Published : Sunday, November 10, 2019 | 5:14 AM
Vroman’s Bookstore has played a significant role in Pasadena and celebrates its 125th Anniversary on Nov. 9.
It has not been easy for booksellers to survive when in the face of unprecedented technological onslaught. But much of Vroman’s secret ingredient for success seems to build from being the exact opposite of cold tech. Vroman’s lies near the warm heart of the Pasadena community.
Allison Hill, president and CEO of Vroman’s and Book Soup, said the company has never regarded itself as merely a seller of books, but instead a creative center to a vibrant community of customers.
“I came to Vroman’s as a general manager 15 years ago and with a lot of hard work, and ‘right place, right time,’ I had the opportunity to be promoted to COO and then vice president and CEO for the company,” Hill said. “It’s been tremendous to have that kind of growth opportunity.”
Hill oversees the two Vroman’s stores: The main store in Pasadena and the branch in Hastings Ranch; she oversees Book Soup on Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood and two pop-up stores at LAX, and two ecommerce sites.
She was key to helping the company acquire Book Soup in 2009, when the beloved bookstore was on the verge of going out of business following the passing of owner Glenn Goldman.
But there is a fierce independence innate in independent bookstores and the ones that have thrived exhibit a determined will to survive. At Vroman’s, the majority owners are longtime Pasadenans Joel and Jill Sheldon. Joel is a descendent of one of the original employees of Vroman’s. Founder Adam Clark Vroman of Illinois started the famous bookstore in 1894.
“When Mr. Vroman passed away he left the store to employees… the Sheldons were the family that has been the steward of the bookstores,” Hill said.
“There’s a great rich history with Mr. Vroman coming West from illinois because of his wife’s health,” Hill said. “They had a more rigorous journey in 1893. They came here and when his wife passed away he was at crossroads, to go back or stay? He decided to stay and sold his book collection to raise the capital to open a bookstore.”
But, Hill said, Vroman’s is more than a mere bookseller.
“It’s never been just a bookstore,” she said. “He sold books, but also stationery and was a Kodak distributor because he was a well-known photographer and was very involved in that community as well.”
Diversification of Offerings as Critical to Success
Hill said Vroman’s history is an example of the kind of diversification that the business still taps. The store expects to open a wine bar in the next few weeks.
“That speaks to how we survived and what makes us different,” she said. “That flexibility and the variety we offer people and our willingness to continuously reimagine what it is that we’re doing is important. Are we a bookstore, or a community center? Figuring that out led us to opening a wine bar in the next four weeks.”
The 800-square-foot wine bar is yet another service to offer customers. The company got a beer and wine license and will offer some snack food. The new offering is in response to customer requests.
“It’s a whole new era and a great way to celebrate our anniversary,” Hill said. “It was a way to explore other revenue channels. As we were trying to identify how to grow and sustain ourselves we were thinking about people who come here, often for events and they would ask ‘Where can I go get a drink?’ And we realized we kept sending people away. We thought we could double down on us being a community center, they come for the coffee bar, they come to shop. And we play a role in their lives and the wine bar seemed like a natural expansion for us.”
Hill said it’s important today for all retailers to take their offerings one step beyond expectations.
“When I think about the role we play it’s so different than traditional retail,” she said. “I tell staff I think of it as ‘retail that transcends.’ We can put the right book in someone’s hands and it will change their life.”
“We have customers who shop here every single day, 365 days a year,” she said. “And people who come in every week. We are part of people’s patterns of their lives. That makes us different than Target where you pick something up and you leave.”
“I’m moved that people will contact us after someone they love in their life passes away to let us know because they know that person loved Vroman’s and we probably loved them and it’s touching to know that there’s a relationship. That’s really special and we see it reflected in all kinds of ways. I think about people who tell us we represent a special time in their lives. It’s not just retail, it’s a community center and a creative center.
The Creative Role of Independent Book Sellers
“On the creative side, independent bookstores are the greatest places to find inspiration and find like-minded people, or find inspiration to hear authors speak,” she said. “Sometimes you have to get out of your writing cave and talking to people and being stimulated. We offer that to people, it’s something that’s different than an online experience or going to a store. It’s a very special role we play in people’s lives and in the community.
She said a main reason the store is still in business is the support of the people.
“Our community has supported us for 125 years, when honestly we all know, everything I sell they can buy somewhere else for less money,” Hill said. “When you think about that it’s amazing. They value what we offer. We offer a sense of tradition and continuity, something that is rare in today’s society. We still do free gift wrap, we have a passionate team of booksellers who love talking about books.”
“Those are the types of things that clearly the community values. We’ve done a lot of smart things over the years but the community has voted with their support to keep us in business.”
Activities are a big part of the Vroman’s legacy
On November 9, while celebrating its 125th anniversary, Vroman’s will honor crime novelist Walter Mosley with a special presentation at the Vroman’s Walk of Fame. Past recipients have included Michael Connelly, Lisa See, and Los Angeles poet laureate Luis Rodriguez.
Another activity is something that underscores the company’s belief in its longevity: The company is working on a time capsule due to be opened in 50 years. In the time capsule, the company will include bookmarks created by young people, and pennies that come from the company’s new souvenir penny machine.
But it’s the store’s role as the center for community and giving back that can’t be understated, Hill said. Vroman’s has donated close to $800,000.
“There are countless ways we support the community,” she said. “There are so many rich stories and it’s so much a part of our DNA. Mr. Vroman was such a philanthropist. He loaned money to a competitor to start a bookstore. This is who he was. He was generous trying to build community and I think it’s part of the store’s DNA. It’s a special place and I think people value that.”
Speaker panels and discussions also play a part in driving success. Vroman’s launched its discussion series Democracy Wise recently, and facilitates other participant groups.
“These last few years the political climate being what it’s been we’ve really worked to find our place in that and support people and we’ve launched Democracy Wise,” Hill said. “We launched a book club for books on political issues and again we have a bipartisan facilitator so there can be dialogue across party lines. We see our role as connecting people and that role has helped us.”
Building On the Legacy
It’s the continuing legacy that keeps the company going, Hill said.
“It’s funny, I remember watching a special about gold mining, they asked the miner what is the best indicator of gold in an area, and he said ‘The best indicator of gold is gold,’” Hill said. “I feel the same about how have we managed to stay in business so long. The longevity begins to feed on itself.
“When you do someone’s wedding invitations, you do the daughter’s wedding invitations and now the granddaughter’s invitations,” she said. “So some of it is just that it’s in motion and we have become part of people’s lives and it’s passed down.”
But there is strategic business planning in keeping the books.
“Part of it is that 30 percent of our business is non-book,” Hill said. “The non-book products have a better margin, and they’re not dependent on what’s being published in any given month. For instance, President Obama’s memoir was supposed to come out for this Christmas but they moved the publication date to the fall and that was built into my fiscal year.”
Non-book offerings include a range of products and services but everything is focused on the customer’s needs and values.
“The commitment to non-book and having that diversity in our merchandise, the community focus, and the fact that people value our giving back, value our buying local, all of those things, I think people recognize that’s important,” Hill said. “I think our responsiveness when customers steer us in different directions, that’s been important also.”
Hill said it’s the dedication of the employees that is the backbone of the business and it’s a legacy that continues for more than a century.
“We have an extraordinary team of people,” she said. “Vroman’s is a special place that attracts special people. The staff is committed to the cause and devoted to the greater good. I think people here love books, they’re passionate about book selling. The joke is ‘How do you make a small fortune in the book business? Start with a large fortune,’ so they’re not doing it for the money. For people who are here it’s a labor of love. People do other things in order to work here and that’s something I’m moved by. That’s what it requires to keep something going for 125 years. And that is truly extraordinary.”