Despite revolutionary changes in the book business, Amy Reynolds and Vic Herman have kept a good thing going for 50 years in downtown Traverse City, in addition to creating bookstores in Petoskey and Cadillac. Photos by Erin Crowell.
When the doors open this Saturday morning at Horizon Books in Traverse City it will be business as usual, sort of. The bookseller will mark their 50th anniversary in downtown Traverse City with a special weekend celebration.
“Considering we host more than 1,000 events a year, most people might not even realize we are having a special celebration going on,” said Amy Reynolds, who coowns the store with her husband, Vic Herman. “The balloons might tip them off and we will have more events going on than we typically do in a given day. But 50 years is a significant accomplishment and we are proud of that.”
A LOVE OF BOOKS
Horizon Books has survived 50 years in Traverse City, adding locations in Cadillac and Petoskey, primarily because of a love of books.
“I have always loved books going back to my childhood,” said Herman, who serves as president of the chain. “In 50 years I have yet to take a paycheck from Horizon. I opened this bookstore and have kept it open because I love books.
“Certainly the support of our customers has been essential, but we would not be here today if it wasn’t for the commitment and passion of our employees,” he adds.
Herman stepped away from the day-today operations 10 years ago, opting to work from home. He serves more as a consultant, allowing others to run the daily operations.
He has seen a lot of changes since opening the store in 1961 with his then-wife Nancy and a business partner.
Horizon Books was launched while Herman was a graduate student at MSU. He remained in East Lansing with his young family the first couple of years, commuting to Traverse City on weekends.
Ironically, Herman had no career path when he launched the bookstore.
“When I was in high school I didn’t have a career path or any plans to attend college. I didn’t know anyone who went to college,” said Herman. “One day I was in town and I ran into one of my teachers and he told me I needed to go to college. He called a friend of his who worked at MSU who lined me up with a job working at one of the cafeterias. I ended up taking an interest in economics and investing. A good thing, because that became my primary source of income.”
In 50 years Herman has seen major changes in the book-selling and publishing business.
“The first was censorship. It wasn’t until 1961, the year we opened the store, that ‘four-letter’ words were allowed to appear in books,” said Herman, “When I started there wasn’t any competition because there just wasn’t a way for a person to make a living in the book-selling business.”
That would change when Border’s and others decided to “box store” the book business. Herman and Reynolds remember they were very concerned as to the impact Borders was going to have on them when the chain opened in Traverse City 15 years ago.
“The biggest concern we had was whether we would be able to survive because no independent bookstores were surviving after a Borders would open,” said Herman. “What saved us was that we owned our own building, so we didn’t have that large overhead of rent. But they took 15% of our business right away and fortunately that was not enough to put us out of business. That was due in part to the loyalty of our customers.”
Shortly after Borders opened, the next major competitor came in the form of amazon.com.
“Amazon had a greater impact than Borders did. That is going to continue to impact us,” said Herman. “Fortunately, the market has grown in a way that it has accommodated both the brick-and-mortar stores and the online market. I have no issues with Amazon -- they are a great institution. The advantage they have is they don’t have to pay the 6% Michigan sales tax like we do, so they are able to offer free freight as a result.”
Herman is quick to add that the personal touch they are able to offer keeps them competitive.
“I can’t emphasize enough that the reason we are still open is because of the employees we have and the type of employees we have always had,” said Herman. “They are always working under what they are worth. They are so devoted. We also have customers who have that same sort of emotional ownership.”
Herman chuckles when he thinks about his business plan.
“I never got into this to be in the retail business. I got into this because I love books and everything about books. So I really opened this bookstore to supply myself with books and everyone else in the community with their reading interests.”
Despite having 22,000 square feet of retail space of books at his Traverse City location, Herman has a personal library in the basement of his home. His home library includes a couple thousand titles in an array of personal interests.
“I am not a book collector in the sense that my library isn’t filled with a bunch of rare books,” said Herman. “I have books down there that are of personal interest to me, including my economics text books, a lot of financial books, and I have a great collection of Jim Harrison’s books since he is not only a great writer but a personal friend.”
Herman knows the economic importance that Horizon has on downtown; it was one of the driving forces in his decision to purchase the former J.C. Penney building after the department store closed up and moved to the mall.
“We had outgrown our current location and while I knew it wasn’t good for the community to lose a major anchor and have that size (28,000 sq. ft.) of retail space vacant, the building wasn’t on my radar,” said Herman. “A few community leaders came to me encouraging me to look at it. Amy and I talked it over and while we were concerned about how to fill such a massive space (three floors) we decided to go for it.”
As for the future, changing technology has Herman and Reynolds somewhat concerned.
“Certainly the Nook and other downloadable devices are going to shape the future of selling books,” said Reynolds. “Fortunately the ability browse, hold a book in your hands still works to our advantage. We continue to analyze these trends and discuss what our role will be in the future.”
As one of the key anchors to the downtown Traverse City business community and surviving the past 50 years, expect Horizon Books to find a way to survive another 50 years and beyond.
For more info go to www.horizonbooks.com. Activities for the 50th Anniversary Celebration on Saturday, September 24, will begin at 10 am continuing through 11 pm at their TC location. Refreshments, authors giving readings and signing books, and musicians performing will take place throughout the day. There will be activities for children, as well.
Horizon Books packs 22,000 square feet of literary space in its downtown TC location.