Independently owned bookstores have been around since before the U.S. was the U.S. – like Moravian Book Shop in Bethlehem, PA, the oldest bookstore in the U.S., founded in 1745:
These stores – often referred to as “indies” – have been beloved by their customers and neighbors alike, and thrived for a long time. As a place to buy books, of course, but also as a place to learn about books, talk about books, and be around other people who shared a love of reading.
But, according to an article on newrepublic.com,
“The rise of superstores like Barnes & Noble and Borders in the 1980s and ’90s was a disaster for smaller shops, which lacked the chains’ inventory and ability to offer steep discounts. Customers were also moving away from downtown locally owned businesses and doing their shopping at malls. In the seven years before the Great Recession began, more than 1,000 independent bookstores closed.”
The advent of Amazon in 1995 – as a website that started out selling only books – also contributed to the indies’ demise. Why go to a bookstore, even a big bookstore like Barnes & Noble, when you could sit in front of your computer at home and find just about any book you want from Amazon?
Sure, buying on Amazon didn’t give you the same tactile experience of pulling a book off a shelf and hefting it in your hand, paging through it, and walking out of a store, delighted with your purchase. But many were willing to make that trade.
Then came another blow to Indies: e-books. No need to lug around the physical book, just download it to your device. Download lots of books to your device! No more bookstores for you.
Yet another blow: The afore-mentioned Great Recession wasn’t kind to independently owned bookstores.
And neither was the pandemic. Stores were forced to close, in-store events were cancelled, and indie owners who had little or no internet presence suddenly had to become mini-Amazons or risk permanently closing their doors.
Which brings us to two San Diego indies who managed to survive it all, then almost didn’t – Mysterious Galaxy, founded in 1993, and Warwick’s, founded in 1896.
Since its founding, Mysterious Galaxy’s focus has been science fiction, fantasy, mystery, young adult, romance, and horror books, making it – according to its website,
“San Diego’s premier destination for genre-fiction…a home for those who love the magical, the odd, the chilling, and everything in between…”
But, in late 2019, came this announcement:
“The staff of Mysterious Galaxy just received notice that they are losing their lease for their Balboa Avenue storefront, and will need to move in 60 days. It is with heavy hearts that we share that unless a new buyer and new location are found immediately, Mysterious Galaxy will be forced to close its doors.”
The Mysterious Galaxy staff had seen it coming. According to an article in the San Diego Union-Tribune,
“…in September 2018, the owners decided it was time to ‘pass the torch’ and pursue other interests, and they put the store up for sale. Although several candidates came forward, no deal was struck, and the store’s lease on Balboa Avenue expired. It continued operating month-to-month while the search for a buyer continued.”
Then the landlord found a new long-term tenant and gave Mysterious Galaxy that 60-day eviction notice.
After surviving so much, Mysterious Galaxy was done in by their lease.
Or, lack of.
Then, just before Christmas 2019, came this:
A married couple who were regular customers purchased the business and moved it to a new location:
One of the store’s founders said she’d met with “a number of qualified prospective buyers and corresponded with dozens of others” before striking a deal with the couple. She described them as “passionate readers who understand our mission and want to take the business to the next level and ensure its future.”
That was Christmas 2019.
Then came March 2020 and the pandemic, but a visit to the Mysterious Galaxy website indicates that the store, though “closed for browsing” (and that should change soon) is still very much in business:
About 15 minutes north of Mysterious Galaxy in the La Jolla area we encounter Warwick’s, “the oldest continuously family-owned and operated bookstore in the United States,” according to their website:
Warwick’s is celebrating its 125th anniversary this year, so it was a truly lousy time for the fourth-generation owners, Nancy and Cathy, to learn that the building’s owner had received an unsolicited $8.3 million dollar cash offer, which the owner intended to accept.
The store had been in this location since 1952, and it was a great location – a storefront with foot traffic and street parking in La Jolla, which one website lists as San Diego’s “most expensive neighborhood” in 2021:
The average household income in La Jolla is around $200,000, and it’s also a popular tourist destination – the description on the area’s website could leave you positively drooling:
Incredible beaches, fine dining, posh boutiques, and sweeping panoramic ocean views combine to make a dynamic community and one of the most popular places to go in San Diego.
Downtown La Jolla, or as the locals call it, “The Village,” is a walkable urban area packed with shops, museums, and art galleries – making it one of the best places to visit in San Diego.
As you can imagine, retail rents in La Jolla are commensurate with the surroundings.
After surviving for more than a century, and through all the more-recent challenges…
And how would the Warwick sisters ever find a location they could afford that could match their current digs?
Especially with time running out – the owner had given the Nancy and Cathy 15 days to match that $8.3 million cash offer.
Instead of hanging out a Going Out of Business sign, Nancy called a longtime customer and commercial real estate broker. He arranged a meeting with a friend and local investor who’s also a store patron.
“Within about 45 minutes we had struck a lease deal and decided how to structure a counteroffer so that we could buy the building,” the friend/investor said.
The trio lined up a bank and nearly three dozen Warwick’s supporters, including Nancy and Cathy and their husbands. They formed an LLC and offered $8.35 million dollars. That offer was accepted and escrow closed April 28:
The deal includes a 10-year lease, with two five-year renewal options – up to 20 more years to continue the family business.
Mysterious Galaxy and Warwick’s found guardian angels, but many indies have not. According to an article on vox.com, since the pandemic started, indies have been closing at the rate of about one a week, and 20 percent of stores in the U.S. are in danger of same.
Those that are surviving are doing so because the owners and staff pivoted – from face-to-face service to online orders, curbside pickup and in some cases, home deliveries. Book clubs and other in-store events moved to online platforms like Zoom. Some owners applied for, and received, loans through the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), and some created GoFundMe pages, with some success.
As the pandemic appears to be diminishing and with it the lockdowns and stay-at-homes and dangers of infection, here’s hoping that the independent bookstore owners can continue to hang on, and their stores can continue to be, as one owner put it…
“…places where folks can come together to discuss what’s going on in the world, to also have a safe haven and a safe place for exploring new ideas. Bookstores provide everything from sanctuary to meditative spaces.”