If a bookstore takes the name of the city in which it resides, it would do better to reflect the values and character of its hometown. This is certainly the case for the Boulder Book Store, TPBookstore of the Year 2018, which has been a foothold in downtown Boulder, Colorado, for 45 years.
Upon entering the store from the main entrance on Pearl Street, customers are immediately confronted with a basket of bestselling leftovers and, a few more steps, are presented with seven full cases of staff recommended vouchers. Just across the aisle is a case of herbal cannabis remedies. “Honestly, I’m not sure what these things are doing,” says Arsen Kashkashian, the main buyer and general manager of the store, pointing to the deal. “But I know some of these items cost $ 100 or more.”
Kashkashian shoppers know exactly what herbs do: One of the top-selling titles on the store last year was Cannabinoids and the Brain, a scientific study by Linda A. Parker published by MIT Press. “We have sold over 150 copies since its publication,” says Kashkashian, who has placed the book at the forefront of recommended titles.
Further details on the 20,000 square feet. The store, which is housed in a building constructed in the 1880s, is a testament to Boulder’s free spirit. The basement houses, alongside cookbooks, non-fiction books and travel documents, the official bookstore of Naropa University, the Buddhist-inspired and non-sectarian school. The second floor offers for sale a colorful range of meditation poufs (“non-returnable” when seated). The third-floor “ballroom”, which houses fiction, poetry and art, and serves as the store’s event space, is lined with a dozen statues of the Buddha and photographs of great Buddhist lamas, such as Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche.
“The ballroom was at one point the performing arts space for Naropa, and Allen Ginsberg, Ram Dass and William Burroughs have all performed here,” says store owner David Bolduc from his office overlooking the ballroom. “I studied with Rinpoche, who was one of the first authors we published at Shambhala Press [where Bolduc serves on the board of directors], and Buddhism has had a huge influence on my life and the store.
Bolduc was born in Michigan and attended UCLA before dropping out to participate in the anti-Vietnam War movement. In 1969, he and a few friends opened Together Books, a cooperative bookstore in Denver. In 1972 he left that store to open Backcountry Books, which a year later was renamed the Boulder Book Store. “I never graduated from college, but this bookstore gave me a great education,” Bolduc says.
Now 72, Bolduc has largely ceded day-to-day management of operations to Kashkashian, who has worked at the store since 1992. “David may seem laid back, but the reason this store is still in business is because David, very good businessman, ”says Kashkashian. Bolduc was, for example, the founder of what many believe to be the first “buy locally” organization in an American city.
Kashkashian also credits Bolduc for his pragmatism: the store didn’t chase trends or fashions, but quickly implemented innovative business practices. “We didn’t get into e-commerce or e-books much, for example,” he says, “but when Edelweiss arrived we were literally the first store in the country to place an order on the system. “
As a shopper, Kashkashian says he was able to leave his mark on the store by pushing it to stock more literature, which is evident in the nearly endless shelves of fiction – new, used and abandoned – at almost all levels of the store. . The inventory composition is approximately 65% new books, as well as 16% second-hand and sales, with the remainder being off-book products. There are over 100,000 items for sale in the store.
Kashkashian also set up consignment agreements with publishers, an idea he adopted from Mitchell Kaplan, owner of Books & Books in Miami, whom he got to know through the Independent Bookstore Consortium (both stores are members ). “We started our consignment business with Sounds True, a local audiobook publisher, but have since expanded it to Chelsea Green, Shambhala, Inner Traditions and others,” Kashkashian said.
Boulder Book Store was also among the first in the country to start billing for events, a move that made it headline the New York Times. “In 2011, we started asking customers to pay $ 5 to attend an event, and then they could get $ 5 off the author’s featured book or an in-store purchase on the day of the event. ”Says Kashkashian. “Initially, attendance dropped, but now we’re seeing 80-90% of the public buy the author’s book at the event.”
Sometimes that can translate into a large sum of money, like when Pete Souza came to Boulder in January for a presentation in support of his book Obama: An Intimate Portrait. “It was the only event he had in Colorado,” says Stephanie Schindhelm, marketing and promotions manager for the store. The appearance was so popular that “we had to move it to bigger and bigger rooms,” she adds. “Eventually it landed at the Boulder Theater, which can seat 850 people, and was sold out.”
The surrounding community has been very supportive of the store. During the two days that this reporter spent in the city in April, almost everyone I spoke to gushed with their appreciation. In return, the store has supported the community, helping to sponsor a series of events, from the US edition of the Zee Jaipur Literature Festival (which brings together writers with leaders in various fields to advocate for free speech) to textbook fairs, a recent project which has also proved financially successful.
Although there is a Barnes & Noble just a mile and a half down Pearl Street from Boulder Book Store (and a Borders store was once just as close), there are enough book buyers to shop around both. . “I’ve heard that B&N is one of the most successful in the country,” says Kashkashian.
Part of the success of the two booksellers is the result of the city’s highly educated population. “We have more doctorates per capita than any other city in the country,” says Bolduc. “We have some of the smartest scientists in the country, in places like Ball Aerospace and the National Center for Atmospheric Research, and there are 40,000 students at the University of Colorado, which has fostered a big startup scene. “
Boulder’s educated and eclectic nature makes selling books in the city especially rewarding. “I think it’s very helpful to be in a city with such a distinctive personality,” Kashkashian says. “It makes it easier for me as a buyer in some ways. And the size of the store means that we were able to do things that other stores cannot. “
Today, the Boulder Book Store has between $ 4 million and $ 5 million in total sales per year.
Looking ahead, Bolduc says he may not be present on site daily, but he has no plans to retire either. “My role today is that of a maintenance worker,” he says with characteristic humility. “I’m a handyman and I keep things in this old building from falling apart. I’m a little obsessed with McGuckin Hardware [a legendary local independent hardware store] and I am there at least three times a week.
Bolduc also travels more. His wife is from Brazil and a recent visit to the country made a strong impression. “They have amazing bookstores there, real temples full of books; it’s hard not to be a little jealous, ”he says.
A version of this article appeared in the 05/14/2018 issue of Editors Weekly under the title: PW Bookstore of the Year: Boulder Book Store