On Aug. 24, Helen Spencer Schlie celebrated her 90th birthday doing the things she loves most — working a full day at the Old and Rare Bookstore she owns in Mesa, and spending time with family and friends that evening.
Yes, Schlie still works as a bookstore owner, where people come to browse and visit, as well as to buy. In fact, Schlie is known as somewhat of an icon for her ready smile, her listening ear, her tidbits of knowledge, as well as her champion networking skills for bringing people together.
Herself a published poet, music lover, painter, art hosting countless book signings in her store. She can readily recite one of her poems to lift someone’s spirits or teach a lesson.
Still, at 90, Schlie packs every minute full, she is quick to claim, “I’m not done yet.
“I feel I want to accomplish more, to wrap up everything I’ve been dreaming of doing.”
Born in Dearford, Mich., 35 miles from Lake Huron, Schlie was the oldest in a family of six girls and one boy. As a young girl, because her mother was not well, Schlie went to live on the family farm with her grandparents and her Aunt Belle. She remembers well the early mornings when her grandparents left the house to do the chores.
“They wouldn’t let me stay in the house with the kerosene lamps, so I went out with grandpa into the barn to milk the cows,” Schlie said. “I remember sitting next to him on a little stool, and when he was done with one cow, I’d move my stool to the next.”
Schlie, who started school the year after Charles Lindbergh’s famous transatlantic flight, said she learned early on to love education.
“We had a two-room school, with five grades in the same room. It was a wonderful system as we got to hear all five levels of each subject,” she said.
Music also became an important part of her life. All through junior high and high school, she played the piano and clarinet and sang in the school chorus and various church choirs.
At 17, three months after graduating from high school, she married Alvin Wagner; and they had a daughter, Alnita, born in 1941. Their marriage ended in divorce shortly after — at a time when World War II, had already altered the way of life across the nation.
“Everything was rationed — shoes, shortening, tires, everything,” Schlie said.
Wartime also meant many women went to work. Schlie started at National Twist Drill and Tool, and, later, worked in Pontiac, Mich., at the General Motors plant, inspecting Army trucks as they came off the assembly line. After the War, she tried her hand at opening her own business, first with a cotton sheen clothing store.
“Rationing was still going on and people couldn’t even by a dozen diapers, so their commercial coupons were not being used to buy fancy clothes,” Schlie said.
Her next venture — a bakery — was more successful until, “I just couldn’t get up at 2:30 in the morning to bake 96 loaves of bread at a time anymore.”
She next opened a millinery shop, then, later, went to work doing the window decorations and marketing for J.C. Penny Company in Pontiac.
In 1955, she married Walt Schlie, a World War I veteran she met years before when they both worked at National Twist Drill and Tool.
“Walt was a wonderful man. He loved to dance, and he was a wonderful stepfather to Alnita,” she said.
In 1961, Schlie’s life took another turn as she joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a move she said has changed and directed her ever since.
She took to the Church after a trip to Salt Lake City and a visit to the Mormon’s Temple Square, where, she said, “I got answers to all the questions I’d had for so many years.”
In 1962, Walt retired and the couple traveled across the country and up the west coast before ending up in Mesa.
Though the couple opened an LDS bookstore near the Temple in Mesa, it would be five years later before Walt joined the LDS Church. They ran the bookstore together until 1990, when Walt’s health and an employee’s embezzlement of funds forced them to close the store.
Schlie says it was through what she now considers an act of providence that they came into an original copy of the Book of Mormon. “Published in 1830, this is a book that we as Mormons consider another testament that Jesus Christ lives,” she said.
That particular volume soon began writing history of its own, Schlie said.
Initially, the Schlies made the book available for patrons at the bookstore to hold and to read from. “Hundreds have touched it and even had their pictures taken with it,” Schlie said.
Years later, after learning that, because of the shape the book was in, the LDS Church wasn’t interested in having the book donated to them, Helen hit upon the idea of selling individual pages, mounted on a wooden stand, between museum-quality glass.
“The book had already done so much good and here was one more way to build testimonies and to share it,” she said.
This project also allowed her to support the missionary work of the LDS Church, an effort she holds dear to her heart.
Last year, this same volume that had touched many lives captured national news when it was stolen from Helen’s Old and Rare Bookstore — which she opened two years ago in the same spot where the bookstore she and Walt owned was located. Nine months after it was taken, the book was recovered, and a trial is still underway.
Helen plans to continue to pursue her dreams, including an ice cream business that would provide additional missionary funds, a line of jewelry she has designed and another book of poetry. She particularly wants to continue sharing her Book of Mormon pages, now framed with apple wood she obtained from the farm where Joseph Smith, the founder of the LDS Church, was raised.
Most of all, she will continue to “enjoy the people in my life,” she said. “People are so wonderful. Life is so wonderful. I just love every minute of it.”
Schlie’s shop, Rare and Out Of Print Books and Art, is located at 121 S. Mesa Drive. It can be reached by calling (480) 471-8998.