Coronavirus rages. Shutdowns loom. And, even before 2020, independent bookstores struggled.
Nevertheless, Mike and Sam Robertson persisted. On Oct. 1, the couple opened Arvida Book Co. – launching their decade-long dream in Old Town Tustin.
“Our friends and family said things like, ‘Uh, have you ever heard of Amazon.com?’” Sam Robertson admitted.
“But in so many ways, the timing was right.”
Sam Robertson, 33, is a flight attendant whose job has slowed down. Her husband, 36, was furloughed as a commercial real estate insurance broker.
“You know how everyone has been planting vegetable gardens during quarantine?” Sam Robertson said. “That’s what we’re doing – planting seeds today that will come to fruition when everything gets back to normal.”
Admittedly, she added, “It’s a romantic idea. So many independent bookstores have gone under. There are few left in Orange County. But I feel like we’re different.”
Arvida’s prominent location, on Main Street and El Camino, became available last summer when Mrs. B’s Consignments closed after 20 years. For a picturesque neighborhood of small shops and restaurants, it occupies an exceptionally roomy space.
One corner of the vintage building has been transformed into the store’s children’s section – a jungle of faux vines that create a secluded tree house feel. Other nooks feature a coffee cart, comfy couches and earthenware made by local potters.
At the center are rows and rows of books and books, both new and used – most of them placed in some form of alphabetical order.
“Don’t look too closely!” Sam Robertson warned with a laugh. “It’s a bit of a treasure hunt. I appreciate those people who have a masters in library science now more than ever.”
The Robertsons signed their lease in late summer and swiftly got to work. In a matter of weeks, they stocked shelves, unfurled rugs and hung paintings for sale by artists.
All this with two daughters, Abigail, 5, and Ellie, 3, in tow.
It helped that they had a lot of cheap labor at their disposal, as well as donations of books and second-hand sofas. “We both come from really big families,” Mike Robertson noted.
His cousin Steven, a “master organizer,” drops by to sort books. His Uncle Carl built bookshelves. His like-named Uncle Mike set up social media accounts.
Sam Robertson’s brother Mikey (not to be confused with the aforementioned Mikes) constructed patio furniture for the courtyard – where, already, local book clubs have held socially distanced meetings. Her sister Stella assists in sorting books.
A friend named Julie designed the tree house, using thrift shop finds, and crafted a chair from the fronds of a palm tree that fell in her front yard.
Friend Beth added succulents from her garden. Friend Bryn, an elementary school teacher, dresses in costume and emcees virtual story times from her house every Saturday.
“We are so thankful for this collective of people who want to see us survive and thrive,” Sam Robertson said. “I get emotional just thinking about it.”
Survival is the mountain for any new business – not the least, this one.
In 2014, Susie Alexander debuted her own literary gem at a shopping center in Tustin. Although the whimsical children’s store drew a following, Once Upon a Storybook never really turned a profit. Alexander reluctantly closed it four years later.
“We needed twice as many customers,” said Alexander, now a librarian for Tustin Unified School District. “It was hard to say ‘good-bye.’ We were successful in every other way.”
Of course, much of the blame goes to the convenience of online shopping. Occasionally, Alexander said, visitors popped in, flipped through a few books and announced they would price-compare on Amazon.
“That was so painful,” Alexander said. “People need to understand that if they are using you as a resource, they should purchase from you.”
However, Alexander believes that several advantages suggest Arvida has “a real shot” to succeed.
“Southern Californians live in their cars,” she said. “If you’re not on their radar, they’re not going to just stop by. You have to become a habit. Old Town Tustin has more foot traffic and a number of restaurants. That will give them more visibility.”
Also, Alexander pointed out, Once Upon a Storybook was a “niche market,” only for kids. “Arvida has a larger market and even gift items,” she said.
Furthermore, at 2,000 square feet, Arvida has more than twice the elbow room her shop did. “I would have loved to have space for a coffee cart,” Alexander said. “You need to give people a reason to hang around.”
Arvida’s little cafe is operated by White Sparrow Coffee. The Robertsons’ landlord introduced them to the vendor.
On the Friday after Thanksgiving – once the busiest shopping day of the year but, in the era of coronavirus, a retail crapshoot — customers steadily trickled in, poking around and asking for recommendations.
Arvida regular Maria Manon Winger, 38, who lives within walking distance, sat on a couch, reading.
“I come here at least three times a week, usually with my six-year-old daughter,” said the avid reader, a high school history teacher. “It is so incredible that Sam and Mike opened a bookstore in the middle of a pandemic. Our community needs it.”
Winger promised that she “will never, ever buy a book on Amazon again.”
“Amazon cannot create this environment – where you are surrounded by people and books while enjoying music and the aroma of coffee. I love this place.”
Sam Robertson steered customers to books she thought they might like as her husband worked the cash register.
“She’s the brains and vision behind the store,” Mike Robertson said. “But I’m all in, 1,000%.”
They are there seven days a week, 10 hours plus a day. Upstairs, they carved out a playroom for the girls. In their words, Arvida serves as is the entire family’s “extension of home.”
“We are determined and optimistic,” Mike Robertson said. “We are making this happen.”