130-year-old California bookstore seeks buyer

130-year-old California bookstore seeks buyer

Dawn Levesque, 77, goes to learn about the Second World War. Heidi Barnett, 43, mother of two, comes to buy gifts for her children. Justin Beblawi, 25, has been visiting us since he was a child and will now work there as a clerk.

For people of all ages in Pasadena, California, Vroman’s Bookstore, founded in 1894, is a mainstay, a meeting place, a reliable sanctuary in a rapidly changing world. When its founder, Adam Clark Vroman, died in 1916, he left the bookstore to his godson, Alan Sheldon, an employee of Vroman.

The current president and majority shareholder, Joel Sheldon III, 79, is the third generation of his family to run the company and has been at the helm of the company for more than 45 years.

Now, as Vroman’s prepares to celebrate its 130th anniversary, Sheldon decided it was time to pass the baton.

But he doesn’t just want to sell to the highest bidder. Sheldon wants to leave the bookstore in good hands.

“Vroman’s deserves a new owner with the vision, energy and commitment to carry it well into the future,” Sheldon said in a statement. Instagram post announcing its decision last month.

He continued: “We will take the time necessary to find the right new owner – someone who shares our core values ​​and is committed to preserving Vroman as a community treasure. »

Over the years, the bookstore has hosted authors including Upton Sinclair, Ray Bradbury, Ginger Rogers, Joan Didion, Hillary Clinton and Justice Sonia Sotomayor. In 2008 he was appointed Bookseller of the year by Publishers Weekly.

“We have generations of customers,” said Sherri Gallentine, who started working as a clerk at Vroman’s in 1992 and became book purchasing manager in 2010. “We have people who come up and say, ‘I came here when I was a child with my grandparents, and now I bring my children here.»

The store is a place of pride for Pasadena residents, said Philip Hawkey, former city manager. “Vroman reflects a lot of Pasadena’s civic identity,” he said.

Renowned as the largest independent bookstore in Southern California, the store has two locations in Pasadena, two stores at LAX Airport, and an e-commerce site. Its main Pasadena location on Colorado Boulevard also has a coffee shop, wine bar, and ample space for reading books. In 2009, Vroman’s purchased the independent bookstore Book Soup in West Hollywood, after its owner died and the store was in danger of closing.

Stores strive to curate their selection, with sections like “California and the West” and “Black Lives,” and prioritize customer service. Often, one of its 150 employees guides customers to the shelves to help them find the books they are looking for.

This personal touch has helped Vroman’s survive competition from big box stores and online retailers.

“We have people to help you pick out gifts for the family or just something nice for yourself,” Gallentine said. “We try to create a connection with our customers.”

In an interview, Sheldon said he was confident the right steward for Vroman’s was out there somewhere: “We’re very confident we can find someone.”

Vroman’s loyal customers, however, fear that the bookstore will change or, even worse, that it will not find a buyer and will have to close. “Everyone talks about it,” Barnett said.

On a recent weekday morning, Barnett was browsing the children’s section upstairs with her daughter Liza, who had just turned 8 and was trying to spend her birthday money (her mother was trying to steer her toward books and to keep him away from a stuffed rabbit). .

“Reading is so important to our family,” Barnett said, and “by bringing them here, I’m instilling that love of books.”

Nearly 40 percent of Vroman’s business comes from merchandise other than books, including gifts, kitchenware, greeting cards and stationery. It would be nice if a new owner chose to read more in that direction, Sheldon said: “Adaptability and resilience have allowed a good owner to run a great bookstore. »

Katie Wengert, visiting Vroman from Philadelphia recently, had her arms full of gifts, including a novel (“The Idiot” by Elif Batuman), gifts for her boyfriend who is celebrating his 40th birthday and a card from birthday for his sister. place.

“It’s everything you want a bookstore to be,” she said. “It doesn’t really exist anymore.»

Locals have reason to be optimistic that someone will carry on the Vroman tradition. The bookstore struggled during the pandemic lockdown and the community rallied in response to Sheldon’s call for support on social media.

“We have certainly been through wars and global depressions,” Sheldon said. “Thanks to our customer base and our hard-working employees and friends, we succeeded and came out the other side. »

On a recent visit, Lévesque, a regular customer, ordered a book on collecting leftovers, purchased a planner (at 50 percent off) and browsed the travel and history sections.

Her three children always give her gift cards to the store, she said. They also know his final wish.

“I already told them, when I died, to cremate me and spread my ashes in the Vroman bookstore,” she said. “Just a little here and there, because that’s where I want to end up.”

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David B.Otero

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