Centenarian Booksellers II
John High -- 8/14/00
Our roundup of bookstores that have
survived and thrived for more than 100 years continues
Last week we profiled seven of 14 bookstores opened for at least 100 years that were honored at this year's BEA.
While of disparate origins, the 14 booksellers have taken paths revealing common strategies and an uncanny ability to change with the times without losing their original color.
Wilkie Books in Dayton, Ohio, for instance, began in 1894 by selling magazines, newspapers, candy and tobacco. It now carries more than 12,500 general book titles--along with puzzles, stuffed animals, legal forms and office supplies.
Carl Sch nhof, a German emigre to Boston, began his humble trade importing works by G the and Schiller to a small bookstore in 1856. Sch nhof's Foreign Bookstore now carries books in 400 languages and boasts of such former customers as William and Henry James, T.S. Eliot and Edmund Wilson.
Each store is a historical--and in most cases literary--landmark in its region. Here is a look at the seven remaining bookstores: who runs them today and their secrets to longevity.
This week, we meet seven bookstores:
VROMAN'S BOOKSTORE, 1894Pasadena, Calif., (800) 769-BOOKS
Adam Clark Vroman opened Southern California's oldest and largest independent bookstore in 1894, and it has been a landmark literary venue in the region ever since.
|J l Sheldon is the third generation|
of Sheldons to own Vroman's.
The store has never been afraid of controversy. When Howard Stern did a signing for Private Parts, 7,000 people showed up and the store got national coverage on TV and in print. But that hardly rivals Langston Hughes's visit in November 1940. When 500 fans came to the event, another 100 angry evangelists (led by Aimee Semple McPherson) arrived to protest the gay, black p t. Hughes ended up slipping out the back door.
The 32,000-sq.-ft. store is owned by J l Sheldon, the third generation of Sheldons to run the bookstore. It has been at its current location for more than 45 years and stocks more than 130,000 titles.
In 1999, the Vroman's Museum Collection (which sells books and art-related gift items) opened just a few blocks from the main store, nearly doubling its space and making more room for the main store's children's department and the Zeli Coffee Bar, which it leases to Diane and Elaine Bissius. Along with books, Vroman's features gifts, greeting cards, office supplies and stationery. According to Sheldon, the nonbook inventory has always made up 30%-40% of the store's sale volume.
UNIVERSITY BOOK STORE, 1885Ames, Iowa, (800) 433-3451
The University Book Store was established around 1885--no one seems to know the exact year. Owned and operated by Iowa State University, it has a selling floor of 12,000 square feet and stocks more than 25,000 titles. According to general manager Joyce O'Donnell, business is good. "We're anticipating the largest overall sales ever this year."
|University Book Store is enjoying|
its best sales this year.
The University Book Store began in a small room in Beardshear Hall. In 1892, the Hub was completed to satisfy the need for a new bookstore, post office and waiting room for the Ames-to-campus steam motor line. The bookstore continued its counter-service operation for 66 years. In 1958, it moved to the Memorial Union where the store expanded facilities, became self serve and added new services. The Book Store quickly doubled its space, and in 1992, receiving and storage functions moved off-site, allowing for expansion and remodeling.
Besides its text business, University Book Store thrives off its community involvement. The store sponsors lectures, hosts author signings, has regular Story Time events for children.
"We're also updating our offerings on the Web," said O'Donnell. "And we have entered into partnership with Gear for Sport to develop a concept shop for our insignia department.
WILKIE'S BOOKSTORE, 1894Dayton, Ohio, (937) 223-2541
Wilkie News opened in 1894 when Julius Wilkie began trading in magazines, newspapers, candy and tobacco. The original wooden cart Wilkie used to haul newspapers from the train station and the old safe are both still in use inside the store. "We also inherited a not-so-old cat named Emma who came to live with us when we bought the store," said new owner Jim Latham, who bought the store from United Magazine Company last year. The store carries books, magazines and newspapers along with sidelines like puzzles, stuffed animals, legal forms and office supplies.
According to Latham, the couple is continuing to expand the store's book inventory. "We currently have more than 12,000 titles and are expanding in the areas of African-American interests, general fiction and children's books." With 3,000 square feet of floor space, the store has architectural plans for a small cafe as well, Latham said.
With a new minor league baseball team and riverfront development, and a performing arts center in the works, Dayton is undergoing a renewal. "Our business is developing as downtown re-invents itself," said Latham. "It's all going to help us tremendously."
SCH NHOF'S FOREIGN BOOKSTORE, 1856Cambridge, Mass., (617) 547-8855
Carl Sch nhof, a German immigrant, began importing literature in 1856 and filled the shelves of his new store with the works of G the, the Brothers Grimm, Lessing and Schiller. In the years following the American Civil War, French classics were added as the literati in Boston and Cambridge grew in number. Today, the store carries close to 60,000 titles in 400 languages.
|Sch nhof's carries books|
in 400 languages.
According to Dan Cianfarini, marketing director, Sch nhof's moved from Boston to Cambridge's Harvard Square in 1940. In 1981, it was purchased by Editions Gallimard, Paris.
The 3,000-sq.-ft. store's specialties include language-learning material, though it also stocks fiction, nonfiction and children's books. It serves as a textbook store for language courses through-out Boston and d s special orders for titles from more than 50 countries. "We also serve as a wholesale distributor to schools, universities, bookstores and libraries," Cianfarini told PW. The reference section alone contains 9,000 titles.
Sch nhof's has been frequented by well-known writers, and today Carlos Fuentes and Marguerite Yourcenar, among others, browse the shelves.
The store offers free subscriptions to its quarterly New Arrivals, a periodical that alerts librarians to the noteworthy fiction and nonfiction in such languages as French, German, Spanish and Italian.
BURKE'S BOOK STORE, 1875Memphis, Tenn., (800) 581-5156
Since there are no written documents for when the store opened in the days following the Civil War, Burke's Bookstore dates itself by the old clock that still hangs in the store--1875. (It still has the store's original cash register as well, embossed with Walter Burke's name.)
|Burke's is one of just five stores|
where John Grisham holds signings.
Originally, when the store opened onto an alley, Burke's customers would play cards out front. For 75 years the family sold newspapers, slates and tin toys--and all of the textbooks for the city schools.
Today, it is Memphis's only store specializing in old and rare books.
For the past few years, Burke's has again been building up its textbook business, carrying the city and county's required texts for grades k-8 and supplying two private high schools with all of their textbooks.
The store celebrated its 125th anniversary this year--and new owners Corey and Cheryl Mesler celebrated their purchase of the store in May.
The Burke family owned and operated the shop for three generations. It was bought by Diana Crump in 1976 and by Harriette and Fred Beeson in 1984. The Beesons gave the Meslers first option to buy the store when they decided to retire.
Corey Messler had managed Burke's for 12 years, and met his wife, Cheryl, at the store when she bought a book of p ms by Leonard Cohen.
The 3,000-sq.-ft. store with 30,000 titles has been selling first editions, broadsides and signed books online for five years; according to employee Laura Helper, "Behemoths like Amazon.com buy from us, thank you."
Helper also noted that Burke's is one of five stores nationally that John Grisham "honors with signings, in recognition of our support when he was unknown."
MORAVIAN BOOK SHOP, 1745Bethlehem, Penn., (610) 866-5481
Moravian Book Shop is widely believed to be the longest-operating bookstore in the nation--and perhaps the world. In April, USA Today reported the closing of the "world's oldest bookstore," John Smith & Son, founded in Scotland in 1751.
|Moravian is the oldest operating|
bookstore in the country.
"D sn't that make us the oldest?" said Deborah Delgrosso, Moravian's general manager.
Moravian Book Shop has been owned by the Northern Province of the Moravian Church since its founding over 250 years ago. "But the store maintains its independence," Delgrosso told PW. She also said the book shop has also expanded beyond its traditional book trade to focus more on "our large children's book department as well as gifts, cards, Bethlehem merchandise, gourmet foods--and a deli."
With its 2,000-sq.-ft expansion in March, the shop, with its four contiguous buildings, occupies almost 14,000 square feet and carries an inventory of between 10,000 and 15,000 titles in fiction, religion, children and general books.
"We saw a downward trend in business when a chain opened nearby, so two years ago we decided to enlarge our gift and children's department," said Delgrosso. "Since then, we have had a marked increase in sales."
Delgrosso, like all of the booksellers among the centenarians, attributes the store's success to its friendly and knowledgeable staff and to its ability to change and adapt to the evolving needs of the community.
CONKEY'S BOOK STORE, 1896Appleton, Wis., (800) 279-4623
Founded in 1896 by P.M. Conkey, Conkey's is Wisconsin's oldest independent bookstore. Located in Appleton's historic downtown, the store has received local, state and national awards attesting to its excellence as a full-service bookstore. The store was renovated to its original red brick face and front awning in 1986. Further renovations in the early 1990s not only made room for the gift shop's expansion, but also allowed the addition of a gourmet coffee bar, Between the Pages. Though always located in Appleton, the store has moved three times, according to John Zimmerman, who bought the store with his wife, JoAnn, in 1979.
|Renovations allowed Conkey's to|
expand and keep its Old World feel.
Conkey's carries more than 100,000 titles in its 7,000-sq.-ft. space and supplies text books to nearby Lawrence University and other area educational institutions.
There are p try readings in the coffee shop on the first and third Tuesday of each month, as well as live music played every Thursday night. Each month, Conkey's features a wall exhibit of works by local artists.
"We've got that Old World look, and we nurture it," said buyer Mary K. Smith. Part of that atmosphere is due to its working fireplace and the store's original oak ladders, which slide along the walls. The staff includes 60 full-time and part-time employees.
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