THANK YOU FOR HELPING US CELEBRATE 24 YEARS IN BUSINESS! WE SINCERELY APPRECIATE YOUR LOYAL SUPPORT & HAVE MANY PLANS TO CONTINUE TO BE YOUR GO-TO PLACE FOR GREAT BOOKS, COFFEE AND CULTURE!!
This article originally ran in February 2017 in the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.
Debra J. Horan opened her bookstore, Booklovers’ Gourmet, 23 years ago when Amazon was gaining momentum with book sales and e-readers were becoming hot, and while many bookstores closed in the aftermath, Ms. Horan stayed viable by remaining true to her mission of offering variety and making the shop a community gathering space.
Booklovers’ Gourmet, 55 East Main St., has remained independent and survived in the online era, with its stacks of an eclectic mix of new and used books — some hard to find — gift sidelines, greeting cards, journals, jewelry, pottery and a small café area with four tables in the front of the shop near the window. Visitors to the cozy, 1,000-square-foot space are greeted with the smell of coffee and fresh-baked pastries and will find a lot packed into every nook and cranny of the shop, likely unable to explore everything in just one visit.
“Usually people come in and are taken back by how much there is in the store as far as variety,” Ms. Horan said. “You can come in every day and still not see everything. I try to keep it organized so it is not too overwhelming. I do all the ordering, and I know where each book is.”
The shop seems to take on a life of its own, with Ms. Horan’s family helping out, regulars visiting who have frequented the shop since it opened, and generations of families who fell in love with it.
“I have to give them a reason to come in,” Ms. Horan said. “I’m not selling books online — I cannot compete that way. My goal is to get people to come into the store as a destination with a full-sensory experience, smelling the coffee and pastry and making it a place for people to feel comfortable to sit and chat for a while, wander around and get lost in the books.”
Ms. Horan, who grew up in Webster and majored in illustration at the Rhode Island School of Design with aspirations of doing freelance illustration work for magazines and newspapers when she graduated, opened the shop in March 1995, about the same time Amazon came on full-force, mostly selling books. But it was the popularity of e-readers that affected business, she said, and new books sales took a hit.
“I kept to the plan to offer different new and used books, had way more variety, and I was more competitive with pricing on used books,” she said. “It’s coming full circle, and more people are wanting a physical book in their hands.”
Ms. Horan said that as new book sales went down, she adjusted quickly and ordered books that were more in demand.
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“I could do it very easily because I don’t have to go through corporate,” she said. “I just decide to do it and do it the next day. That’s what I like about being a sole proprietor and making the sole decisions in the best interest of the business. I do consult with people and do research, but ultimately it is up to me.”
Though she is married, husband Michael J. Horan, who is retired after more than 20 years as a Webster mail carrier, leaves running the business to his wife and visits the shop daily to just hang out and socialize with customers, she said.
“He comes in to socialize rather than to help,” Ms. Horan said. “He likes to hang out and have coffee. It’s like one big happy family here. Some of the regulars I see just about every day. Like any small business owner my goal is to cultivate long-term relationships with my customers. (This week) there were three generations of a family that came into my store. Now the grandparents are bringing in the grandchildren, and that is what it is all about.”
Her parents, Edward and Lorraine Ostrokolowicz, also stop in almost daily. Married 52 years, her mother, 69, retired from human resources at a company in Dudley, and father, 72, a retired welder and jack-of-all trades, come in just about every day and help.
“I don’t think I would still be here without their help,” Ms. Horan said.
Ms. Horan’s other main objective for the shop was to create a meeting place for people, which she has done since she opened, holding meetings for an Amnesty International group (she is a member), mystery book club, author signings, open mic readings, writers’ groups and book discussion groups.
“It is more of a community cultural space that people know they can come to,” she said.
She is also a member of the American Booksellers Association and member of the New England Independent Booksellers Association.
“I highly recommend joining,” she advises other bookshop owners. “They have been helpful from the beginning with workshops and a way to connect with other independent bookstores. Seventeen new independent bookstores opened in 2017. They are kind of on the upswing. People are realizing once the Borders and other chains closed that they missed having a physical bookstore in their town or city. I think it is a good sign for the future that people are still looking for these places to go to.”
Ms. Horan plans to mark the shop’s 23rd anniversary with a celebration from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. March 3.
By Paula J. Owen