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.

"We sat in the middle of one of the world's great population explosions," Sheldon said. "In the '50s and '60s, we tried to take advantage of it."

Sheldon's connection to Vroman's goes back to his great grandfather, who was good friends with the company's founder. Following Vroman's death in 1916, Sheldon's great uncle and grandfather bought a controlling interest in the store. His father and uncles took over management and ownership in the succeeding decades.

Sheldon joined the business in the early 1970s, eventually becoming president and majority owner.

"I've studied family businesses and one thing that helps is if the working parent came home and showed enthusiasm for his work. I grew up with conversations about the business," Sheldon said.

The '70s brought several changes. With ownership fragmenting to some 35 family members, Sheldon and his father pared down the business to book retailing and began buying out the others' interests. He also realized the store needed to expand its 19,000-square-foot quarters to maintain its hold on the market.

"The store of the '50s was a classic '50s design and architecture. It was successful, but it didn't pull together anymore. The idea was to create a better, nice environment and flat-out update," Sheldon said.

The expansion was planned as part of a larger, three-block retail development. But plans collapsed with the real estate recession of the '90s. Sheldon, however, went ahead with the expansion, which was completed in late 1996.

Meantime, there were the competitors. Super Crown appeared on South Lake Avenue about 10 years ago, but recently closed. Barnes & Noble opened a store in Old Town in late 1993, just as that retail corridor was starting to explode. And just last month, Borders opened a 40,000-square-foot store in the former I. Magnin department store on South Lake.

"We were being challenged at the heart of our business. We could not go back to being a niche bookseller, with just travel or cookbooks. We couldn't withdraw to that. We chose to expand the offerings, improve the environment, remodel everything, redouble our dedication to the customer," Sheldon said.

The new Vroman's bears little resemblance to its former self. At 32,000 square feet, it's almost double in size, with a two-level sales floor crammed with books, stationery and gift items, and an expanded children's section that also sells toys and clothing.

"We know people comparison shop," Sheldon said. "Our customers will look and occasionally buy (at the other stores) for convenience. We think the majority of people will come back. We have advantages."

Marcie Kohl, who was browsing in Vroman's business books section last week, didn't seem likely to defect any time soon.

"I think they give you more individual attention and it's easier to find an employee," Kohl said. "I like the atmosphere. It's not as busy as Barnes & Noble."

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