One year after putting out a plea to save the business from folding over a substantial rent increase, the owner of the Napa Bookmine book store says that not only has the business survived, but it’s thriving, despite the added challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic and recent local wildfires.
Napa Bookmine owner Naomi Chamblin largely credits her loyal customers for the shop’s survival.
“We found out about the rent increase three days before my second child’s due date,” she said.
“We put the word out right after we had the baby because we were very concerned. Luckily, Napans are community- supporting angels, and once they found out we were potentially in trouble, they stepped up to help support us, and that’s why we’re still here.”
The bookshop’s Pearl Street location (964 Pearl St.) was indeed hit with a 70 percent rent increase, after the owners/property managers “made a lot of exterior improvements,” Chamblin said, and it rises 3 percent annually. But she said she was nevertheless able to sign a three-year lease.
The store will eventually be moving to a new, permanent home, at the new Register Square commercial space at the 1600 block of Second Street. That property is currently under construction.
“I have to give a shout-out (to the owners/property managers) because I was concerned they wouldn’t be able to help us when we had to close for almost three months with COVID and (they) discounted our rent, which was generous and thoughtful to take the realities into consideration.”
Not all Bookmine’s Pearl Street business neighbors have been so lucky, Chamblin said. Only one of the other businesses that were on the block when Napa Bookmine opened seven years ago – Bui Bistro – has survived in its original format, she said.
The rent increases were a major factor causing the rest to move or close, including a few that had been area fixtures for decades, like the Napa Valley Dance Company and the Napa Valley Traditions gift shop, Chamblin said.
Those closures and moves may have shaken some locals into action, she said.
“People really solidified; they realized they didn’t want this business to go away and that has been a great positive that came out of the rent increase,” Chamblin said.
But, it was also some luck and forward thinking that kept Napa Bookmine from becoming a COVID-19 casualty, she said.
“We were lucky that we already had an online platform for people to shop online when COVID hit, and that helped us get through the time we couldn’t be open to the public,” she said. There is also an Oxbow Market location, which was temporarily closed due to the coronavirus but is now open daily.
But with the pandemic still lurking, procedures have changed so the new and used bookstore could reopen. That is the main message Chamblin wants understood, she said.
“We are open to the public,” Chamblin said. “People still ask. We encourage people to come browse.”
Chamblin said she sees the simple act of browsing through a bookstore as a little bit of pre-pandemic lifestyle that can help people cope.
“People are comforted to do something that feels normal,” she said. And though the browsing experience is actually quite different than it’s ever been before, the average shopper will not notice all the behind-the-scenes changes.
“My sellers wear N-95 masks, we changed our air filters, and we limit the number of people inside at once,” Chamblin said, adding that the masks are helpful when smoke from nearby wildfires fill the air, as well. “Masks and hand sanitizer are required when (customers) come in, and we have six customers in at a time.”
Another change is that the process for in-store pick-up has been refined and sped up, she said.
“We still have the newest releases, our popular staff picks wall, and we continue to get new used inventory which changes regularly, so the browsing experience remains top notch,” Chamblin said.
But, having already read the tea leaves and seen the changing business landscape, Napa Bookmine created an online presence in advance of needing it, and it’s turned out to be a godsend in the current environment, she said.
“We’ve been pushing the online business for multiple reasons,” Chamblin said. “Some people don’t want to leave their homes, so, local deliveries are being made, and we’re trying to continue to be creative in what we’re offering; keeping it fun to decrease stress and the feeling of unknown.”
Those efforts are not going unnoticed by Napa Bookmine’s customers, she said.
“Our customers really appreciate we’re trying to keep them safe. We get a lot of comments that we were the first business they went to besides the grocery store because they knew we were trying to keep everyone safe,” she said.
Sixteen-year Napa resident and software engineer consultant Tom Collins is one such customer.
“They have done a great job creating community, and that’s important to me. So I have fully supported the book store since they opened,” the longtime book club member said.
“I shop there as often as I can. They support the community and the schools, and people, in turn, support them by shopping there. It’s a great place to meet with other book lovers, find books you might not have considered, and have great conversations about literature and community events.”
Collins says Napa Bookmine is “not just a book store. They do author events, and not just at the store, but also at the library, the college. They support multiple book clubs and provide space for people to meet – when it’s not coronavirus. They’re a local bookstore creating community.”
Part of the challenge has been juggling family, business and coronavirus-related mandates, Chamblin said.
She and her winemaker husband stayed home with their children for six weeks, but are now “grateful” to able to leave them at a small day care during work hours.
As for the recent fires, while Chamblin’s home and business escaped damage, not all her friends and business associates have.
“We had at least two staff members who had to evacuate and a number of customers lost their homes,” she said. “It affected our direct community.”
Otherwise, these fires seemed less scary than last time, she said.
“We’ve been through it before. It’s kind of like ‘This is what we do in California — deal with wild fires every year,’” said Chamblin, adding that there’s a larger lesson, here.
“I think people know, but it doesn’t hurt to remind people how much shopping local matters. It’s made a difference for us and other small business,” she said.
“Two giant Amazon facilities are coming within spitting distance of Napa (in American Canyon and Sonoma) and it’s more important than ever to resist that convenience and double down on your dedication to buying from local businesses.”
If Chamblin and customers like Collins have their way, Napa Bookmine will live on for years.
“The main thing I’ve found is that trying to keep it creative and positive, and I always loved and appreciated my staff, but the 11 of us have worked so hard for the past nearly six months, and it’s been really challenging,” she said.
“We’ve completely changed how we do everything. It’s been a learning curve and I’m so grateful to them and our incredibly supportive customers who have made it their mission to make sure we’re still here when this is all over.”
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You can reach Register Business Editor Jennifer Huffman at 256-2218 or firstname.lastname@example.org