130-Year-Old California Bookstore Seeks Buyer

Dawn Levesque, 77, goes to learn about World War II. Heidi Barnett, 43, a mother of two, comes to buy presents for her children. Justin Beblawi, 25, has visited since he was a kid and now goes to work there as a clerk.

For people of all ages in Pasadena, Calif., Vroman’s Bookstore, founded in 1894, has been a mainstay, a meeting place, a reliable sanctuary in a world of rapid change. When its founder, Adam Clark Vroman, died in 1916, he left the bookstore to his godson, Alan Sheldon, a Vroman’s employee.

The current chairman and majority shareholder, Joel Sheldon III, 79, is the third generation of his family to guide the company and has been at the helm for more than 45 years.

Now, as Vroman’s prepares to celebrate its 130th anniversary, Sheldon has decided it’s time to hand over the reins.

He doesn’t just want to sell to the highest bidder, however. Sheldon wants to leave the bookstore in good hands.

“Vroman’s deserves new ownership with the vision, energy, and commitment necessary to take it successfully into the future,” Sheldon said in an Instagram post announcing his decision last month.

He continued: “We will take the time needed to find the right new ownership — someone who shares our core values and who is committed to preserving Vroman’s as a community treasure.”

Over the years the bookstore has hosted authors including Upton Sinclair, Ray Bradbury, Ginger Rogers, Joan Didion, Hillary Clinton and Justice Sonia Sotomayor. In 2008, it was named Bookseller of the Year by Publishers Weekly.

“We have generations of customers,” said Sherri Gallentine, who started working as a clerk at Vroman’s in 1992 and became head book buyer in 2010. “We have people who come in and say, ‘I came here when I was a kid with my grandparents, and now I’m bringing my kids here.’

The store is a place of pride for people in Pasadena, said Philip Hawkey, a former city manager. “Vroman’s reflects much of the Pasadena civic identity,” he said.

Reputedly the largest independent bookstore in Southern California, the store has two locations in Pasadena, two boutiques at LAX airport, and an e-commerce site. Its main Pasadena location, on Colorado Boulevard, also has a coffee shop, wine bar and large space for book readings. In 2009, Vroman’s bought the independent bookstore Book Soup in West Hollywood, after its owner died and the store was in danger of closing.

The shops make an effort to curate their selection, with sections like “California and the West” and “Black Lives,” and to prioritize customer service. Often, one of its 150 employees will walk patrons over to shelves to help them find the books they’re seeking.

That personal touch helped Vroman’s to survive competition from the big box stores and online retailers.

“We have people to help you pick out gifts for family or just something nice for yourself,” Gallentine said. “We try to connect with our customers.”

In an interview, Sheldon said he has faith that the right steward for Vroman’s is out there, somewhere: “We’re very confident we can find someone.”

Loyal Vroman’s customers are nevertheless concerned that the bookstore will change — or worse, fail to find a buyer and have to close. “Everybody’s talking about it,” Barnett said.

On a recent weekday morning, Barnett was browsing upstairs in the children’s section with her daughter Liza, who had just turned 8 and was intent on spending her birthday money (her mother was trying to steer her toward the books and away from a stuffed bunny).

“Reading is so important to our family,” Barnett said, and “just bringing them here, I’m instilling that love of books.”

Nearly 40 percent of Vroman’s business comes from merchandise other than books, including gifts, kitchenware, greeting cards and stationery. It would be fine if a new owner chooses to lean more in that direction, Sheldon said: “Adaptability and resilience has allowed a good owner to run a great bookstore.”

Katie Wengert, visiting Vroman’s from Philadelphia on a recent day, had her arms full of goodies, including a novel (“The Idiot,” by Elif Batuman), gifts for her boyfriend who is turning 40, and a birthday card for her sister-in-law.

“It’s everything you want a bookstore to be,” she said. “That doesn’t really exist anymore.

Residents have reason to be optimistic that someone will continue the Vroman’s tradition. The bookstore struggled mightily during the pandemic lockdown and the community rallied in response to Sheldon’s social media plea for support.

“We’ve certainly gone through world wars and depressions,” Sheldon said. “With our customer base and our hardworking employees and friends, we got through and came out the other side.”

On a recent visit, Levesque, a regular customer, ordered a book on how to recook leftovers, bought a planner (at 50 percent off) and browsed the travel and history sections.

Her three children always give her gift cards to the store, she said. They also know of her last wish.

“I’ve already told them, when I pass, cremate me, spread my ashes in Vroman’s Bookstore,” she said. “Just a little bit here and there — because that’s where I want to end up.”