Tracing back more than 120 years, books have always been in Nancy Warwick’s bloodline.
Warwick’s – “the country's oldest family-owned & operated bookstore,” according to a headline across the top of its website – was founded by Warwick’s great-grandfather, William T. Warwick. The first store opened in Mankato, Minnesota, in 1896, about 10 years after the founder got his first job at a bookstore in Iowa. He ran the bookstore in Mankato for 20 years, before moving back to Iowa and running another Warwick’s store for another 20 years.
“Then my great-grandmother passed. My great-grandfather’s sister lived in La Jolla and told him that a local bookstore called Redding’s was for sale. This was sometime around 1936. He bought the store and renamed it Warwick’s,” Nancy Warwick explained.
In the early 1950s, W.T. Warwick passed the business to the next generation, Nancy’s grandparents Louise and Wynn Warwick. They enlarged the book department, and brought in a unique collection of gift items.
“They loved to travel, and brought back international items from their trips,” said Nancy Warwick, adding that the store has been known for those unique items ever since. “When my grandparents were ready to retire, my parents moved the family out to San Diego and took over the store. I had the chance to work with my grandmother, who worked part-time in the store until she was 90.”
While the publishing industry and retail book business has changed, Warwick’s has always been held together by family.
“Growing up at the store, every night we talked about it. My parents never pressured us to take over the business, and were very open to us having different career ideas,” Nancy Warwick recalled. “But they always made it feel like the store was a part of us, a part of our family.”
The store’s employees were made part of the family, too.
“Our book manager has been with us for 27 years, and the store’s general manager has been with us for 17 years,” Warwick said. “Many employees have been with us for over 10 to 15 years.”
The same story is true of Warwick’s customers.
“We see some of [them] several times a week. Often we buy books with particular customers in mind,” she said.
Those relationships are among the factors that have helped Warwick’s compete amid major upheavals in the bookselling business.
“We survived big chain bookstores in the 90s, in part because of the difficulty for big stores to open in La Jolla,” Warwick added.
Today’s landscape is dominated by Amazon, making small bookstores an endangered business model.
“During the 2008 recession, the Kindle came out. Between recession and the new device, it was a tremendous blow,” Warwick said.
But thanks to Warwick’s grandparents, who diversified the bookstore’s business model by selling more than just books, the store has been able to keep turning the page. Half of the store is now dedicated to non-book items, including stationery, office supplies and gifts.
“A lot of locals come in for our office supplies; we carry a unique range of products for home offices for people who want it to be more decorative,” Warwick said. “And we’re good at finding new products. We have a great location and a great customer base of people who understand the value of an independent bookstore.”
Warwick also said the threat of e-readers has leveled off since the devices were first introduced.
“Many people have gone back to reading real books. They want to hold a real book in their hands. It’s part of the reading experience,” she said.
The more pressing challenge in competing against Amazon, according to Warwick, is on price point. “Customers can buy books at below what Warwick’s pays for them,” she said.
That has forced the store to be even more creative in its approach.
“Our events program [with authors who read and sign their books] is very important to our viability and reputation,” Warwick said. “We have to compete with other bookstores to get those authors, but we’re very competitive in that area.”
One memorable moment was when former President Jimmy Carter made an appearance at Warwick’s to sign his book. He wanted a chicken salad sandwich for lunch, Warwick recalled.
“I wasn’t going to just order it from a restaurant, but decided to make it. I tried out all these different recipes with the staff until I found one I just loved,” she said. “I was so thrilled to go upstairs to the office and see [the former president] enjoying lunch with the Secret Service.
“When Hilary Clinton was here, I was taking the books out of her hand after she signed them,” Warwick continued. “She gave people so much attention and interest, and was able to sign and have conversations at the same time. After the event, she allowed us to do a group picture with the staff, and while the store was still locked down, she shopped for about 15 minutes. She just really enjoyed it because, she said, ‘I never get to do this.’ That was very special.”
It remains unknown, however, if Warwick’s will continue into the family’s fifth generation.
“The bookstore has always been part of my identity,” said Warwick, who has a young son.
“There are so many people that really love the store and understand it, so way down the road – not any time soon – I would think we could sell it to someone who would be interested in continuing the tradition of a neighborhood bookstore.”