How does an independent bookseller compete with the likes of Barnes & Noble and Borders Books & Music?

If the independent happens to be the well-established Vroman's Bookstore in Pasadena, it expands its floor space, adds a caf & #233;, bolsters its extensive gift offerings, and accentuates customer service.

It also focuses on something the giants can't do responding to local customers' changing tastes. For example, when customers gave a lukewarm response to Vroman's bargain books section, the size of the section was reduced to make way for a "museum shop" with art and architecture-themed books and gifts.

"A small business can (respond) better than large chains," said Joel Sheldon, president and majority owner. "Chains have economic advantages, cheap capital. They have economies of scale. We have the ability to react quickly."

The 104-year-old store's revenues have grown steadily over the past decade, with $10 million projected for this year. About 65 percent of that comes from books and the other 35 percent from stationery and gifts.

The growth of Vroman's, or even its survival, is striking, given that book sales have been flat nationally for the past two years and that this is intrinsically a low-margin business. (The average unit sale is $25, which doesn't go far toward covering a bookstore's high overhead costs.)

But Vroman's has the advantage of being bigger than the average independent bookstore, said Len Vlahos, communications director with the American Booksellers Association.

"Because they've been so long in the community and are able to expand in size, they're uniquely well positioned to meet the challenge," he said.

Vroman's has a long history in Pasadena. Adam Clark Vroman a train dispatcher, telegraph operator and photographer from Illinois founded the company in 1894. The original store was in what is now Old Town Pasadena, but it moved to two other locations before settling at its present location in 1953, at 695 E. Colorado Blvd., about a mile east of Old Town.

From then until about five years ago, Sheldon said, Vroman's was the biggest bookstore west of the Mississippi and for a time, had the only school book depository in California.

Vroman's branched into other areas, becoming an office furniture dealer and entering into a joint venture to use its computers to process tax returns. By the end of the 1950s, Vroman's had about half a dozen stores or concessions in department stores from San Diego to Spokane. In 1968 it became the first bookstore to computerize its inventory.

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