Despite a brutal market for booksellers, Warwick’s, the oldest family-owned and operated bookstore in the nation, still draws customers to La Jolla.
Founder William T. Warwick started his 70-year career as a bookseller in 1886, and bought his own store in Mankato, Minn., 10 years later. He relocated the store to Waterloo, Iowa, in 1916. According to his great-granddaughter Nancy Warwick, W.T. bought Redding’s bookstore in La Jolla in 1937 and later married Genevieve Redding, who founded Redding’s with her husband E.L. in 1902.
Growing up in the La Jolla store, Nancy Warwick built boxes and made bows, worked in receiving and helped at the cash register. She assumed daily operations when her parents retired in 1997. Her older sister Cathy, a teacher, has 10 percent ownership but isn’t directly involved in the store.
“I took over a well-loved and established store,” Warwick said. “Over the years, our books department has grown, and our customer group has expanded with people coming regularly from all over San Diego County.”
The full-service, family-friendly bookstore has adapted to serve an evolving community’s needs. It still carries office supplies, stationery, wedding invitations and cards. The well-known children’s department is stocked with toys and games. In the last decade, Warwick has transformed the gift department, stocking it with contemporary handcrafted jewelry, hand-tooled leather items and fine pens.
“You don’t have to have a high income to shop here, but we do attract people who appreciate the unique items we sell,” she said.
Adrian Newell, Warwick’s head book buyer, said the book selection is deep, stocking one or two copies of many titles. It has one buyer dedicated solely to university press buying.
“We want people to find the unusual,” Newell said. “We take a similar approach that Nancy does on the gifts side to appeal to a diverse group of readers. We sell books now that wouldn’t have done as well back in the mid '80s.”
Warwick said there are not many independent stores with the same level of a well-developed product mix; many bookstores hit by the e-reader revolution weren’t typically selling gifts and stationery, and are now being forced to allocate floor space to e-readers to stay in business.
“When I was growing up, there was a time that office supplies carried the store, times that the book department carried the store, and periods where things were very well-balanced,” Warwick said. “With e-readers, it’s very challenging for the book department.”
Newell said Amazon’s aggressive marketing, combined with consumer convenience, and low-cost, tax-free books has taken away more of the store’s business than e-books.
“It’s hard to compete with a company that sells books for less than they’ve paid for them,” Newell said.
Warwick said the store offers a tailored selection with boutique-styled displays. Newell added that as a large bookstore (7,500 square feet of selling space), it places a lot of special orders and can get books the next day in most cases.
“We offer an experience you can’t find online,” Newell said. “We have an excellent staff, and it’s a busy store. People come in and see their friends and neighbors. There’s a vibe here that people respond to.”
Having worked at Warwick’s for 23 years, Newell attributes the ongoing strength of the bookstore in large part to the events program, which brings in customers and keeps Warwick’s in the public eye in a way it wouldn’t be if it were just selling books.
Cultivating relationships with publishers and sales reps for decades, Warwick’s gets best-selling authors like Jodi Picoult, Lisa See and Marcus Luttrell for signing events, due to its national reputation for meeting the numbers required for big events and handling them well.
In addition to celebrity and best-selling author events, Warwick’s brings in debut authors and has a reputation for drawing crowds to those, too. Newell said the bottom line for publishers is not how well the event did, but how many books were sold.
This year, Warwick’s began a signed first-edition club. The diverse selection of books by well-known and celebrity authors is designed to appeal both to the passionate reader and the collector.
“A lot of independent bookstores across the country are doing it,” Newell said. “Every book that we’ve chosen has sold really well in the store.”
In 2010, Warwick’s started a program spotlighting local authors with in-store signings on Sundays, typically a slow day in the bookstore. Its “We Care for Locals” program gives local authors display space and the opportunity to promote self-published books, or books published by small houses with which Warwick’s doesn’t normally do business.
“We want to highlight that we are a community bookstore, and we’re here for the community,” Newell said.
Being there for the community extends to holding fundraisers, and supporting local schools and nonprofit organizations like the San Diego History Center, Words Alive and the International Rescue Committee.
“We try to be as generous as we sensibly can,” Warwick said. “There’s a shared loyalty that happens. A lot of our customers know we support organizations they support.”
When The Green Build airport improvements are complete in 2013, travelers will find Warwick’s of La Jolla in Terminal 2 at Lindbergh Field. Warwick won’t be operating the store herself, but she and Newell will have input on gifts and book selection. They plan to feature nationally recognized regional authors and promote local community events.