The little bookstore that could

Published: February 1st, 2009

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There’s plenty to read, no matter what your budget, at The Book Rack in La Verne.

Yoome Pannavalee, owner of The Book Rack, takes inventory about 10:15 a.m., just after the store is opened. The inventory includes both used books for purchase, and new books for purchase or rental. / photo by Christina Worley

Yoome Pannavalee, owner of The Book Rack, takes inventory about 10:15 a.m., just after the store is opened. The inventory includes both used books for purchase, and new books for purchase or rental. / photo by Christina Worley

by Sher Porter
photography by Christina Worley

The adventure does not begin when you open the book, it starts the moment you enter the bookstore. The variety and depth of books that are offered leave various options open to choose from. Some books will take you to another universe. Some books will introduce you to a Southern belle. Some books will help you search inside of yourself. Only you can decide which book you will read. A first step in choosing your book could be a trip to The Book Rack.

Walk through their door and you’ll discover new worlds. The store is filled with rows and rows of books—thick books, skinny books, tall books and colorful books, standing side-by-side in the bookshelves. Soothing classical music plays throughout the small store and pictures of countrysides, bridges and women adorn the walls.

Once you enter, you are greeted by a warm smile. “We’re really like a community-based business,” says Yoome Pannavalee, who’s owned the store for two years. Although The Book Rack may seem like any other bookstore at first glance, it has some unique qualities. Except for one section that has new books, all of the books are used. Customers hand in their old books and the store gives them store credit for one-fourth of the book’s original cost. All books must be in good condition. That credit can only used for the genre of book that is turned in. If a customer wants to exchange their mystery book, the store credit can only be used for books in the mystery section. The only exception to the rule is science-fiction or Western books because they are hard to keep in stock. When customers are done exploring a new world through the book, they can either keep it or return it for more store credit. The store credit is kept on file for years.

“There are people who have hundreds of dollars of credit because they just keep bringing books in,” Pannavalee says. All used books are half-priced, so the store credit helps slash the price even more. There are also new, hardcover books offered that can be rented for $3.50 per week or $5 for two weeks. “It’s a good bargain if you’re an avid reader,” Pannavalee says. Each book that arrives is cleaned before it is shelved and inspected to make sure it is in good condition.

Pannavalee says most of her customers are elderly men and women who have been coming for years. “I can go through a book in like three of four days,” says customer Maggie Curtin. She has been coming to The Book Rack for three or four years.

The Book Rack is also a helpful store for high school students. The store carries a collection of books by Mark Twain. They also carry “Brave New World,” and “Beowulf,” among other books that high school students often are required to read. Pannavalee tries to keep these books in stock so they’re available when students come in. The store also has a school fund for customers who wish to donate their credit, so teachers can buy the books for their students. “I’ve had students tell me, ‘Oh, I went out to The Book Rack today and bought this,’” says Erin Peters, an English teacher at Bonita High School. Peters encourages students to buy books from The Book Rack if they want their own copy to take notes in.

The Book Rack in La Verne has been in operation for 15 years, even though it is not a very well known store. Pannavalee, the newest owner, has tried to advertise the store more, but she finds that word-of-mouth advertisement is better. She does not want the store to have a big name because she likes the community feel of the store. “It really isn’t worth the trouble or the cost,” Pannavalee says of advertising.

“I think what makes a successful business in this day and age is how you manage it,” says Mike Buglio, who became head of the bookstore franchise recently.

Many of the customers have grown up going to the store. Employees know their names, their families and their interests because they take time to get to know each customer. “It’s a lot of fun because you build relationships with them,” manager Debbie Midgley says. Midgley is an avid reader who enjoys romance novels. She has been working at The Book Rack for six years. “They know me on sight because I come here often enough,” Maggie Curtin says.

The idea for The Book Rack came from Virginia Darnell, who opened the first Book Rack in Tennessee during the 1960s with the idea of having customers trade in their books for store credit to buy more books. The business was a success, so in the late ’60s she decided to franchise the business. Her son Fred Darnell eventually took over the business, and today Buglio is the new head of the franchise.

Today, after more than 40 years, The Book Rack has about 100 stores nationwide and one store in Canada. Most of the stores are on the East Coast. Pannavalee believes that the West Coast has fewer stores because there are other forms of entertainment to distract people from reading. Buglio says that most of the stores are in Florida, Tennessee, Alabama and other surrounding states because the franchise began in Tennessee. Buglio also has his own store in Arlington, Massachusetts. Anyone interested in joining the franchise can call him at 1-877-926-6579. “You have to love it because you don’t get rich,” Pannavalee says.

The Book Rack, located at 1405 Foothill Blvd., is tucked back among a row of shops in the CVS shopping center at the corner of Foothill Boulevard and Wheeler Avenue. And, while it is inviting and cozy inside, enter at your own risk, because once you begin paging through the books, you’re bound to be transported to another world.

Debbie Tucker, left, assists a customer at The Book Rack. / photo by Christina Worley

Debbie Tucker, left, assists a customer at The Book Rack. / photo by Christina Worley

The Book Rack is home to roughly 10,000 new and used books. About 90 percent of them are used paperbacks, mostly brought in by customers. New books are discounted 20 percent to all customers. / photo by Christina Worley

The Book Rack is home to roughly 10,000 new and used books. About 90 percent of them are used paperbacks, mostly brought in by customers. New books are discounted 20 percent to all customers. / photo by Christina Worley

photo by Christina Worley

photo by Christina Worley

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