August 13, 2017
A fortuitous move to Midtown proved to be a godsend for Sundance Books.
Reno's last surviving independent new mainstream bookstore moved to its current location in the historic Levy Mansion at 121 California Avenue over the Memorial Day weekend in 2011. The Midtown resurgence, coupled with the eclectic appeal of the mansion built in 1906, has brought a new wave of customers to Sundance Books and help the business survive an industry-wide transition to digital media and a brutal national and regional recession.
Owner Christine Kelly, spotlighted in one of the first editions of Northern Nevada Business Weekly more than 15 years ago, has seen her fair share of ups and downs during that time. But moving out of the store's location at Fourth Street and Keystone Avenue was among the most difficult times she's experienced as a small business owner. Yet as usually is the case, the struggles to overcome Northern Nevada's economic challenges only served to strengthen Sundance Book's business model.
"When we moved over, things were pretty nip and tuck everywhere," Kelly said. "It was one of the hardest times to be in business, and yet at the same time, you could see great creativity, bravery and boldness going on. You could see a lot of little businesses starting up in the area. Things were tough, but that's always where good opportunity lies."
The Midtown resurgence spurred many different events, such as wine walks, that have boosted the store's customer base. And the boom in eateries and small shops throughout the area also increased Sundance Book's clientele.
When Kelly first appeared in the pages of NNBW, she — and every other new bookseller in the country — had no idea that Amazon, the online bookselling company founded in 1994 by Jeff Bezos, would revolutionize the book industry. Amazon's business model of selling books online cannibalized brick-and-mortar stalwarts such as Barnes & Noble and Borders, and the ensuing transition to e-books in the 2000s sealed their fate. In 2012, there were more e-books published online than hardcover books.
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Despite all the changes in the industry, Sundance Books has survived — and even thrived.
"The turning point, what really tipped the scales, was when Amazon came out with their tablet reader, the Kindle, for like $110," Kelly said. "That's when everything changed.
"You had the technology of reading change at the same time the technology infrastructure of retail started to change," she adds. "It was sort of like these two giant storms happening at once."
So how did Sundance Books survive the industry-wide transition to digital media when so many other bookstores, including Borders, closed shop? Kelly attributes the store's survival to its deep loyal customer base — especially avid readers who still prefer the unequaled feel of turning paper pages versus swiping left on an e-reader.
She also credits her longtime staff with providing unsurpassed customer service that keeps people coming back through the store's doors.
"We had people who believed in what we were doing and our business model," Kelly says. "But one of the other major reasons why we are still alive is because of our staff. We have people who are committed to this kind of work and to books and music. If we didn't have that, which brings people back over and over again and makes this a really dynamic environment, we wouldn't be here."
Don't be fooled into thinking that running a bookstore through a national recession is all quietly sipping espresso in a drowsy sunlit corner, though. Kelly says that without dogged perseverance, Sundance Books would be just another former business remembered fondly by certain residents of the Reno-Sparks area.
And there were many days when Kelly thought the end was at hand.
"You cannot give in or say, 'This is the last day,'" she said with a wry smile. "Even when you think it's your last day, you keep going forward. You get up the next day and realize, 'OK, that wasn't my last day.' You have to be willing to hang in, and you can't be afraid of hard work or working a lot of hours."
Kelly is heartened to see both a resurgence in new independent book stores opening across the country, as well as a flattening in the sales of e-book readers. Books are irreplaceable, she said, and will always be available to those who love to read.
Sundance Books has tweaked its business model over the years to better fit the times. It included music as part of its retail offerings (and even added music to its name), and the resurgence of vinyl has given a slight but unexpected boon to the business. Kelly also founded Baobab Press, which operates from the upper floors of the Levy Mansion, to help independent authors publish their works. Kelly serves as publisher and executive editor of Baobab Press.
Bill Gates famously said in 1996, "Content is King." The content is truly what keeps Kelly and Sundance Books going.
"There is still amazing writing happening, and that is one of the most encouraging things culturally," she said. "Whether you read it in book form or digital form doesn't matter. People are still creating great work, and there are still groups publishing it.
"For us, the challenge and the joy and fun is continuing to expose what we have on our shelves and having an educated and invested staff that on a daily basis works it as economically and as smart as they can."