Erica Merrell opened an envelope and found a blessing.
Inside, she found a letter explaining that a young man had won an award, which came in the form of the envelope’s second item: a check for $250 made out to her bookstore.
Wild Iris, the feminist bookstore Merrell co-owns with Santa Fe College professor Cheryl Calhoun, needed the money and attention. About $20,000 of debt for an abandoned cafe and increased rent payments could soon force the store out of its colorful shell at 802 W. University Ave.
But the award winner, Keegan Hones, is improving the situation. About a year ago, he noticed a writing contest on James Patterson’s Facebook page.
The 18-year-old biology freshman at UF was a high school senior when he submitted an essay about Tim Tebow’s book “Through My Eyes,” and it earned him a third place award.
The prizes ranged from $250 to $1,000. Last year, the American Booksellers Association awarded 235 prizes in all, said content officer Dan Cullen.
He said the program really reflects Patterson’s convictions to literacy, especially in kids.
“It gives kids the opportunity to go into their local bookseller to browse and discover and make purchases of their own,” Cullen said.
Hones’ winnings could be used at any store associated with IndieBound, a nonprofit organization that links authors and booksellers with independent shops and local businesses.
He chose Wild Iris.
Hones now has a line of credit that will let him spend the $250 on anything from textbooks to bumper stickers.
The money comes at a good time.
Merrell said Wild Iris’ financial situation forces it to seek out a cheaper location. It’s gotten to the point that the co-owners have opened a donation drive.
“It’s going to help us find a new space and pay off some of the debt the store has accumulated,” Merrell said. “We just need some help.”
She said it’s rough for independent stores to compete with retailers like Amazon.com, but she stays hopeful with the support of the community — including people like Hones.
“It’s cool to help out a locally owned store because they just get overlooked so much,” he said.
Wild Iris, a feminist bookstore, located at 802 W. University Ave., is searching for a location closer to downtown after facing financial hardships and rising rent costs.