It's 9:30 a.m. on a Monday morning in April, and Olive Kemp is shopping at Vroman's Bookstore—PW's Bookseller of the Year—just as she has done nearly every day since she was a little girl. “She's such a regular that on her 90th birthday, we bought her a cake,” says Vroman's COO and president, Allison Hill, during a tour of the store.
At 90, Kemp is just 24 years younger than Vroman's, which was founded on November 14, 1894, by Adam Clark Vroman, five blocks from its current location on Colorado Boulevard in Pasadena, Calif. Today, Vroman's consists of three operations, all in Pasadena: the main store, a second satellite store, as well as Vroman's Fine Writing, Gifts and Stationery, which is separated from the main store by an independent movie theater.
It turns out that having multiple generations shop at Vroman's is a regular occurrence: “Just last Saturday we had a woman come to have us print her wedding invitations and told us her mother and grandmother had ordered them from us,” says Dolores Bauer, manager of Vroman's Fine Writing, Gifts, and Stationery.
During the Monday morning staff meeting, promotional director Jennifer Ramos begins running through the number of people that attended events the previous week, including 400 for Isabelle Allende and 160 for L.A. crime writer Joseph Wambaugh.
“Los Angeles is often discounted as 'movieland,' ” says Ramos, “but after working both here and at Book Soup [in West Hollywood], I can tell you that we have an amazing book culture here and wonderful local writers.” (Sometimes the twain shall meet: Vroman's was the bookstore featured in the movie The 40-Year-Old Virgin.)
A reading with the local-born author Jeff Gordinier, author of X Saves the World, brought in 85 people, 35 of whom heard about the reading on MeetUp.com. “We'll have to find out how to hook into that [MeetUp] more,” says Hill, instructing a member of the staff to look into it. The store already has a significant Web presence, including a traditional online store, a blog, and sites on Facebook.com and MySpace.com—where Vroman's is identified as a 101-year-old male (the maximum allowed).
Hill came to Vroman's four years ago after stints at Simon & Schuster, the Boston location of Waterstone's, and Book Soup. Her role is to oversee the general operation of the store and provide big picture, blue sky administration, according to majority shareholder Joel Sheldon.
“I think the management team we have in place now is positioned to make us more profitable than ever,” says Sheldon—a third-generation owner who served as Vroman's president from 1978 until last July, when Hill took over.
“I've seen a lot of changes since I started working in the store as a child,” he said. “There have been three cycles of how people shop—including mail order and the Internet—and three different cycles of media—from newspapers to television to the Internet. I tell people you have to embrace change, or else it will run you over.”
Profit and change are words you hear repeated over and over again at Vroman's. Hill reports that the company had $13.5 million in sales and achieved a 3.74% profit in 2007.
Changes have been made throughout the store to try and maximize profit. Just over 18 months ago, management implemented “license plate receiving”—a program in which wholesalers Ingram, Baker & Taylor and Partners/West indicate the contents of shipments via a bar code on the side of box.
“It expedites the process of getting books to the sales floor,” says Hill, “which is a big help, especially during the Christmas rush.”
Some changes directly affect the bottom line, such as the $50,000 in co-op the store received last year for magazine and greeting card displays. (Hill plans to add even more magazine display space to the store's sidewalk “newsstand” to take further advantage of such opportunities.)
Other changes are apparent to the naked eye, such as removal of much of the fixed shelving in favor of of the more versatile slatwall displays. “I'm obsessed with slatwall,” admits Hill, who mentions it at least a dozen times during the tour. “It's more flexible and makes for better displays, and is much better than having a bunch of titles on a shelf spine out.” One consequence of the change is that with fewer titles Vroman's was able to drop its investment in inventory from $2.2 million to $2.1 million in 2007.
“It was risky in terms of the loss of linear feet of shelving,” says Hill, “but was a strategic move away from traditional bookselling assumptions.”
Hill's emphasis on displays resulted in the appointment of Anne Edkins as the store's “visual merchandiser,” empowered to use every available surface—from end caps to bathroom walls—to promote the sale of books.
Unlike many stores, Vroman's has three different entrances and each takes on a different character. One of two front doors is focused on literature and enters into the fiction section; the other door—closest to the next-door independent movie theater—is the “hip” entrance and opens onto a display called “The Edge,” which features a mix of graphic novels and self-identified hipster books. The rear, main entrance, closest to parking, offers a display of family-friendly titles and is focused on female customers.
As indicated by surveys, about 75% of Vroman's customers are women, evidenced by the vast number of handbags and totes on display throughout the store—from reproduction PanAm flight bags to computer sleeves and purses.
Some 30% of the store's annual sales comes from nonbook items. Vroman's has produced its own line of Pasadena Pride souvenirs, including mugs and T-shirts, and is considering self-publishing a visual history of the area. In 1994, on its centenary, the store published Vroman's of Pasadena: A Century of Books, 1894–1994 by Jane Apostol, which shows that nonbook items—in particular cameras and photographic supplies—have been an important part of the store's product mix since its earliest days. (A.C. Vroman, the founder, was an avid photographer of Native American culture.)
Until the 1970s, the store was considered the largest bookstore west of the Mississippi. In 1915 it boasted a selection of 30,000 books, and today it has 85,000 titles across all three locations. Head book buyer Marie du Vaure has been with the store for six years and hails from Aix en Provence, France. “I strive to make it so that anyone walking in can find his or herself, and go beyond,” says du Vaure. “When I bring in more elaborate texts in gastronomy or I buy overlooked and more obscure titles in foreign literature, it is my hope that they fit with the overall effect and purpose of the store. Here, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”
The same philosophy holds true in the store's commitment to its employees: in 1916, just three months before A.C. Vroman died, the store was incorporated and divided between Allan David Sheldon (Joel Sheldon's grandfather) and two others. Today, some members of management are also shareholders. Hill, as well as Clark Mason, Vroman's controller and CFO, are both invested and part of the succession plans. In addition, full- and part-time staff—129 in all—are offered a share of the profits. In 2006–2007 this amounted to $80,000, and a similar amount is expected to be divvied up this year as well.
The local community also benefits from the store's success: the “Vroman's Gives Back” program returns 1% of a customer's sales to a charity of their choosing. To date, the store has donated $441,000 to 22 different local nonprofits.
“It all adds up to a simple business philosophy: do good business and do good in the world,” says Hill. “It's kind of a mantra for us and something we make sure to be conscious of each and every day.”