Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Final Chapter For Arcade Bookstore

Local Hero Books’ closure pinned on on-line sales, slumping retail economy

By Nao Braverman
As gas prices soar and the stock market plunges, local residents can add Local Hero Books to the list of failed businesses in downtown Ojai.
The long-standing Arcade bookstore will be closing its doors on July 5 to make room for a wine- and tea-tasting venue.
According to David Mason, owner of The Village Florist, the Arcade space has housed a small bookstore since the mid-1970s. Since then, the shelves of best-selling paperbacks, literary classics and locally published books have been a refreshing contrast to many high-end boutiques and tourist shops found in the Arcade.
While the growing number of big box bookstores and internet venues may offer wider selections of cheaper merchandise, Ojai is losing much more than just the retail books that Local Hero offered. As owner Elio Zarmati has stated in his editorial, a bookstore has been “a cultural center, a temple of learning.” For years, Ojai’s local bookstores have been locations for writing and discussion groups, the most appropriate places for book signing events, and venues for local authors to promote their work.
When Mitnee Duque owned the store from mid-1980s to late 1990s, she had a slew of regulars who would come in every so often, to order books and chat, she said. Local writer and teacher Gabriel Arquilevich was one of those regulars at the shop which was then called Ojai Table of Contents. Duque, a relative newcomer to Ojai at the time, found that owning a bookstore was a splendid introduction to the local community. Her store was a place where readers could connect with authors and people of like minds would meet. It was during Duque’s reign at Table of Contents, 15 years ago, that Arquilevich struck up a conversation with Jamie, the then sales clerk, on one book shopping spree, and the two eventually got married.
Zarmati, who has owned the establishment for nearly six years, purchased Ojai’s two bookstores to see them consecutively go out of business.
“Owning a bookstore was a lifelong dream of mine,” he said.
But the first Local Hero, in the slightly larger location just a few stores down, was the first to go. It was replaced by Feast Bistro, and Zarmati’s book sales were consolidated to the slightly smaller location, renamed Local Hero Books.
Both stores’ sales began to dwindle when the Ojai Valley Inn & Spa closed for renovation, said Zarmati. And neither of them entirely recovered even after the inn re-opened.
He attributes the losses primarily to the proliferating book giants, like Borders and Barnes & Noble as well as Amazon. But that competition would not have hit so hard if tourists were doing a little more shopping, he said.
With the closing of the Visitors Bureau, once run by the Ojai Valley Chamber of Commerce and funded at its peak by $125,000 in 2001 by the city, Ojai is losing a lot of its tourist revenue, he said.
“There is no question that the people have less money to spend, but the question is how do we respond to that. The business community is expected to take over the marketing that the Visitors Bureau was doing, but the business community is running out of breath.”
An obvious challenge to the independent book market is that people are reading less, said Zarmati. His solution was to keep a lot of non-book items in the store. One such attempt was opening Casa Barranca’s wine-tasting corner in the back of the store, in a partnership with the local wine maker Bill Moses, last October. Zarmati and Moses shared in the sales of the wine, which made the fall more gradual, Zarmati said.
David Ray, general manager of Bart’s Books, said the closure of Local Hero is a sad reflection of America.
“There are well over 100 bookstores that have gone out of business in Southern California in the last couple of years,” he said. “People don’t read.”
Bart’s has its own clientele, people who travel all the way from Los Angeles to buy out-of-print books, essentially collectors’ items. He expects the closure of Local Hero, would help business for Bart’s, although he laments the loss.
Zarmati decided to hand the storefront over to Moses and Zhena Muzyka, owner of Zhena’s Gypsy tea as a shared tasting and retail space, after he realized he couldn’t find anyone to buy the store.
Some people had initially shown interest in purchasing the business, but he received no serious offers.
While the two local merchants are eager to share their first retail storefront, they are sorry to lose Local Hero.
“His going out of business is bittersweet for me,” said Moses. “The partnership with Elio has been ideal and I am really sad to see him go.”
But he is also excited to have a larger space for tasting and retail. Sharing the space with Muzyka made perfect sense as they both produce artful handcrafted beverages, with rich histories, and samples which require tasting.
“Our vision is to make it an experience where you walk into the store and are transported to a time where a handcrafted life can be cultivated,” he said.
Muzyka had a dream to have an Arcade storefront for her tea company even before Zarmati owned the larger of his two bookstores.
Muzyka approached then owner Bobby Houston with her plan and he ended up hiring her to manage the cafe behind the bookstore, a concept which she helped conceive.
“We are so sad about Local Hero closing,” she said. “That’s where I would buy books with my son, I don’t know what we are going to do without it.”
But she is excited about expanding her outfit with Moses, nonetheless, and expects to bring in a number of tourists to boost the economy while providing for local tea and wine drinkers.
She also envisions selling as many coffee table books as business will allow. “Imagine a place where you can buy a quarter blend of Ceylon tea and sit down with a book,” she said.
Zarmati is not moving too far away from books as he begins his new publishing gig with a Los Angeles-based health magazine.
Local Hero Books, the Ojai Valley Green Coalition, the Ojai Library and Friends of the Ojai Library, will put on a joint project called “Ojai Reads” today at the Ojai Library at 7 p.m. The reading and education event includes the presentation of several books which address how to begin facing pertinent environmental challenges by getting informed.

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