If a bookstore takes the name of the city in which it resides, it had better reflect the values and character of its hometown. This is certainly the case for the Boulder Book Store, PW’s 2018 Bookstore of the Year, which has been a downtown anchor of Boulder, Colo., for 45 years.
Walking into the store from the main entrance on Pearl Street, customers are immediately faced with a cart of bestselling remainders and, a few more steps in, they are presented with seven full cases of titles recommended by staff. Just across the aisle is a case of cannabis-based herbal remedies. “I’m honestly not sure what these things do,” says Arsen Kashkashian, the lead buyer and general manager for the store, pointing to the case. “But I do know that some of these items cost $100 or more.”
Kashkashian’s customers know exactly what the herbs do: one of the bestselling titles in the store last year was Cannabinoids and the Brain, a scientific study by Linda A. Parker published by MIT Press. “We have sold more than 150 copies of it since it was published,” says Kashkashian, who has placed the book front and center among recommended titles.
Other details of the 20,000-sq.-ft. store, which is in a building built during the 1880s, speak to Boulder’s free spirit. The basement houses—alongside cookbooks, nonfiction, and travel titles—the official bookstore of Naropa University, the Buddhist-inspired and nonsectarian school. The second floor offers for sale a colorful array of meditation poufs (“nonreturnable” once sat on). The third floor “Ballroom,” which is home to fiction, poetry, and art, and serves as the store’s event space, is lined with a dozen statues of the Buddha and photographs of great Buddhist lamas, such as Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche.
“The Ballroom was at one point the performing arts space for Naropa, and Allen Ginsberg, Ram Dass, and William Burroughs all performed here,” says store owner David Bolduc from his office overlooking the Ballroom. “I studied with Rinpoche, who was one of the first authors we published at Shambhala Press [where Bolduc serves on the board of directors], and Buddhism has been a huge influence on my life and on the store.”
Bolduc was born in Michigan and attended UCLA before dropping out to participate in the anti–Vietnam War movement. In 1969, he and some friends opened Together Books, a co-op bookstore in Denver. In 1972, he left that store to open Backcountry Books, which a year later was renamed Boulder Book Store. “I never graduated from college, but this bookstore has provided me with a wonderful education,” Bolduc says.
Now 72, Bolduc has largely ceded day-to-day management of operations to Kashkashian, who has been at the store since 1992. “David may appear laid back, but the reason this store is still in business is because David is also a very, very good businessman,” Kashkashian says. Bolduc was, for example, the founder of what many believe was the first “buy local” organization in any U.S. city.
Kashkashian also credits Bolduc with being pragmatic: the store didn’t chase trends or fads but was quick to implement innovative business practices. “We didn’t, for example, get heavily into e-commerce or e-books,” he says, “but when Edelweiss came along, we were literally the first store in the country to place an order on the system.”
As a buyer, Kashkashian says he was able to make his mark on the store by steering it into stocking more literature, something that is apparent in the almost endless shelves of fiction—new, used, and remaindered—on nearly every level of the store. The inventory mix is about 65% new books, along with 16% used and remaindered, with the rest being nonbook sidelines. There are more than 100,000 items for sale in the store.
Kashkashian has also implemented consignment deals with publishers, an idea he adopted from Mitchell Kaplan, owner of Books & Books in Miami, whom he got to know through the Independent Bookstore Consortium (both stores are members). “We started our consignment business with Sounds True, a local audiobook publisher, but have since expanded it to Chelsea Green, Shambhala, Inner Traditions, and others,” Kashkashian says.
Boulder Book Store was also among the first in the country to start charging for events—a move that landed it on the front page of the New York Times. “In 2011, we started asking customers to pay $5 to attend an event, and they would then be able to get $5 off the author’s featured book or a purchase in the store on the day of the event,” Kashkashian says. “At first attendance fell off, but now we find that 80% to 90% of the audience buy the author’s book at the event.”
Sometimes, this can translate into serious money, such as when Pete Souza came to Boulder in January for a presentation to support his book Obama: An Intimate Portrait. “It was the only event he was doing in Colorado,” says Stephanie Schindhelm, marketing and promotions manager for the store. The appearance was so popular “we had to move it to increasingly bigger venues,” she adds. “Eventually, it landed in the Boulder Theater, which seats 850 people, and was sold out.”
The surrounding community has been very supportive of the store. Over two days that this reporter spent in the city in April, nearly everyone I spoke to gushed their appreciation for it. In return, the store has been supportive of the community, helping to sponsor a range of events, from the U.S. edition of the Zee Jaipur Literature Festival (which brings together authors with leaders in a range of areas to champion free speech) to school book fairs, a recent project that has also proven financially fruitful.
Though there’s a Barnes & Noble just a mile and a half down Pearl Street from Boulder Book Store (and a Borders store was once equally close), there are enough book buyers to go around for both. “I hear that B&N is one of the more successful in the country,” says Kashkashian.
Some of both booksellers’ success is the result of the town’s highly educated population. “We have more PhDs per capita than any other city in the country,” Bolduc says. “We have some of the country’s smartest scientists, at places like Ball Aerospace and the National Center for Atmospheric Research, and there are 40,000 students at the University of Colorado, which has fostered a big start-up scene.”
The educated and eclectic nature of Boulder actually makes bookselling in the city especially rewarding. “I think it is very helpful to be in a town with such a distinctive personality,” Kashkashian says. “It makes it much easier for me as a buyer in some ways. And the size of the store means that we have been able to do things other stores cannot do.”
Today, the Boulder Book Store rings up between $4 million and $5 million in total sales annually.
Looking ahead, Bolduc says he may not be a daily presence on site, but he also has no plans to retire. “My role these days is maintenance man,” he says with characteristic humility. “I am a tinkerer and keep things in this old building from falling apart. I’m kind of obsessed with McGuckin Hardware [a legendary local independent hardware store] and am in there at least three times a week.”
Bolduc is also traveling more. His wife is from Brazil and a recent visit to the country made a strong impression. “They have amazing bookstores there, real temples full of books; it’s hard not to be a little jealous,” he says.