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Allison Hill’s most memorable moments as CEO of Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena, CA, include the many authors who have done reading’s and book signings at the establishment, which opened its doors more than 120 years ago. Her favorite, however, is when Bill Clinton made an appearance after the publication of one of his books. 

“He was everything they say he is,” said Hill, “charming, witty, and extremely well-read.”

Afterwards, the Secret Service asked Hill if she could temporarily close the store so that the former president could shop. “Then they asked me to shop with him. So, it was me and President Clinton, and a Secret Service agent sucking on a lollipop. 

“I keep thinking it was a dream,” said Hill, “but my managers remind me that it really happened.”  

“I’m so appreciative when anyone comes to our bookstore,” she added. “But something like that makes our month, maybe even makes our year.”

Special events and author readings are a big part of what makes Vroman’s one of the oldest and largest independent bookstores in Southern California. They host 800 events a year across three locations. Hill’s second-best memory was Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. “There wasn’t a dry eye in the house,” she said. “Her story is amazing.” Hill also reveals that they have put out feelers for the Obamas. 

“A bookstore has to have a stellar reputation—and experience working with the Secret Service––to hold this kind of event,” said Hill. “We had previously hosted President Carter, so that is a plus.”

The other element of Vroman’s success––the old real estate adage: Location, location, location.

“Pasadena has Cal Tech, Art Center School of Design, and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory,” she said. “The people that are drawn to those places also translates into a population that would support an independent book store.”

Vroman’s opened in Pasadena in 1894, the brainchild of Adam Clark Vroman, an Illinois transplant who came to California hoping the weather would improve his wife’s health. She nevertheless died two years later. Vroman decided to transform the energy he would have spent mourning her loss into a bookstore. He sold his private book collection as capital for opening the store. 

Vroman died in 1916, but by that time his bookstore had gained a toehold in the growing city. He left the operation to a group of his employees, one of whom was the great grandfather of the current owner. Vroman’s continued growing, partnering with the Pasadena Library over the years, and even delivering books to Japanese internees at the nearby Santa Anita Racetrack during WWII. 

Another Adam Vroman legacy was the concept of always diversifying. Vroman was also an avid photographer and the first bookstore carried photographic supplies, augmenting sales in the early years. Later came office supplies. There was also stationery, computer, and data supplies. Today 28% of sales are other than books, mostly gift items from unique sources. Vroman’s also partners with Jones Coffee. The in-store coffee shop is called The Last Chapter. Hill is considering opening a wine bar. 

“People query the staff as to where they can buy a glass of wine all the time,” said Hill. “I began to ask myself, ‘Why am I sending them away?’” 

Hill came to Vroman’s in 2009. Before that she’d been on the staff of Book Soup, an eclectic bookstore in West Hollywood. The owner was ill and looking for a responsible transition of ownership. 

“Buying Book Soup was a big initiative,” said Hill, pointing to a recession, the rise of Kindle books and Amazon, to say nothing of the presence of a Barnes & Noble a little over a half mile away from Vroman’s on Colorado Boulevard. “Vroman’s doubled down on the book business at a time when it was risky, but it has paid off.” 

The 3,000 square-foot Book Soup remains open. The main Vroman’s store occupies two stories in Pasadena, encompassing 30,000 square feet, and another store in the Hastings Ranch area of Pasadena covers 6,000 square feet. Counting all three locations, Vroman’s employs 215 people. 

Another niche that Vroman’s has filled, not intentionally, is as a prime meet-up location for that important first encounter of on-line daters. Dating websites often cite Vroman’s as a local hangout to find mutual interests. 

“It’s a safe place for a first date,” said Hill. “You can really get to know someone in a bookstore. For Valentine’s Day, we asked for stories from people who met their spouse here. We’ve even had a couple of proposals.”

“We also have an employee whose grandmother worked here,” she said. “Another whose great grandmother was part of our staff. Several sets of siblings work here, and a few parents and children.”

Vroman’s has also been the location for movies and television shows, including Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, The 40 Year Old Virgin, Parks & Recreation, Modern Family, and Naked Trucker. One of Hill’s stipulations for filming is that the store remains open during production. Hill also admits to a few flops in the ongoing effort to increase sales.

“Kids clothing will haunt me,” she said. “We found some vendors that we’re doing things different. We built it, but they did not come. You have to take those risks, though. One thing Vroman’s has done well is take risks.” 

If you visit Pasadena, and you can handle the crowds, you might try New Years Eve and New Years Day. The city swells to more than a million people, lining Colorado Boulevard for the annual Rose Parade. Vroman’s closes the night before, and for the duration of the parade, but they open as soon as the crowds disperse. And if you care to take a walk a few blocks west to Oldtown Pasadena, you’ll pass by the storefront that used to house that Barnes & Noble we mentioned earlier. The store closed in early 2014. 

“Yep,” said Hill, not attempting to hide the pride in her voice. “Vroman’s is the last man standing.”

 

by Timothy Sunderland  (TopShelf Columnist)

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