La Jolla Bookstore Holds Its Own Against Giants by Re-Inventing

Published in UT San Diego, September 22, 2014

The bookstore is dead. Long live the bookstore.

One La Jolla bookstore has triumphed in the face of the big chain stores, in the face of Amazon, and in the face of e-books. Meet Nancy Warwick, owner of Warwick’s, which is believed to be the oldest continuously family-owned and operated bookstore in the United States. When she was growing up, Nancy, now 51, remembers seven bookstores operating in the village of La Jolla. Today, there are only two — Warwick’s and D.G. Wills — that specialize in new and used scholarly books.

The history of Warwick’s is fascinating. The original store — called Redding’s — was established in 1902 by Warwick’s great grandmother Genevieve Redding and her husband. Nancy’s great grandfather William T. (known as W.T.) owned a bookstore in Waterloo, Iowa. When he moved to La Jolla in 1939, he purchased Redding’s, married Genevieve and renamed the store Warwick’s. Three generations later, Nancy Warwick took over from her parents. It seems she was destined to go into the “family business.”

We talked with Nancy and two of her key team members — Adrian Newell, a book buyer, and Julie Slavinsky, director of events and community relations — in the small second floor office in which Nancy and her sister Cathy (a schoolteacher who owns 10 percent of the business) first made bows and boxes for gifts when they were growing up. What is clear is that Nancy and her team are passionate about books.

“We helped with inventory, we rode the dumb waiter between the first and second floor, and we went to gift shows. We were involved but not pressured. I never expected to own and run the store. My parents said you have to love the store to run it,” said Warwick.

Warwick left San Diego to attend UC Santa Barbara and then earned a Ph.D. in anthropology from UCLA. She was living in Los Angeles with her husband and son Zachary in 1997 when her parents told her that they planned to retire. For a year and a half, she commuted between Los Angeles and San Diego and finally moved back to San Diego with her family in 1998, at a precipitous time in the book business. Amazon.com had started in 1994 and was beginning to gain traction.

“In the 1990s, we were hurt by the big chain stores like Barnes and Noble and Crown. Then in the fall of 1998, e-readers became more easy to use,” Warwick said. The 2008 recession also took a toll so the store has continually had to reinvent itself, she said.

Warwick’s has survived by offering a wide range of products (books, gifts and office supplies), providing personal service, paying careful attention to inventory, and increasing the number of author events. In addition, Nancy said, “La Jolla is a fabulous location, and we have an educated and loyal customer group.”

Famous authors hosted by Warwick’s include former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, actor Kirk Douglas, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, and entertainer Ozzy Osbourne. The store has developed community partnerships to market the events and sometimes holds them off-site in large venues.

“Our goal is to have a healthy vibrant business with a lot of customer support even if it means that we grow less. We want to stay true to our identity, and our book department is key. However, we’ve changed what we emphasize. For example, travel books used to be important but now that’s an area that’s easy to research online. We used to sell a lot of photo albums and invitations, but those have moved online,” Warwick said. The store now offers more children’s books and nonfiction books that are visually appealing. Warwick’s has 39 employees.

Warwick and her team say it’s hard to compete against Amazon.com, a company that is valued at over $150 billion and yet is barely profitable, so they focus on providing excellent personal service. “I have customers who come looking for me and ask for my recommendations. The personal connection is everything. That’s an experience you won’t get from an algorithm,” Slavinsky said.

Rule No. 371

You cannot outsource the human touch.

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