As digital America dumps its books, a growing shop on Main Street scrambles to keep up with incoming tomes. The Bookery, located at 326 Main St., boasts about 350,000 titles and counting. This emporium is a treasure trove to local and visiting bibliophiles for whom the heft, feel and scent of real printed volumes maintain their appeal.
Purchased in 1983 from the original owners by business partners (and employees) Nancy Dunk and Celia Lux, the growth and direction of this hive of buyers and sellers is limited only by physical size and reader demand. It can accept only a fraction of the weekly offerings brought in by downsizers, estate liquidators and avid readers.
Dunk is continually surprised and excited by what she finds in the boxes. “There’s always at least one great book in every batch!” Assisted by Abbey, a genial Lab mix who also puts in long hours, she spends Mondays and Fridays looking over the incoming possibilities. Sometimes the hidden gems of literature hide out in basements, storage units and attics, and Dunk finds herself visiting homes and estates willing to part with interesting collections.
Lux takes care of the customers and the shop operation. Maintaining signage and order is essential to customer satisfaction, and a big job. She rolled her eyes at the canyons of goods crammed into eight-foot-high bookcases, all notated and properly grouped. “Thank goodness for the support staff!”
Fiction reigns but not exclusively. Young Adult, (think Harry Potter take-offs) good fiction (paperbacks preferred) crafts, (e.g. dying fabrics with backyard plants) beekeeping (a perennial favorite) or gardening, fine woodworking and pig-raising volumes are near-certain candidates to find shelf space. So are the subjects of mushroom collecting, candle making, weaving, and back-to-the-land expositories. Dunk notes, “But unless the subject is timeless, we prefer the more contemporary editions.” Translation —1975 books on solar energy probably won’t make the cut, neither would outdated subjects involving medical, travel, or business.
A stroll through the labyrinth of carefully tended bookcases underscores the point. Dunk, who personally built some of the shelving, gestures at the burgeoning rooms. “We make a living, but it’s a labor of love. Of course, like any business, our expenses have to be less than sales.”
Common wisdom suggests the Internet has forever changed the book selling industry. Dot-com giants such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble sign up feeder sources, which are able to funnel their own inventories (usually with low prices) onto the dot-com’s Website.
The literary duo doesn’t try to compete head-on with that business model, or with tablet-readers such as Amazon’s Kindle and the Barnes and Noble Nook. “We have a different appeal,” Dunk smiled. “Our shelf of books draws readers into the store, and gives them an opportunity to explore categories, handle the merchandise, turn pages, take in the scents — to experience the transcendent world of real books.” The energetic co-owner grabbed a popular $4 children’s book.
“They find deep discounts from the new editions. They can explore other titles in the same subject. And, we offer immediate ownership — take the book home with you, why wait eight days for the mail? And remember,” she added, “those cheap Internet prices aren’t so cheap after shipping charges are added.”
Spending an afternoon observing the patrons flow through the store confirms Dunk’s other secret for their success — customer love and loyalty.
Visitor Robin Smithson from El Dorado likes the Bookery. “Amazon’s great for people who know what they want — they click on, buy something, then click off. This place,” she glanced around the store, “is for people like me who don’t know exactly what they want, and appreciate browsing to their heart’s content.”
“You never know what you’re going to find there,” noted Gary Hammersmith, a San Francisco college librarian who sometimes stops at the Bookery en route to Tahoe. “There’s always new material, engaging and pertinent. Personally, I like western fiction, romance novels, and science fiction. Go figure.”
Placerville resident Lorna Nelson is a longtime customer and fan of the shop “I love going there. I find them gracious and helpful to a fault,” she enthused. “And their books make fabulous gifts!”
The store has enlarged its footprint over the years, and now fills most of the space in the building. Copies of displayed books are held in another room. Lux pointed out the thick wood cases and shelving in the front room as having been fashioned from the gold-rush era flumes above the storied Pacific House.
The economic downturn hasn’t hurt the business much. “In fact, we have done better in that environment, probably because of the comforting nature of books,” said Dunk. “They’re friends. And poring through the titles is entertaining.” She laughed. “The hunt is addictive!”
The Bookery also reserves an area for rare books and collectables. “We have seen some remarkable editions pass through this little store. We had a signed Louis L’Amour book in here at one time, and a first edition Little Princess signed by the author Frances Hodgson Burnett.”
The challenges of running a bookstore in Placerville are the normal ones facing any small business. “One in particular,” Dunk said, “is finding young people to work here, people with some education who cherish books. They won’t get rich working here, but they will love what they do!”
That seems to describe perfectly the path taken by these two determined entrepreneurs 30 years ago, when they risked it all to buy out the boss. Their story rivals anything on their shelves, with one major difference — there are more chapters to go. The Bookery saga continues.