THE BIRTH OF AN INDEPENDENT

 

by Stephen Jay Schwartz

This is a success story. It’s the story of two individuals who rolled the dice.

 

(Owners Pete Ledesma and Rebecca Glenn at The Book Frog)

They opened an independent bookstore. Three weeks ago.

I encountered Becky and Pete at roughly the same time. Becky’s name popped up on a Google Alert when she reviewed my first novel, Boulevard. I read the review and then I read many others she had written on this brilliant little website called The Book Frog. The site links to Murderati and to Tim Hallinan’s Blog Cabin and numerous other sites. Becky’s reviews are full of insight and wisdom and her library on LibraryThing.com speaks volumes about her commitment to the written word.

Becky was the manager of the Borders Books in El Segundo, California.

Pete was the manager of Borders Books in Rolling Hills Estates, California. Pete was the one who passed my book to Becky, his girlfriend, after one of his booksellers told him it was written by a local author. In fact, the very first place I saw Boulevard on the shelves was Pete’s Borders. Pete became incredibly supportive of both Boulevard and Beat, instructing his employees to hand-sell my books to every customer who said they liked reading The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Gotta love Pete.

I soon discovered that Pete had also written an unpublished novel and I asked to take a look at it. I read the book, Norman’s Conquest, and was frankly blown away. It’s a charming mystery romp with such rich character description that I came away envious of his talent. He took a stab at getting it published a few years back, but met with some resistance, as most of us do. I told him to get it out there again, or to self-publish it, because the work is good and it needs to be seen.

Becky and Pete, long-time soul-mates, were also long-time Borders cheerleaders. They lived and breathed the business. And then the ax came.

Their jobs were gone. It was liquidation time. Pete had built a loyal community of customers at his branch and no one wanted to see him go. People started asking him if he would open a bookstore of his own.

A bookstore of his own. Right. In this economic climate?

But the chorus grew loud and he and Becky started asking themselves crazy questions, like, “Should we open an independent bookstore of our own?”

They had a tiny bit of savings. They had a little bit of credit. They did not have jobs. They went to the banks and discovered that the banks were capable of great fits of laughter.

They’ve come a long way, Pete and Becky, and still they’ve just begun. They’ve got one of the largest fiction sections in the South Bay, and, in addition to their growing mystery section, they have a special spot for California Crime Fiction and a section for out-of-print, used books by the likes of Ross MacDonald, John D. Macdonald, and many others. They hope to make The Book Frog a place for book signings, book launches and author panels.

I wanted to ask them a bit about their journey into the great unknown. I wanted to celebrate their entrepreneurial spirit, their sense of adventure, their commitment to making their dreams a reality…

 

Stephen: Tell me a bit about your experiences as booksellers. What are your backgrounds?

B & P: Becky became a bookseller way back in the Clinton era. She started at Borders in Mesa, AZ in March of ’94. Back then Borders was awesomely cool, staffed from the top down by people who loved and lived books. It was like coming home. In the years to follow that home would become more and more dysfunctional, but hey–at least she got to work around books all the time. Pete started at the Brea Borders in 1996. After 11 years in Aerospace, he loved being surrounded by books instead of rum-soaked engineers.

Stephen:  What was it like when you heard that Borders would be going out of business?

B & P:  It was like receiving the diagnostic confirmation that someone you once loved and still care about is dying.

Stephen:  How did The Book Frog evolve from there?

B & P: When Pete’s store went into liquidation early this year his customers and the other merchants in the mall immediately began asking whether he would be opening a new bookstore. At first it seemed like a crazy idea, but it soon came to be the only idea. Since booksellers don’t make very much money at the best of times, and since Borders hadn’t been in a position to give any kind of raise for half a decade, and since we had made the probably ill-advised decision to purchase a home before the real estate market had hit rock bottom, the fact that we decided to pursue this crazy idea often seemed, well, crazy. But, we threw caution to the wind, made a number of fiscal leaps of faith, and six months later…Let’s just say that our decision to open a bookstore was driven almost as much by desperation as it was by our love of books.

Stephen: What was it like trying to find loans and investors to support a new, independent book store?

B & P: Awful! Nobody wants to give you money if you don’t have a proven track record, and if you don’t know how to find private investors, well, where do you find them? We were turned down for SBA loans by three different banks. An SBA counselor working out of a local Chamber of Commerce office told us our idea was bound to fail and that nobody would give us money. Luckily, on the very last day Pete’s store was open to the public an angel came into the store and offered an ungodly amount of money to get this thing off the ground. It wasn’t enough, but it was more than we’d hoped for.

Stephen: How did everything finally come together?

B & P: Lots of bickering, some crying, a fair amount of wheeling and dealing. We snagged fixtures for next to nothing from our respective closing stores, we had wonderful counsel pro bono to help us through the lease process, we got in at the end of the liquidations of the last two stores in the South Bay as buyers and were able to buy almost an entire store’s inventory at a fraction of what it would have cost even at wholesale. It was very much like being someone in desperate need of an organ transplant and when your best friend dies…

Stephen: What makes Book Frog different from Borders? What makes it different from other independent bookstores?

B & P: The Book Frog is different from the Borders of the last decade or so in that it has heart and soul, and we care deeply about books and about getting books into people’s hands. We know that selling a book is in no way the same as selling a blouse or a can of green beans. When we started with Borders it was a wonderful company. It was a chain with an independent bookseller way of doing things. We learned a sad and serious lesson from the downward spiral of our once dear employer, as we watched the company expand too rapidly and aggressively, adding product that had no business being in a bookstore. How are we different from other independent booksellers? Well, by definition each independent bookstore is different from the other. Each has its own vibe, its own feel. We’re working on ours, but we hope it will be warm and inviting and maybe even kind of exciting.

Stephen: What about Book Frog makes you most proud?

B & P: We did it! We had a vision, we chased that vision, and it’s almost come together.

Stephen: What are your plans for the future? How do you think the business will grow and change?

B & P: We are working on getting our webstore up and running (it will be www.thebookfrog.com when it finally happens, sometime within the next couple of weeks). We are going to be implementing a delivery service. We’re already starting to build our inventory based on our customers’ buying habits.

(The Book Frog, 550 Deep Valley Drive #273, Rolling Hills Estates, CA 90274.  310-265-2665)

Becky and Pete are good people. They’re book people, and they’re in the business because it’s in their blood. Let’s encourage them, and welcome them, and wish them all the success in the world. And when you’re planning your next book tour in the Los Angeles area, call Becky and Pete so they can set up a signing for you. Let’s make this a trend.

Becky and Pete will be checking in throughout the day, so be sure to say hello!

25 thoughts on “THE BIRTH OF AN INDEPENDENT

  1. Alaina

    Agreed, Sarah. The only bookstore in my area is a used one, where you tend to have to blow dust off the titles before you can read them. I miss borders– our nearest store was still friendly when it closed.

    I wish you all the luck in the world!

  2. Kay

    Three cheers for independent book sellers! SO Glad Becky and Pete have the vision and skills to open their store. Thanks for highlighting their work, Stephen.

  3. Ellie

    Congratulations and best of luck! I will be checking for the online store because I am happy to support independent booksellers, but especially one that has a dedicated section for California crime fiction. Good luck!

  4. Robert Marchuk

    Thanks Stephen for bringing this to light!

    I am so thankful for those like Pete and Becky to bring a family business atmosphere to the corporate retail jungle. I see the freedom in this and I pray everyone will support it. God Bless them!!

    Bob

  5. Tom

    We will be visiting the store ASAP, folks.

    Stephen, thanks very much for the word(s) about this new enterprise.

  6. Ronald Tierney

    Thanks for the story and best of luck to Book Frog. Unfortunately there many cities, many of them good size, who no longer have a bookstore selling new books. Seems to me that areas that have a population of a couple hundred thousand or more could support at least one bookstore. Again, great news. Hope there will be more.

  7. Zoรซ Sharp

    Becky and Pete – the very best of luck to you. You have heart and vision and I hope you thrive.

    And I also hope you'll allow me to stop by next time I'm over in California ๐Ÿ™‚

    Thank you, Stephen, for highlighting a little ray of light in a darkening market. You've made my Friday!

  8. David Corbett

    Becky and Pete — all the best to you. You seem to have precxeisly the kind of temperament and energy and vision to make it work. I truly madly deeply hope you do.

    The stores I'm seeing survive up her in the Bay Area create a sense of community. It ain't just about the books or other stuff. It's creating a special environment, which includes events and book groups and even writing seminars given by local authors. You've clearly got a great pool of writers to draw from. I'm doing that sort of thing with two local stores, and it seems to raise the profile of the enterprise and give it an extra cache that tchachkes, greeting cards and games/ toys cannot.

    All the best. Have a merry merry and a jolly jolly.

  9. Allison Davis

    Huge Applause for your bravery and endeavor. I'll pass this onto folks in our LA office to get the buzz going. Ditto what David said — we love those stores up here for their "destination" — classes, you can get lunch or a glass of wine for a reading, a latte in the morning. I end up meeting friends there for our writing group. Good luck to you and see you next time I'm down there.

  10. Rebecca Glenn

    Thanks so much to everyone for your kind words. Mr Schwartz, you were already one of my favorite people anyway, but now you're in my favorite persons hall of fame (yeah, I have one of those).

    Sarah & Alaina–thanks for the kind words, and so sorry you've got nothing locally. Be sure to stop in to see us if you're ever in the area. And we'll have the webstore up soon (I hope…web stuff isn't my strong suit, but I'm plodding away at it ๐Ÿ™‚

    Kay & Ellie–again, thanks. We're so happy that the reading public is still eager to support bookstores.

    Bob–we need all the blessings we can get. Thanks!

    Tom–thanks. Looking forward to meeting you.

    Ronald–thank you. We truly believe that the small independent bookstore model is the coming thing. The once and future bookstore!

    Zoe, David, Allison–thanks, thanks, and thanks. We look forward to meeting all of you whenever you're in the area.

    I know a number of our well-wishers today are authors, and I pledge to you that if we haven't got your books in stock yet (we're still building our inventory, but it goes slowly…books are kind of expensive, you know?) we will soon. Give us a heads up if you're going to be in the area; just a few days will allow us to get plenty of stock in for you to sign!

    Becky

  11. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    I'm so glad to see the Murderati community responding. Thanks for giving Pete and Becky the love!

  12. Judy Wirzberger

    Makes me wish I lived closer so I could meet Becky and Pete. I'll start following them on-line and pass the word to anyone I know in the area. Congratulations. Great idea for an article Steven. Judy

  13. Rebecca Glenn

    Tammee, I've got a whole shelf full of the great one's work. Can't wait to see you!

    Judy, we really appreciate your word-of-mouth help. That's what's going to do it for us.

  14. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Oh, this is EXACTLY what I hoped would happen when Borders closed… that great people would jump (sorry) in and open independents. An hour away and near the beach, I'll definitely be coming in!

    Wonderful to meet you, Pete and Becky!

  15. Reader Deb

    I only read "real" paper books. No Kindle or Nook for this old gal. I will look for your webstore and pass words around to all my family and friends. You took a leap, now it's time for others to throw out the net to catch you!

  16. Pete Ledesma

    Thanks to all of you wonderful well-wishers who took the time to send us your kind words.

    Alexandra–Looking forward to meeting you and reading your work when the order arrives.

    Tammee–I've just been binging on Ross MacDonald and have made it a personal crusade to get him into the hands of as many readers as I can. You are truly enlightened, my dear. Long Live Lew Archer!

  17. Reine

    Hi Stephen,

    This is a wonderful story! Becky and Pete, I wish you the best of luck with The Book Frog. It looks like a very comfortable place to be, which is just the way I like my bookstores. Beautiful!

  18. Enrique Freeque

    What an awesome article! What awesome people! What awesome books they've got! I know for a fact they're awesome because I've seen them too with my own eyes; I was there two weeks ago and bought a bunch. My son is still talking about the experience. Their children's section rocks. They even stock Dalkey Archives and Europa Editions and all sorts of off-the-beaten stuff that a hardcore literary bibliophile like myself can't help but love. Can we say eclectic! I love The Book Frog! I'm so happy to see them getting such great exposure.

  19. lil Gluckstern

    Congratulations for being brave and creative. I'm in Northern California, so I'll be looking for your web store. Thank you, Stephen, for bringing this to us. Maybe you can give us a heads up when the store is available. All the luck in the world.

  20. Pari Noskin

    I missed the party yesterday, but am so delighted to read this post!

    Congratulations to Pete and Rebecca! Hoorah!

  21. Susan Shea

    Two thumbs up – way up! We're all readers as well as writers and you're our favorite people. I'll pass the word along to a few friends who live relatively near you, and hope to meet you myself. Best of luck with the venture.

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