San Jose children’s bookstore Hicklebee’s has a new owner for the first time since its founding in 1979. As of midnight on October 31, sisters Valerie Lewis and Monica Holmes are handing the reins to Laura Gahrahmat, a newcomer to bookselling. Gahrahmat will serve as owner–manager, supported by 20 experienced staffers, while Lewis and Holmes remain owners of the building.
“It’s time to gracefully step back,” Lewis said. “I’m one of those people who could stay with this bookstore until I’m 103 and they drag me out. But we’ve worked 44 years plus to get the store where it is, and we’ve been in the process of selling for over a year.” She regards Hicklebee’s as “a job well done.”
Lewis and Holmes retained bookstore consultants Donna Paz Kaufman and Mark Kaufman of Paz & Associates to handle their succession planning. Lewis emphasized that they wanted someone to “continue Hicklebee’s, because we as landlords didn’t want somebody to come in and change it to a bar or whatever. We felt we owed it to the community to keep it going, because the community has been really good to us.”
Customers have “been coming in and saying they hope the store will still be here in some capacity,” Holmes said in agreement. “So we knew we had to do it for the community as well as ourselves.”
When they announced their intention to sell last August, more than 80 prospective buyers expressed interest within the first two weeks. They narrowed the field to Gahrahmat, who had recently moved to the Bay Area from New York. “Hicklebee’s is one of the reasons why I moved to this area,” Gahrahmat said. “It was important to me to be close to an independent bookstore and a library,” because of “a passion for books and a passion for small business ownership. I never thought I would have the opportunity to combine those two things.”
Prior to the move, Gahrahmat co-owned Eastern Effects, a motion picture studio and equipment company based in Brooklyn. “A couple of years ago, I made the decision to wind down my interest in that business because I’d moved to California,” she said, leaving her two former partners to own and operate that business. “The Hicklebee’s opportunity came up and is a dream come true.”
Hicklebee’s and Its History
Hicklebee’s is an influential shop with legions of fans across the industry, known for its author events, Beehickle’s book fairs, partnerships and pop-ups, and the Hicklebee’s Book of the Year award. (A hicklebee “is the final metamorphic stage of a bookworm,” Lewis explained, and has long been a favorite Halloween costume for her neighborhood’s trick-or-treaters.)
Lewis co-founded Hicklebee’s in San Jose’s Willow Glen area with three friends, two of whom were teachers who took a year off, only to discover that bookselling was considerably more than a part-time job. “We started with no bookseller experience, and four of us put in $1,000 each” to cover inventory and rent, Lewis said. “I didn’t even know there was a distributor for the first two years. I would call publishers and say, ‘Is this Harper and Row? My name is Valerie, and I have a children’s bookstore.’ I can picture them going, ‘What?’ But that got me in direct communication with the publishing side, because I didn’t know there were other rules that I could have been following.”
In 1982, Lewis coaxed Holmes into joining her as co-owner, and after their third partner moved to Washington State, the two of them were left to steer the shop. Hicklebee’s moved to its current space at 1378 Lincoln Avenue, across from the original location, in 1989.
Together, Lewis and Holmes led the shop through the decades. They established a Saturday farmer’s market, achieving their ulterior motive of bringing in more bookstore customers. They co-founded the Northern California Children’s Booksellers Association in 1984, an organization that merged with the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association in 2012.
Along the way, Lewis and Holmes collected visiting authors’ illustrations and remarks in a sketchbook, which now holds memories of Tomie dePaola, Jerry Pinkney, Donald Carrick, and others. “We’d say, ‘This is your page in our book, and we’re never going to take it out or frame it—it just belongs in here as part of our history,’” Lewis said. “I look at it now and it has no monetary value, but a soulful value, at the personal level of who those authors were.”
The show must go on, and in September, Lewis and Holmes offered Hicklebee’s annual Educators’ Night for local teachers and librarians. “The highlight is the ‘surprise’ authors we do not reveal until the evening program,” Lewis said. “I give a short preview of highlighted fall books and every couple of titles I stop and say, ‘Why should I describe this when the author is right here?’ The author or illustrator emerges from the crowd among hoots, hollers, and much applause.” This year’s guests were Mac Barnett, Sherri Duskey Rinker, Dave Eggers, Chris Harris, Shawn Harris, Mark Parsons, Wendelin Van Draanen, and Susie Yi. And on October 28, Hicklebee’s hosted Jeff Kinney’s “No Brainer” tour for 800 guests at a local school.
Passing the Torch
Gahrahmat takes over as the holiday season is ramping up, and Lewis and Holmes have done all they can to plan events and stock the shelves ahead of these essential few months. “I’m feeling great,” Gahrahmat said. “We didn’t intend the timing to be so close to the end of the year, but the staff is tremendous. It’s a well-oiled machine here.”
“Valerie and Monica have created the magic of the store,” she added. “I feel like I’m the steward for this business and hoping to continue it for the community that adores it and the staff as well.”
For the original owners, this change feels “exciting and scary and stressful and sad,” Holmes admitted. “Our families are so involved in this store, so it’s unbelievable to them that we’re not going to be associated with it anymore.” Lewis noted that one of her granddaughters, now a Berkeley freshman, “came down [one] weekend because she wanted us to go to the store one last time when we owned it.”
Although the pull of nostalgia is strong, Lewis made the point that “when we announced that we were selling, key booksellers contacted us and asked if there was anything they could help us with.” She expressed how important it is for new booksellers to recognize the collegiality among booksellers, describing the “emotional tug at how much support we got from people we don’t necessarily see regularly, but whom we’ve connected with for the years of our store. It’s a business to be in if you want to be around good people.”
The next chapter has begun, and at a fateful time of year. “Halloween seems like the right time for us to step out,” Lewis said. “We can fly off on our broomsticks.”