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Vroman’s Bookstore Chairman Sees The Way Forward Following The Pandemic

Published on Saturday, May 29, 2021 | 6:27 am
Vroman’s Bookstore Chairman Joel Sheldon stands at center between Julia Cowlishaw, CEO, at left, and Head Book Buyer Sherri Gallentine, at right. (Photo by James Macpherson/Pasadena Now)

Back in late September, nearly six months after Gov. Gavin Newsom issued his Stay-At-Home order to help fight the COVID-19 Pandemic, Vroman’s Bookstore, not unlike other large and small booksellers around the country, found itself faced with the possibility of closing.

“Unfortunately with the shutdowns and the restrictions, our sales are down 40%, and we can’t survive with 40% of normal sales,” Joel Sheldon, majority owner and chairman of Vroman’s Bookstore, told ABC7 News at the time.

With Vroman’s being the largest independent bookstore in Southern California, this was a big story, one picked up by all the local TV, print and online news outlets, including Pasadena Now.

But rather than just take the insult of being labeled a “non-essential business” and close up shop, Sheldon fought back, taking to email and social media to beseech the community for help to stay afloat.

“Friends,” the message began, “the past few months have been the most difficult in our company’s 126-year history and Vroman’s needs your help to stay open.”

The message urged customers to shop in store (particularly on less-crowded weekday mornings) and online, and to spread the word about their “local indie.”

To Sheldon’s great relief, it worked.

“We’re doing much better. Sales are rebounding. People are back out on the street and visiting us,” Sheldon said in an interview with Pasadena Now on May 20.

“We certainly want to thank the people in the community for responding to our September and October appeal for people to visit the store going into the fall. And that was overwhelming, actually, and very gratifying,” Sheldon said. “We appreciate the response very, very much.”

Hometown Treasure

Vroman’s Bookstore was founded in 1894 by Adam Clark Vroman. Born in 1856 in La Salle, Illinois, Mr. Vroman moved to Pasadena, California in the late 1800s hoping the weather would improve his wife Esther’s health. Sadly, Esther died two years later, and the brokenhearted Mr. Vroman sold his beloved book collection to raise the capital to open a bookstore. (Image courtesy Vroman’s Bookstore)

Pasadena’s iconic bookstore was first opened in 1894 by Adam Clark Vroman as Vroman’s Book and Photographic Supply store at 60 E. Colorado Street (now Boulevard). Vroman loved books and giving back to the community. He was also a passionate photographer, specializing in scenes of the American West and portraits of Native Americans. When Vroman died in 1916, he left the bookstore to longtime employees, according to the bookstore’s website.

During World War II, Vroman’s donated and delivered books to Japanese Americans interned at nearby camps, returning on several occasions despite being fired upon by camp guards.

The store moved to its current location at 695 E. Colorado Blvd. in 1954, and through the years it has remained an independently owned family business. In 2009, Vroman’s bought Book Soup in West Hollywood, after its owner died and the store was in danger of closing.

Vroman’s is also famous for its world-class author signings and events, the website states. The store hosts over 400 free community events a year (in regular non-pandemic years, that is), including children’s storytimes, trivia nights, craft classes, bake-offs, and special launch parties.

It has hosted many authors, including local talents, but also among them an eclectic mix of celebrities and dignitaries including President Bill Clinton, President Jimmy Carter, Irving Stone, Upton Sinclair, Ray Bradbury, Ginger Rogers, Maurie Wills, Oliver North, David Sedaris, Salman Rushdie, Walter Mosely, Joan Didion, Barbara Walters, Anne Rice, Neil Gaiman, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, and Bernie Sanders.[3]

In 2008, Vroman’s was named Bookseller of the Year by Publishers Weekly, an international news magazine of book publishing.

The Road Ahead

According to the American Booksellers Association (ABA), 35 member bookstores closed during the pandemic, VOX reported in late October, with roughly one store closing each week. Twenty percent of independent bookstores across the country are in danger of closing, according to the ABA.

One of the reasons for Vroman’s success has been its ability to change and adapt, Sheldon said, with the bookstore, along with holding community events, adding a fine stationery component, as well as a coffee bar, a wine bar and a newsstand.

“We were forced in some way to go to the internet, and we’re still trying to adjust to that,” Sheldon said. “We have, I don’t know, 10 times the internet orders that we had before, maybe 20 times. And so we’ve devoted more space and more people and we’re trying to upgrade our interface online. We’re still trying to get our wine bar open, which actually was more of a community gathering space, but those kinds of adjustments you have to make.”

In history’s grand scheme of things, it seems books will always be with us, always be “essential,” not just to satisfy a need to be entertained, but out of necessity to learn new things.

“Books,  I think, have held their own better than most, including the movie business now,” Sheldon said.

Nonetheless, “It’s a challenge to keep up and it’s a challenge to meet the future. But, you know, Vroman’s has hired some good young people. We have some strong people who’ve been with us 20 years and are younger than I am and are able to keep up with some of these things, even in the advertising sense.”

Today, “we do a lot online and Facebook and Twitter. And I don’t quite know how we do it, but we do it. And we still have a loyal customer base. And we’re very thankful for that,” he said.

As for business, “It’s gone up and down,” Sheldon said. “But we can see our way forward.”

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One thought on “Vroman’s Bookstore Chairman Sees The Way Forward Following The Pandemic

  • I am the author of Christmas and Candy Canes . I have also written a 6 book series titled “Grandmothers Bedtime Stories”.
    At the lively age of 92 I still enjoy writing and keeping active with card games at our local seniors club.




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