By Isaac Bonnell
Birthdays and anniversaries have a way of sneaking up on you. The years fly by and the milestones pile up.
Sunday, June 20, was one such milestone for Chuck and Dee Robinson, who celebrated the 30th anniversary of opening Village Books. What was once merely a romantic impulse by two former teachers from Illinois has become one of this city’s most iconic businesses. And for the Robinsons, it has become their life and livelihood.
“We never imagined doing the same thing for 30 years,” Dee said.
When it opened in 1980 a few doors down from its current location, Village Books was a mere 1,500 square feet and the Robinsons were excited new business owners. Both 32 at the time, the couple had sold their house in Illinois and decided to travel the states in search of new careers.
Along the way, they became enamored with small, independent bookstores that they happened to visit on their journey. So they started asking store owners questions about the industry.
“What we heard most was that it wasn’t a great way to get rich, but it’s a great way to make a living,” Chuck said.
When they finally reached Bellingham, they knew that this was where they wanted to settle down and start their own bookstore.
The 1980s were boom years for independent bookstores and Village Books saw double-digit annual growth during the first few years. The store expanded after two years into the space now occupied by Pacific Chef. The Robinsons also started Paper Dreams that year to offer the kind of cards and stationery that most bookstores carry.
By 1988, the bookstore was a funky maze of spaces upstairs and down, “as most bookstores were at the time,” Chuck said. The Robinsons had survived the initial years of owning a small business and carved out a strong enough niche for themselves to survive the coming years of mega bookstores and Internet sales.
As the years went on, the Robinsons wanted a space that felt all their own and wasn’t so disjointed. They bought the corner property on 11th Street and Mill Avenue and drew up plans for a mixed-use building.
After some initial trouble getting financing, the Robinsons sold the project to Ebenal General Construction, which finished the building in 2004. When Village Books moved in, the Robinsons also bought one of the two upstairs condos so they could live above the store — just as they had always dreamed about doing.
A changing industry
As the couple sat and reminisced last month, they both acknowledged that the book-selling industry they started in 30 years ago will never be the same.
“We knew technology would change the industry,” Dee said, adding that they got their first point-of-sale system in 1985. “It’s hard to imagine running a bookstore now without a computer.”
When Internet sales became possible in the mid-1990s, the Robinsons jumped at the opportunity.
“We were selling books online as early as anyone, right around the time Amazon came online,” Chuck said. “We understood then that the Internet would be a part of our business.”
While Village Books doesn’t sell nearly as many books online as Amazon.com, the Internet has changed the bookstore in a different way. Last year, the Robinsons purchased an Espresso Book Machine that has access to more than 3 million books online and can print a book and a cover in minutes.
Rather than waiting to order a hard-to-find title or track down a book that is out of print, Village Books can print them whenever a customer wants.
“There’s no reason that a book has to go out of print anymore,” Dee said.
As the publishing industry has seen ever more consolidation, Chuck sees the Espresso Book Machine as a way to build self-publishing into a viable way to break into the market. Thus far, the store has worked with 25 authors to self-publish their books.
Village Books has also published five books of its own, most recently a memoir by Chuck Robinson called “It Takes a Village Books.” In the first two weeks that it was on the shelves, it outsold a book by Stieg Larsson that is on the New York Times best-seller list. But Chuck doesn’t have delusions of grandeur about his book.
“What I expect will happen is we’ll keep it on the shelves and we’ll print a book when we need a book and sell maybe five books a year,” he said.
The next stage
The last 30 years have been more exciting than either of the Robinsons said they could have imagined when they started the book store. They have met four presidents, many famous authors and important publishers, not to mention a cadre of other independent bookstore owners.
But at age 62, Chuck and Dee are starting to think about retirement and about what will happen to Village Books when they’re gone.
“There’s a sense of responsibility now. It’s more than just a business,” Chuck said.
“It’s a little daunting,” Dee added. “We hope that the store has a life beyond us.”
But before that happens, there are a lot more books to read, new technology to figure out and a lot more memories to make.