Few businesses can ever be said to represent the soul of a community, but if any in Pasadena could come close, it would be Vroman’s Bookstore.
The venerable Colorado Boulevard shop will quietly celebrate its 126th birthday Monday, with a history of passionate customer loyalty and a reputation as a literary oasis and destination, as well as a good neighbor.
As shops throughout Pasadena confronted the Coronavirus pandemic and some businesses permanently shuttered, in late September Vroman’s found itself facing its own possible demise.
Vroman’s chairman Joel Sheldon unabashedly reached out to the bookstore’s community of loyal customers and the region at large with a widespread appeal for support.
The response was swift and dramatic, Sheldon said last week.
“To be honest,” he said, “it’s been overwhelming, a tremendous response from the community, to where sales are well ahead of last year. It’s more than we expected.”
The store averaged about 300 orders per day in the weeks after the appeal, some days topping 1,000 orders, according to a statement on Vroman’s website.
Sheldon continued, “We hoped it would be truly successful. But this is really very special.”
So special, he said, the store is now having a difficult time processing and shipping the increased number of online orders.
“We got overwhelmed online,” Sheldon said. “We’re having to hire additional staff and bring people in at night.”
The store is now using additional vacant space next door to more efficiently process online orders, he said.
“We hope to catch up and improve the online aspect of our business going forward,” said Sheldon.
Which brings up the future. Despite the increase in sales, said Sheldon, he is still unsure of the coming economic landscape and what will happen to Vroman’s.
As he explained, cautiously, “I think we have to see how the consumer shakes out. I think making straight-line projections at any time is difficult, and this will not be a straight line projection going forward, in terms of online, or in-store, or anything.”
“You have to adjust, and then monitor the situation, and then adjust again, and then monitor. It’s a continuing process. But online is going to be a bigger part of our experience.”
Which would hold true for any business, but Vroman’s does occupy a special part of Pasadena’s psyche, literary and otherwise. Long a destination shopping experience, its loss to Pasadena would be palpable. The store had also opened a wine bar in 2019, whose future is still undetermined.
Ironically, smaller, independent bookstores were actually experiencing a strong revival before the pandemic changed everything.
Former Vroman’s president and CEO Allison Hill told Pasadena Now in 2019 before last year’s birthday celebration, “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 be talking to people and being stimulated. We offer that to people, it’s something that’s different from an online experience, or going to a store. It’s a very special role we play in people’s lives and in the community.”
Added Hill, “Our community has supported us for 125 years, when honestly we all know, everything we sell they can buy somewhere else for less money,”
“When you think about that it’s amazing, Hill continued. “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, and we have a passionate team of booksellers who love talking about books.”
According to their website, the store was founded in 1894 by Adam Clark Vroman, who moved to Pasadena, California in the late 1800s hoping the weather would improve his wife Esther’s health. When Esther died two years later, Vroman ironically sold his own book collection to open a bookstore.
Vroman loved giving back to his community, working to help rescue some of the old Franciscan missions from decay, and helping to establish the Southwest Museum (now part of the Autry Museum).
Vroman was also a great supporter of the Pasadena Public Library.
A popular Vroman story is that he once loaned money to a competitor, helping him establish credit with vendors so that the man could start his own bookstore.
Mr. Vroman was also a passionate photographer, who noted photographer Ansel Adams once called one of his influences. Vroman’s work hangs in both the Huntington and the Southwest Museums.
When Mr. Vroman died in 1916, he left the bookstore to longtime employees, one of whom was the great grandfather of the current owner.
His personal legacy of philanthropy still continues. Throughout the years, the store has supported a variety of causes and institutions through food drives, holiday gift drives, free HIV testing, bone marrow donor match drives, pet adoption days, mentoring and support for local girl scout troops, donations for charity raffles, school book fairs, and the Vroman’s Gives Back program.
“Those are the types of things that clearly the community values,” said Hill. “Vroman’s has done a lot of smart things over the years, but the community has voted with their support to keep us in business.”