He’s got a mop of curly gray hair, a big smile and a booming, broadcaster’s voice. He has a thing for time-travel and the macabre and has proclaimed himself “the good guy” when it comes to selling textbooks to the students of EWU. This is Allan Gainer, graduate of Eastern, owner of The Tree of Knowledge bookstore and Mayor of Cheney.
The Tree of Knowledge, bitter rival of EWU’s campus bookstore, sells textbooks, novels and novelties on 1st Street in downtown Cheney.
Gainer, a 1985 EWU graduate with a radio/television degree, started the store in 2004, but says he’s always had an entrepreneurial spirit. It’s a trait that runs in the family. His son is informally in business as a soda salesman at Cheney High School. And his daughter, a senior at CHS, plans to own a business boarding, breeding and training horses. The Gainer family has 10 horses of their own, one of which is a descendent of famed racehorse Seattle Slew. As children, Gainer says he and his brother had paper routes. They strategically designed their routes, working together to boost their earnings.
Gainer also likes to write. H.G. Wells and Edgar Allen Poe are two of his favorite authors, and have inspired some of Gainer’s own work.
“I like the macabre,” he says, “I like twisted things, Twilight Zone stuff.”
Gainer’s one published work, Fire in the Fourth Dimension, is a time-travel science fiction novel set in Spokane. It has sold around 450 copies, he says.
So, with a background in books and business, it’s no surprise that shortly after Gainer’s mother-in-law started First Street Books in Cheney, Gainer found himself in the textbook business. He spent five years as a regional textbook salesman. Then, in July of 2004, he opened The Tree of Knowledge bookstore in the same location his mother-in-law had First Street Books.Gainer’s store is now in a cutthroat price war with EWU’s campus bookstore.
“Eastern has been trying to sabotage us,” Gainer says, “by lowering their prices below what they pay for.” Gainer says this practice is illegal, but says his store has followed suit, losing money on textbooks if that’s what it takes to keep a customer. Gainer says he does have enemies on campus, though he says his overall relationship with EWU is good.
“The guys up at the Eastern bookstore hate me,” he says. “They don’t like me because of the fact that I made them work for a living.”
But neither enemies nor political office can hold Gainer back when it comes to criticizing his competition. “They used to have a kingdom,” he says of the campus bookstore, “and they charged students an outrageous percentage on price of books (and had) very little customer service.”
He says that for a long time students had no choice but to endure being “treated like cattle.”
Gainer employs this same candidness when responding to opponents of his plans as mayor to grow the city of Cheney.
Bringing new business to Cheney was a big part of Gainer’s platform as mayor and part of the reason he ran for office in 2005. He says he knows a lot of “nay-sayers,” people who like Cheney small and don’t want big box stores or large housing developments coming to town. In a gruff voice, he mimics their complaint, “It’s been like this since my grand pappy was here and we ain’t changing! No way! I like it!”
“It drives me up the wall,” Gainer says. He says Cheney needs both big box stores and mom and pop stores for the town to grow, though as a small-business owner himself, he says big box stores “scare me.” He believes the mom and pop shops in town need to adjust their business model to survive.
“We just have to teach ’em, or express to them… that Cheney has certain niches and they can’t really compete against Spokane market. What they ought to do is create a market, for mainly college students, and then the Cheney residents who live here as well, and then the faculty and staff that’s on campus,” Gainer says.
He says his store, now two-and-a-half years old, has survived longer than the “nay-sayers” had predicted and that his experience as a business owner gives him a fresh perspective when it comes to governing the city.
“I wasn’t combed to be in this position… that’s a good thing,” he says. “I see things differently than a lot of people do.I see things as a business. I try to find different ways of dealing with things.”
Gainer also says that growing up as a “navy brat,” living abroad in places like Italy, Japan and Bermuda (where he got his Master’s in Management through Webster University), has broadened his perspective. “Even though I’m from here, I don’t have just Cheney-thinking. I have a collective culture thinking of different parts of the world,” he says.
In the end, though, Gainer says he’s just one of us – a resident of Cheney, and EWU alum who put himself through five years of college flipping burgers at Lenny’s (back when Lenny’s was a burger joint).
“I’m an alumni,” he says, “so I think Eastern is like, the best college in the world, of course.”
He says he’s the voice for students in city government and that he’s “always trying to fight for the students, ’cause they don’t have a voice in government, really, I don’t think,” he says. “And Eastern’s our bread and butter in this town, so I’m going to do whatever I can to protect them.”
He says he keeps in close contact with EWU administration, checking on campus issues. He says he’s saddened by the possible Reid Elementary School closure and that he’s asking Eastern to “find it in their budget to keep funding” the program allowing students to ride Spokane city buses for free – a program the future of which is in jeopardy.
Gainer says his own future is still undetermined. He says he’s not sure if he’ll run for mayor again in 2009. “That’s up in the air…My business is on the rise, and I have some goals in that business,” he says, adding that he wants to expand to a Barnes and Noble-sized store, modeled after stores like Auntie’s in Spokane. It’s a move, which he says won’t go over well on campus.
“I know Eastern bookstore’s not going to like this… I wanted to work with them, but I’m going to grow bigger,” he says. “And I’m going to maintain my customer service the way I have. My prices are still going to be lower than theirs, guaranteed.”