, and entertainment. Like its kindred spirit in downtown Las Vegas, The Writer’s Block, Sundance meant far more than books to its community.

At Sundance, the range of those ideas had room for a program featuring then-National Rifle Association CEO Wayne LaPierre and a celebration of the latest Harry Potter fantasy. Although the lines were long for both events, Kelly couldn’t help being charmed by the children staying up late dressed in their best wizard regalia for the chance to get their hands on J.K. Rowling’s latest effort.

“I have grownups coming to me and telling me, ‘I waited in line at 12:01 in the morning for the new Harry Potter book,” Kelly says during a brief break. “That was just a big, big thing back then. People would line up to buy their new book. They would come all costumed up. And now they’re grown up with their own kids. I frequently hear stories like that.

“It’s heartening and it’s humbling to be allowed to participate in these lives in this way, and to be able to conduct business and carry on these many years. … It’s really good work. It’s interesting work. I think it’s exciting work. I think running a small business is important work. I’m so honored to have the opportunity to step in and do it.”

Sundance blossomed into a local icon after it relocated to the historic Levy House with its handsome Classical-Revival style architecture distinguished by a portico supported with six ionic columns. After passing from the original owners and used for several purposes, the house was purchased by the Nevada Museum of Art. In 2011, it was leased to Kelly.

It was a cherished place for authors to sign books and attracted customers for a wide range of events that included a variety of state and local organizations, schools, and service groups that blended commerce with community. I had the honor of speaking there, and earlier this year participated in a lively Q&A with Indy CEO and Editor Jon Ralston.

Perhaps less well known was Baobab Press, Sundance’s publishing endeavor, which operated from a tiny office upstairs. Founded by Kelly and her dear friend, the late editor and remarkable soul Margaret Dalrymple, Baobab publishes inventive and intriguing titles. Having had the great fortune of working with Margaret, I imagine her kind and impeccable spirit roaming upstairs at the Levy House smoothing even the roughest edges of every manuscript she touches.

“Not only was she a mentor to me, even aside from the press, but she was just a wonderful person to work with,” Kelly says. “Our store staff and everybody just adored her. She was an incredible editor … you almost didn’t know you were being edited. She was so gentle. She would call them brush strokes.”

As Kelly moves on to new endeavors, encouraging rumors are already circulating that others are considering stepping up and writing the next chapter in this independent bookstore tale. She would tell a new owner that it’s a rewarding ride.

“This has been the gift of a lifetime that I’ve gotten to do this for my professional career,” Kelly says. “This has been a fascinating place to spend time.”

Like her friend Margaret, Christine Kelly’s gentle hand added to Reno’s identity and transcended the printed page.

John L. Smith is an author and longtime columnist. He was born in Henderson and his family’s Nevada roots go back to 1881. His stories have appeared in Time, Readers Digest, The Daily Beast, Reuters, Ruralite and Desert Companion, among others. He also offers weekly commentary on Nevada Public Radio station KNPR.


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