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Laguna Beach

 Volume 11, Issue 90  | November 8, 2019


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The Story of a Store: Laguna Beach Books &
the vibrant community it serves

Story by MARRIE STONE

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Once upon a time – before Amazon and Kindle, before Barnes & Noble or dot-com anything – independent bookstores thrived across America. They were the one place where toddlers, college students, the middle-aged, and elderly could all find something they loved. Many had creaky wooden floors and labyrinthine rooms packed tight with shelves. There might be a dog napping behind the counter. 

Whatever the décor, bibliophiles arrived. They loved losing themselves in the stacks. They loved the look and feel – the smell – of books. Strangers became familiars, letting each other in on their intimate reading lives. They shared favorite titles. They talked about authors like old friends. In short, people gathered together to swoon over literature and bond over books. For much of the 20th century, independent bookstores were the only game in town.

The Story LBB sign

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Laguna Beach’s very own independent bookstore, the only bookstore in town

The fall and rise of independent bookstores

But all that began to change. In 1994, Amazon opened their virtual doors. They sold only books for their first four years. Now, they’ve captured almost half the bookseller’s market (today, books account for less than 10 percent of Amazon’s total sales). Then they introduced the Kindle in 2007. Soon after, competitors began producing their own e-books. E-readers represent 55 percent of online book purchases. Audio books are a small but growing faction. 

Customers became consumers. Algorithms began replacing personal recommendations. And the big box stores – Barnes & Noble and Borders – started to drive what was left of independent bookstores out of business. Between 1995 and 2000, American Booksellers Association (ABA) reported that the number of independent bookstores in the United States plummeted 43 percent.

Then another funny thing began to happen. Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, within the past 10 years, independent bookstores began to flourish. According to the ABA, the number of independent U.S. bookstores increased 35 percent from 2009 to 2015. Today the figures look even better. In 2018, there were 1,835 independent bookselling companies running 2,470 stores. 

The Story shelf talkers

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The LBB staff provides “shelf-talkers” to highlight their favorite picks

They became a natural gathering place for locals and tourists alike – book clubs and author events, book signings and readings, children’s story hours and political roundtables. Turns out, people craved the personal interactions and customized recommendations they were missing online and they turned to books, booksellers, and other book lovers to find it again.

In the beginning: Jane Hanauer’s novel idea

But let’s go back. Back to 2004, in the midst of all this retail chaos and e-reader frenzy. Back to when attention spans started to flounder and the appetite for literature began to wane. Laguna Beach’s Fahrenheit 451 had been closed for a decade. Latitude 33 bifurcated its business with a photography store. The old Pottery Shack came up for sale. Jane Hanauer and her husband, Joe, saw opportunity. 

The Story Jane

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Jane Hanauer

Laguna Beach Books didn’t open until 2006. Construction took an extra nine months beyond original expectations. “While the store was under construction,” says Lisa Childers, store manager and one of the original employees, “books kept arriving, but no one was there to receive them. I ran around town looking for our UPS man. He agreed to start bringing all the books up to my garage.” How many books were delivered to Childers’ garage? “Tons of them,” she says. “The whole store.” 

As Childers’ garage began to fill, Hanauer hired Robyn Caperton to help with receiving and, more importantly, buying. “We organized the books and started doing inventory on my dining room table,” Childers says. “Those were the formative years.”

When the recession hit a year later – along with the Kindle and Amazon’s discounted competition – Laguna Beach Books struggled, but they still weathered the financial storm. So what accounts for its continued success through difficult times and in a difficult marketplace?

Curating a customized experience for customers

As author John Green observes, “You cannot invent an algorithm that is as good at recommending books as a good bookseller.” This sets stores like Laguna Beach Books apart. An artful seller not only knows their products, they listen to their clients.

The Story Chris

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Chris Weaver curates the perfect reading experience for clients

“There’s a niche for the curated experience,” says Chris Weaver, a sales associate who has been with the store since nearly the beginning. “Books require a serendipity quotient. When you rely on algorithms, predictability creeps in. Algorithms build up a profile and you’re locked into a box. You miss the experience of not the book you came looking for, but the book next to it that you didn’t anticipate. There’s this whole other aspect of your personality or interest that starts to develop as a consequence of that. It can’t be captured by the algorithms.”

For readers interested in this phenomenon, Weaver (unsurprisingly) has a few book recommendations for you – Weapons of Math Destruction by Cathy O’Neil and The Efficiency Paradox by Edward Tenner. 

What calls on their “curated experience expertise” is the customer who knows what they like, but they don’t have a particular title in mind. The task is to intervene, find the book they want, and use it as a springboard to introduce them to books they haven’t considered. “It takes many years of expertise and instinct for things off the radar that you wouldn’t encounter otherwise,” says Weaver. “Fortunately for us, it’s hard to replicate that any other way. That’s the factor we bring in.”

Weaver’s secret is simple, though hardly easy. “I try to assimilate a sense of that person and what may interest them. There’s two ways to do that. One is to ask, ‘Who do you like? What have you read?’ The second is to ask, ‘What are you interested in?’ People’s general interests – their hobbies and passions – can be used to help point them in a new direction. Both of these strategies might produce very different outcomes.”

A synergistic staff

Bookselling is an art. Some say it’s a little like playing psychologist. Childers likens it to being a bartender. “People come in who’ve had really bad things happen – someone died, they’re going through a divorce – and they want a book,” Childers says. “They’re very open with us. We’re good at chatting and we have to understand what they need. Maybe they need something on point. But maybe they just need a light read to take their mind off things.” 

A good staff reflects the tastes and interests of their readers, and contains just enough diversity to serve a wide range. “The reading public tends to skew heavily female and a little older, though not exclusively so,” says Weaver. “To the extent our clientele is dominated by women, the market skews sharply toward mainstream fiction.”

The Story Danielle

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Danielle Bauer recommends one of the store’s bestselling titles, off the radar of most online stores

Men, Weaver says, lean towards nonfiction. If they read fiction, they tend to favor mystery, thriller, sci-fi and fantasy, and sometimes historical fiction. “I fall into that profile as well,” Weaver says. As the only man on the team and a part-time college professor, Weaver provides a critical resource to clients. “Not surprisingly, my reading interests diverge sharply from the rest of the staff. I read classics as a professor. Current events, history, philosophy, religion, and humanities in general.”

Two years ago, local high school student Haley Rovner joined part time. “Haley and I are the only ones who read young adult (YA), science fiction, and fantasy,” says Weaver. “Having Haley on staff helps immensely because she’s widely read in YA. That’s the niche we’re trying to nurture – our upcoming readers.” The death of the reader continues to be one of the biggest issues bookstores face. 

Creating community within a strong community

While tourists are important to business, Laguna Beach Books lives for local clientele. It also supports local authors. Some of Laguna’s notables include James Utt (Laguna Tales & Boomer Wails: A Memoir), Kaira Rouda (Best Day Ever, the forthcoming The Favorite Daughter, and several others), and Suzanne Redfearn (Hush Little Baby, No Ordinary Life, and the forthcoming In An Instant). “If books reflect the area in which the books are being sold, they sell better,” says Hanauer. 

The store also hosts monthly book clubs. They foster political discussions (recently holding an event for local and newly elected congressman Harley Rouda). And they organize frequent author events and books signings, both by local writers and nationally recognized bestsellers. Recent guests include Lisa See, T. Jefferson Parker, Elizabeth George, John Hart, Ruth Reichl, and Martha Hall Kelly, to name just a very few. Upcoming events will feature Megan Griswold and Dani Shapiro. 

And, because books are the great equalizer in any society, Laguna Beach Books is also the perfect place for some star sightings. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, former FBI Director James Comey, actors Pierce Brosnan, Rob Lowe, Robert Englund, Rita Rudner, Melanie Griffith, Alan Rickman, and Benicio del Toro have all visited the store. Author Mitch Albom is also a regular. Comey even got a little choked up after reading the blurb Sheila Morshead wrote about his book A Higher Loyalty.

Learning by osmosis

It also helps that everyone on staff is passionate about their job. No one’s in it for the money, though they like to joke about it. Caperton says one of her favorite things is the endless learning. “I’ve worked in bookstores for 35 years,” says Caperton, “and I still learn something every day. It’s the most humbling job you can have. Every day I go to work and discover something new.”

Her recommendation for new booksellers? “I always tell new employees to dust the store. Dust everything,” she says. “It’s like osmosis. If you’re around the books, in proximity to them, you don’t know you know them, but you do.”

The Story other genres

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Browsing books beyond your usual genre opens you up to new possibilities

The three Cs of successful bookstores

Ryan Raffaelli, an assistant professor in the Organizational Behavior unit at Harvard Business School, made a long study of the independent bookstore phenomena in 2017 as part of his “technology reemergence” research. He concluded that three factors (coined the “3 Cs”) accounted for the resurgence of the independent bookstore: community, curation, and convening.

Spending time in the store, and talking to the staff, it’s easy to understand its success. Together, the many tales of Laguna Beach Books tell one of the most enduring love stories ever written – people’s love of books.

For more information, staff picks, LBB bestsellers, author events, and more, visit www.lagunabeachbooks.com or call (949) 497-4779. 

LBB is located at 1200 S Coast Hwy.

Shaena Stabler is the Owner, Publisher & Editor.

Dianne Russell is our Associate Editor & Writer.

Michael Sterling is our Webmaster & Designer.

Mary Hurlbut is our Chief Photographer.

Alexis Amaradio, Barbara Diamond, Dennis McTighe, Diane Armitage, Lynette Brasfield, Marrie Stone, Maggi Henrikson, Samantha Washer, and Suzie Harrison are our writers and/or columnists. Scott Brashier is our photographer.

Stacia Stabler is our Social Media Manager & Writer.

We all love Laguna and we love what we do.

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