Surviving earthquakes, recessions and Amazon, San Jose bookstore asks for community’s help
Hicklebee's, a bookstore in San Jose's Willow Glen neighborhood, is asking for the community's help amid the pandemic. (Courtesy of Valerie Lewis)

After surviving the Loma Prieta Earthquake, Great Recession and advent of Amazon, Hicklebee’s bookstore in Willow Glen is facing its next great challenge with the global COVID-19 pandemic. 

The 41-year-old San Jose literary institution is calling for the community’s help with a GoFundMe page that has already received more than 1,000 donors in just more than 24 hours. But it wasn’t easy for co-owner and founder Valerie Lewis to do after surviving as an independent children’s bookstore that has held readings from Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, “Harry Potter” author J.K. Rowling and actor Henry Winkler, among a list of prominent writers.

“It’s more than a business,” Lewis told San José Spotlight. “For me, it’s a belief that getting books into the hands of a child — particularly in a world that’s filled with screens — is so important.”

The pandemic has devastated small businesses across the U.S. with widespread shutdowns to stop the spread of COVID-19. In mid-March, Santa Clara County was the first in the U.S. to implement a shelter-in-place order that has shuttered businesses, schools and restaurants in the county.

Although Hicklebee’s received aid through the Paycheck Protection Program among other federal coronavirus relief, it hasn’t been enough, according to Lewis, who now co-owns the bookstore with her sister, Monica Holmes. 

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, center in the upper row, poses for photos with Hicklebee’s bookstore staff. (Courtesy of Valerie Lewis)

“We’re not saying we’re going to close, we don’t know what’s ahead of us,” Lewis said.

With 24 part-time employees who have worked 11 years at the Lincoln Avenue bookstore on average, Lewis made the decision not to lay off staff, while former managers have come back to help. The bookstore also has virtual book readings and staff who help tailor book selections to children’s ages and interests.

Now, Hicklebee’s hopes to raise $300,000 to get through August. As of Friday afternoon, the bookstore raised more nearly one-third of its intended goal. Dollars raised would go to payroll and operating costs.

Hicklebee’s has stayed open in a limited capacity during shelter-in-place by shipping children’s books and offering curbside pickups, the latter of which was recently permitted under a revised county order. But loss of foot traffic, community events and school businesses has been financially devastating. Bookkeepers have had to place a hold on new book orders as they scrounge to keep doors open — at least partially amid the shutdown.

Even so, Hicklebee’s has taken initiative to help Title I students, or those federally classified schools that serve low-income communities. Before coronavirus, the bookstore regularly hosted book fairs and donation drives at schools — and now the pandemic has made them adapt.

Since schools closed in March, Hicklebee’s has provided bags of books to nearly 400 families by donating books for the Santa Clara County Office of Education to distribute along with free meals for students.

Lewis said the bags come with books for kindergarten to up to eighth grades, which was meant to go to family members and neighbors.

SCCOE Hicklebees Book Distribution

The Santa Clara County Office of Education (SCCOE) and Hicklebee's Childrens Books & Toys partnered to “bring books alive” for communities serving Title-1 students who participate in the Free & Reduced Lunch programs. SCCOE staff members visited Alum Rock Union Elementary School District's Hubbard Media Arts Academy and Cesar Chavez School to pass out book packs during meal distribution, helping ensure that their days away from school are educational and fun! #WeAreSCCOE

Posted by Santa Clara County Office of Education on Thursday, April 23, 2020

On Hicklebee’s GoFundMe, several donors left heartwarming messages detailing their connection to the bookstore.

“Hicklebee’s is a cornerstone of our community, part of our definition and makeup,” wrote Brian J. Eastman, who donated $100 Friday. “It represents the values we strive to uphold and it would be devastating to lose.”

On Thursday, Kari Kirkpatrick shared her experience taking photos with her Girl Scout troop outside the store in the 1980s. 

“Every time I need a birthday or holiday gift, Hicklebee’s is my first stop,” she said. “I can’t stomach the idea of losing this vital local business to the pandemic.”

Through the decades, Lewis said the San Jose community has been there for Hicklebee’s. And it’s even more important now with uncertainty about when the beloved store can reopen for in-person shoppers and students amid the public health emergency.

“We are survivors and this is a glitch, but we’re moving forward,” Lewis said. “We’re going to getting those books in kids hands. We’re going to keep fighting.”

Contact Eduardo Cuevas at [email protected] or follow @eduardomcuevas on Twitter.

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