Small Business Profile: Local Hero

Nearly 100 years old, Williams' Book Store has outlasted large national competitors to become a San Pedro staple and the oldest bookstore in L.A.

By HOWARD FINE
Staff Reporter

In a city known more for paving over its history, Williams' Book Store in San Pedro is a survivor. Established in 1909 by E.T. Williams, fresh off the boat from Wales, the innocuous-looking shop has outlasted two world wars, recessions and determined runs by three big-chain competitors.

In the process, the shop has earned the official distinction as the oldest, continuously operating bookstore in Los Angeles.

Anne Gusha, who is now co-owner with her son Jerry, was eight years old when she first happened upon the place as a customer in 1928. The fisherman's daughter was so fascinated by books that she has been working there almost non-stop since she graduated college in 1941.

"When I first started coming to the book store, it was to use my weekly allowance to buy and read the newest Zane Grey novel," Gusha said. "Mr. Williams was always trying to get me to read serious literature you know, the classics but I wouldn't have any of it. I liked my westerns and my romance novels."

During those first decades, the store moved around downtown San Pedro, as E.T. Williams searched for cheaper rent or bigger digs. But as the only first-run bookstore in town, it developed a loyal customer base, including longshoreman Bob Miles, who started coming to the store in the 1930s.

"Mr. Williams, now he was somewhat of a gruff character," Miles recalls. "I think he was a retired sea captain, and he brought that captain's mentality to running the store."

Changes in management

E.T. Williams died in 1940, turning the store over to his daughter, Ethel, who ran it for the next 40 years. Ethel Williams-Smith changed locations a couple of times, but mainly focused on nurturing its customers and bringing Anne Gusha and then Jerry Gusha into the business. Starting in the 1970s, Anne Gusha took on most of the management duties.

"That's when the chains started moving in," she said. "First it was B. Dalton, then it was Crown Books, and then it was Borders Books and Bookstar." None of those stores opened up in the immediate neighborhood, choosing instead the more affluent Palos Verdes peninsula.

"After the canneries closed and the Navy jobs started disappearing, people moved out of downtown," Gusha said. "We had hoped to replace those customers with people from the Peninsula, but they chose instead to go to the chain stores that were closer to them."

So when Ethel Williams-Smith retired in 1980 and turned the store over to Anne Gusha (none of the Smith children were interested), the business was on shaky footing.

"There were several times during the 1980s and early 1990s when I thought we weren't going to make it," Gusha said. "But somehow, we managed to hang on, although just barely."

That meant the occasional late payment to a vendor and relocating to cheaper quarters at the current location on Sixth Street.

Then, in the late 1990s, Williams' fortunes turned once again. First, downtown San Pedro began to revive as artists flocked to the area and new restaurants opened up. Walk-in traffic increased and the Gushas launched book signings on the first Thursday of each month, when the art galleries have their open houses.

Then, something unusual happened. Instead of the chain stores putting the small independent out of business, as is usually the case, it was the chain stores that moved out.

First, B Dalton closed its San Pedro/Palos Verdes store; then Crown Books filed for bankruptcy in 1999. Finally, Bookstar decided not to renew its lease. "We're now once again the only first-run bookstore in the area," said Jerry Gusha.

Rise in revenues

As a result, revenues have ticked up, from $170,000 in 2000 to a projected $240,000 this year.

"The big chain stores reached their peak in the mid-1990s, as mom-and-pop stores were often perceived as quaint relics," said Guy Adams, immediate past president of the Southern California Booksellers Association. "But the chains were notorious for their lack of service, and that's when you started seeing customers going back to the small independent stores."

With business picking up, the Gushas say they want to install new book displays they have put off for so long. And Anne Gusha, now 82, is getting ready to retire and turn the operations over to Jerry.

The question is who will take over the store when Jerry retires. "I still have 20 or 30 good years left in me, so that's not an immediate worry," Jerry Gusha said.

But history may be about to repeat itself. Seems there's a 13-year-old girl who comes in every month with a $100 allowance from her father to buy books.

"She's just fascinated by books, just like I was," Anne Gusha said. "In fact, she's even talked about wanting to own a bookstore when she grows up."

PROFILE: Williams' Book Store

Year Founded: 1909
Core Business: Selling current and used books
Revenues in 2001: $213,000
Revenues in 2002: $240,000 (projected)
Employees in 2001: 2 full-time; 2 part-time
Employees in 2002: 2 full-time; 2 part-time
Goal: Near term: To redo book display shelves; Longer term: Continue to outlast any competitors
Driving Force: A passion to run a good-quality, family-oriented bookstore with a friendly atmosphere

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