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Pasadena's historic Vroman's bookstore up for sale, along with Book Soup

Vroman's Bookstore in Pasadena, a cube-like building with angular columns, painted a Spanish brown, customers walk by
Vroman's Bookstore in Pasadena has been under ownership of the same family for more than a century. Joel Sheldon, who is turning 80, is its current owner. (Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

The owner of Vroman's, a historic independent bookstore in Pasadena, is looking to sell both of its locations in the city, along with Book Soup in West Hollywood.

The bookstore, the oldest in Southern California, was founded in 1895 and has been under the same family's ownership for more than a century. Its current owner, Joel Sheldon, who is nearing his 80th birthday, announced his intent to sell early Thursday, adding that he is retiring after nearly 50 years of leading the establishment.

"Vroman's deserves new ownership with the vision, energy, and commitment necessary to take it successfully into the future," Sheldon wrote in a statement shared on the store's social media accounts. He acknowledged the change in ownership as "a time of some uncertainty" but also expressed "optimism and excitement for what the future can bring for Vroman's and our community."

Read more: Place History: How Vroman's made Pasadena a literary capital

Along with its original flagship, Sheldon also intends to sell the Vroman's in Pasadena's Hastings Ranch shopping center and Book Soup in West Hollywood, as first reported in the Pasadena Star-News. Sheldon told the publication that he has 123 employees at the flagship Colorado Boulevard location, 13 in Hastings Ranch and 18 at Book Soup.

"We will take the time needed to find the right new ownership — someone who shares our core values and who is committed to preserving Vroman's as a community treasure," the statement continued, adding that they hope to "avoid any kind of disruption" to its customers and dozens of employees.

Vroman's acquired Book Soup, a West Hollywood mainstay since 1975, almost 15 years ago.

Booksellers at Book Soup unionized in the summer of 2022, following other independent bookstores throughout California, including Bookshop Santa Cruz, Moe’s Books in Berkeley and Skylight Books in Los Feliz.

Read more: Book Soup, West Hollywood's storied bookstore, unionizes amid a larger organizing wave

The Book Soup union sought wage increases and additional staffing; among its concerns were disability access, fairer distribution of labor, greater transparency from leadership, and “democratic decision making in the workplace,” according to a social media post from 2022. As of October, the union was still bargaining with Sheldon and the store's management. It was not immediately clear whether they had reached an agreement.

The union drive came on the heels of financial struggles at the stores, largely brought on by a recession and COVID-era lockdowns. Vroman's had continued operating at the height of the pandemic to stave off losses.

Vroman's Chief Executive Julia Cowlishaw, who joined the group of stores at the start of 2020, told The Times in a statement that its recent economic challenges and its staff's organizing did not play a role in the decision to sell.

"Joel has explored succession options over the years and has finally decided it is time to retire," she said. "We believe that the right new person or people exist to continue the legacy." Cowlishaw added that they remain just as committed to the success of Book Soup as they are to their Vroman's locations.

When discussing possible buyers in his interview with the Star-News, Sheldon said they are first considering bids from local figures — entrepreneurs, families or an investment "group of younger people who would really look forward to this."

“We want someone who really appreciates Vroman’s and wants to continue it as a community resource,” he said.

In 1895, Adam Clark Vroman, an ex-railroad worker, bibliophile and photographer, new to the San Gabriel Valley, partnered with J.S. Glasscock, and began to sell off Vroman's large book collection from its storefront on Colorado Boulevard.

The store quickly became a community hub in the growing city, drawing traveling dignitaries, engineers, scientists, men of finance and New York book editors as customers. The store would become a favorite of celebrated science fiction author and Pasadena native Octavia E. Butler, and would host Presidents Clinton and Carter and literary figures Ray Bradbury and Joan Didion.

"Booksellers are optimists and entrepreneurs," Cowlishaw said, "and while there is some uncertainty, we also see possibility."

Former Times staff writer Dorany Pineda and contributing writer Lynell George contributed to this report.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.