Editor’s Note: The Biz Beat is a series highlighting local small businesses and restaurants in Silicon Valley.
Sitting comfortably in an aisle of Hicklebee’s bookstore, Calvin, 11, shares a book with his 9-year-old brother, Malcolm. The boys look right at home, which isn’t surprising since their mom Emily Liu-Elizabeth has been bringing them there since they were born.
Liu-Elizabeth herself has come to the shop since she was a little girl.
“Bookstores are places for kids to come where they feel safe,” she said, “and where they can find all these wonderful books.”
Hicklebee’s is a family-owned business run by two sisters, Valerie Lewis and Monica Holmes. Lewis is the face of the bookstore and works with authors, while Holmes runs the office and transports books to book fairs and conferences. Many of the staff are former teachers and librarians.
Together, they have created a magical place for children. On the walls cavort characters from children’s stories like “Where the Wild Things Are” and “Madeline.” There are surprises around every corner, like the key to “The Secret Garden” and the acorn that fell on Chicken Little’s head. The sisters hope to inspire curiosity in children, leading them to read these classic tales.
The bookstore has hosted a who’s who of authors, many before they were well known, including J.K. Rowling. When Rowling paid Hicklebee’s a visit in 1998 before the release of “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” only a handful of customers came. When she returned a year later, Harry Potter had become a household name and Hicklebee’s, which sold 1,000 tickets for the event, had to turn people away.
The bookstore, located on Lincoln Avenue in Willow Glen, opened in March 1979 with four long-time friends: Jan Gottlieb, Lewis, Georgia Osborne and Vicki Villarreal. They jumped in without any business experience, soliciting advice from librarians and reaching out to publishers for catalogues.
When Villarreal and Osborne returned to teaching, Gottlieb and Lewis ran the store. Soon Holmes joined them. Gottlieb moved away in 1991, and it’s been just the sisters at the helm ever since.
Part of Hicklebee’s longevity is its strong community support. When it relocated in 1989 from across the street, an ambulance driver shuttled books on a gurney while teachers directed traffic. Six months later, when the magnitude 6.9 Loma Prieta Earthquake shook the books off the shelves, a line of community members came to help put them back.
“We give out to the community,” Lewis said, “and they give back to us, and that is how we’ve survived.”
Running an independent bookstore isn’t without its challenges. The sisters have had to contend with big chain bookstores and being undercut by Amazon. Lewis said the store’s reputation for its personal service and specialty children’s books sets them apart.
Customer E. Clay Buchanan agrees. He appreciates the staff’s recommendations and being able to flip through a book in person.
“When you’re online, it’s not the same as having the book in your hands, especially a picture book,” he said. “And you can talk to someone about it. You can’t get that online.”
Saving the store
Although Hicklebee’s has outlasted the book behemoths, they almost shut down for good during the summer of 2020 after the COVID-19 pandemic struck. The bookstore pivoted to online orders, but couldn’t make up for a $150,000 loss from canceled book fairs. Facing ruin, they turned to the community for assistance through a GoFundMe campaign. The community responded, raising enough in two weeks to keep them going.
“It was overwhelming,” Lewis said. “I was in tears.”
In addition to receiving help from publishers, authors and editors, children came in to donate their allowances, teenagers held a bake sale and one woman donated her federal COVID relief check.
In the aftermath, the sisters added merchandise like stuffed animals, greeting cards, science kits, crafts projects, puzzles, games, toys and even reading glasses to help the store survive.
Joy Steuerwald regularly comes from Fremont to shop for picture books with her son, Harrison Prioste. Steuerwald said they love the feel of the store and never leave disappointed.
“It’s really interesting,” Prioste said. “You can’t get bored here.”
For more than four decades, Holmes said the sisters have taken pride in the beloved bookstore and how it attracts customers from throughout the region.
“How many people get to wake up in the morning and look forward to going to work?” Lewis said.
Cathy Nichols, who has been at Hicklebee’s for about 15 years, said on any given Saturday, children will sit on the floor reading books or listening while parents read to them.
“It’s a great community place to come to,” she said.
Contact Lorraine Gabbert at [email protected]