Vroman’s, Pasadena’s legendary bookstore, celebrates its 126th anniversary this year and times couldn’t be more challenging. After withstanding the Great Depression, two world wars, and over a century of ups and downs, the business is faced with new challenges amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Some small businesses were unable to obtain coronavirus relief loans that largely ended up going to corporations, forcing many into permanent closure. Vroman’s has been hit hard by the consequences of the pandemic, and the threat of closing down for good has become more and more real.
Founded by Adam Clark Vroman in 1894, the store is still the oldest and largest independent bookstore in Southern California. Mr Vroman enjoyed books and giving back to the community. When he died in 1916, he left the bookstore to his longtime employees. The current owner is the great-grandchild of one of those employees.
“We just completed the last year, and maybe the last three or four years among the best in our financial history, so this has been a real blow,” Joel Sheldon, the store’s majority owner, said. “Obviously, like everybody else, we did not anticipate anywhere near this environment.”
The store is encouraging customers to shop online, in-store or by phone, and to go in before the holidays. Vroman’s is also asking locals to spread the word that they need as much support as possible.
“You stay in business for 126 years, you’re going to have some ups and downs,” said Sheldon. “We went through the 1918 flu epidemic, a depression, a world war, all kinds of things before my time. My experience [with the store] has also been up and down. The retail store has generally always been very consistent, and successful.”
Vroman’s is an independently owned family business with two main locations, one on Colorado Blvd, and Vroman’s Hastings Ranch on Foothill Blvd. In 2009, Vroman’s bought ‘Book Soup’ in West Hollywood, another independent bookstore. For some, the store holds an important place in Southern California’s history.
“I have lived in South Pasadena for almost 20 years, and Vroman’s has been a refuge through all of those years, a second home in a way,” long time customer Tom Benton said. “When Covid hit, there were many things that I missed, but nothing more than being in a bookstore, especially Vroman’s. We ordered books through the graduation season with curbside pickup, but it wasn’t the same. As soon as the store opened for customers again, I didn’t wait long to visit because I needed to see familiar faces, even masked, and savor the feel of the bookstore.”
Vroman’s Instagram page features an open invitation to shop on weekday mornings, instead of busy weekends or afternoons and encourages customers to do their shopping early, before the holidays. The post suggests shopping online with curbside pickup. They’re open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., but Vroman’s online store is open 24/7. They ask that customers call in to place an order or to have it shipped, and return to shop at Vroman’s with their new health and safety measures in place.
Vroman’s emphasizes the importance of spreading awareness through word of mouth and social media. According to Sheldon, they’ve always been aggressive in advertising from the cut and paste newspaper ads in the past, to the present online shift.
“I can’t tell you how many emails we send out a month, we do have a customer newsletter, and an in-house newsletter, all online. We are on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, we reach out to social media on a daily basis,” said Sheldon.
Many of their customers and Facebook followers support the bookstore online with messages of encouragement and scheduled visits, whether it’s a curb pick up, or standing in line between 30-45 minutes to be able to go in the store.
“I was a Vendor for greeting cards there for many years. Always loved shopping after I was finished working,” Jan Patten wrote in a Facebook post on Oct 3rd. “So much more than just books. I will continue to support Vroman’s even though I’m now retired.”
Other customers share information, help spread awareness, and encourage people to buy through their comments on Facebook.
“If you know what book you want, ordering ahead and doing curbside, which happens in the parking lot, is so quick and easy,” Christina Honchell wrote.
The pandemic has put the days of book signings and community events such as trivia nights, craft classes, and special launch parties on hold.
In the past, the bookstore also hosted authors as President Bill Clinton, President Jimmy Carter, Irving Stone, Upton Sinclair, Ray Bradbury, Anne Rice, David Sedaris, Walter Mosely, Barbara Walters, Salman Rushdie, Joan Didion, Neil Gaiman, and Justice Sonia Sotomayor. Now, the reading series continues virtually, while artists and writers join the meetings on Crowdcast to present their new books.
“Because I work for a publishing company, I am aware of the plight of small businesses during this time, especially independent bookstores, and I think it is so important to let the community know when the business needs support,” said Benton. “It has been thrilling to see the love on social media from authors, from many of my neighbors. We know how much Vroman’s means to our community. The first thing I did was preorder Barack Obama’s A Promised Land, and I am already planning my next visit to the store.”
Over the years, the store has supported a variety of causes and institutions through food drives, holiday gift drives, pet adoption days, school book fairs, mentoring and support for local girl scout troops, donations for charity raffles, and the Vroman’s Gives Back program, which is a charitable program that donates a portion of customers’ purchases to local nonprofits.
Vroman’s wine bar had just opened when the coronavirus shutdown came. Between the coronavirus and the competition with Amazon, the store sales have had some serious challenges lately.
According to Sheldon, even though it’s been up and down, the overall pattern of the store sales has been very successful for a very long time: they were also in wholesaling, they had a schoolbook depository, and they were actually a computer service bureau from about 1968 to 1980.
In 2008, Vroman’s received the Publishers Weekly Bookseller of the Year award. The bookstore has also been recognized throughout the years for the excellent customer service, extraordinary staff, their extensive book inventory, and their wide range of gifts, from stationery, cards, and fine writing instruments to jewelry, handmade gifts, candles, purses, scarves, and more.
Vroman’s is getting by thanks to their online presence and their customers’ support.
“We’re getting a lot of orders for books, and our gifts products have improved, as well.” Said Sheldon. “We’re getting as high as ten times the orders that we got prior to our appeal to the community.”
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