Bookends: In the dog-eat-dog retail world, La Jolla’s two bookstore owners, Dennis Wills and Nancy Warwick, should be fierce competitors. Instead, the merchants are friends who share customers, field stories and an occasional glass of wine.
By Susan DeMaggio
They have a lot in common. Both own independent book businesses on Girard Avenue whose names begin with W. Both are community celebs. Both use really big words. Both prefer the color blue to all others. And both have a lot to be thankful for this year.
Watching the bookstore world scramble to survive in the face of eBay, Amazon, Kindle, iPad and the loss of leisure time to the Internet and social-networking sites, sometimes readers want to go where everybody knows their name.
And they’re always glad you came.
That’s how it is at the thriving Warwick’s and D.W. Wills bookstores in the village of La Jolla, which base their success on the friendship and loyalty of their customers.
Nancy Warwick and Dennis Wills laughed at the thought of any animosity between them.
“We’re friends,” Dennis said.
And to prove the point Nancy added, “FYI: Dennis and I decided to act as undercover agents in an effort to apprehend a big time book thief in San Diego (and other cities) a few years back. Dennis even picked me up in his low-rider one day, behind the store, so we could pursue the suspect … incognito. Dennis was incredible and he basically did the job of the detectives!”
The admiration is mutual.
“Nancy reflects a Platonic ideal of the civic high-mindedness of a selfless public servant,” said Dennis. “By this I mean not only the vast array of events hosted free to the public at Warwick’s, but especially the creation of artculturelajolla.com which lists virtually all other cultural events around La Jolla. Add to this, the countless other charitable activities to which Nancy devotes herself, as well as the vast array of food she prepares for the public periodically. Otherwise, what chivalric knight or the most cantankerous of grizzly bears could not be slayed by the sparkling feminine charm and radiant effervescence of Audrey Hepburn combined with the intellectual fortitude of Francoise Gilot? Our entire community shall remain forever grateful for her indefatigable and irrepressible presence here.”
The Light interviewed this indomitable duo last week to tell the story below:
How long have you had the bookstore in La Jolla?
Nancy: We made a most unexpected discovery today. A reporter from Fine magazine e-mailed me to confirm a “rumor” that Warwick’s is the oldest family-owned and operated bookstore in the United States. I’d never heard that before but upon researching it with several of my booksellers, it turns out to be true.
My great-grandfather, W.T. Warwick, purchased Redding’s Bookstore in La Jolla in 1937. He first started his business in Mankato, Minn. in 1896, and after operating his book/stationery store for 40 years, he decided to relocate to La Jolla where his sister, Stella Abrams, lived at the time.
Upon purchasing Redding’s he changed its name to Warwick’s. Back in those days, my great grandfather liked to take a nap in his car after lunch, conveniently located just in front of the store. W.T. had been a bookseller for almost 60 years at the time he retired. My grandmother, Louise Warwick, retired at age 96!
Dennis: Opened the original D.G.Wills Books at 7527 La Jolla Blvd. just north of Pearl Street in September l979. We built a small shed with an adjacent fiberglass roof, illegally, which enclosed an open-to-the-sky patio between two buildings, with three interior rain gutters.
The building inspector eventually walked in, could have shut us down, but was enthralled with our unique architectural structure and became one of our best friends. When he retired, he instructed his replacement to leave us alone. Our oddball structure so reminded artist Francoise Gilot of Paris that she moved her art studio adjacent to the shop for a few years, and we almost bought the building together. But we eventually moved to 7461 Girard Avenue in l991.
What’s your business niche?
Nancy: I’m rather proud to say that Warwick’s is an anachronism. I’ve been told not to call it that — it’s a term that’s usually associated with things too old-fashioned to consider worthy anymore. But it’s an apt description.
We have become unique because we have remained traditional. That is, Warwick’s has remained dedicated to selling a carefully selected and wide range of books, office supplies, fine stationery and gifts. Such a stationery store would have been common in the middle of the last century. Today there are very few stores like Warwick’s anywhere in the United States.
Dennis: We generally carry those primary sources from the Western and Eastern Canons used within the Litterae Humaniores studies at Oxford or Cambridge, and which I fondly recall at Blackwell’s bookstore in Oxford, England; or those generally contained within the Great Books curriculum at St. John’s College.
Thus one can generally find, for example, Cicero in Latin or Plato in Classical Greek here. In this regard, we carry a vast selection of the Loeb Classical Library from Harvard University Press. As the academic community and research institutes here draw upon scholars from around the world, we also carry books in many other languages. Of course, we are also known to have carried Harry Potter or Dr. Seuss in Classical Greek, Latin, Russian, Chinese and Urdu.
How many employees (full- & part-time) do you have?
Dennis: One full-time employee; a number of part-time employees as needed.
Why do customers shop in your store as opposed to the bigbox stores and online?
Nancy: For a wide range of reasons our customers simply enjoy the store. We offer great selection, quality merchandise, excellent customer service and a knowledgeable staff.
The store has been likened to a village marketplace and many of our regulars stop by several days a week. Unlike the chains and online ”stores,” we offer a social environment in which shoppers engage with other shoppers, old friends and new. Warwick’s has a family-like environment that includes our customers. We know many of our customers (and their dogs!) by name.
Dennis: Aside from the new books we purchase from publishers, we also periodically acquire professors’ libraries. These include, in recent months, the libraries of Sam Hinton, folk music icon but also former director of the Birch Aquarium at Scripps Institution of Oceanography; Professor Andrew Wright, co-founder of the Literature Department at UCSD (Andy made the first D.G.Wills Books sign in l979); and recently, the library of Nobel Laureate Francis Crick of The Salk Institute.
Thus many colleagues and students of these iconic figures delight in owning something from these collections. In addition, about once every six weeks Detectives Tom Basinski and Bob Conrad join retired Probation Officer Bill Swank, who is also San Diego’s foremost baseball historian, out front at the boat on a Wednesday afternoon for some wine and reflections on the human condition.
Otherwise, at the end of the day one may generally encounter members of the bookstore brain trust that includes other booksellers from up the street, within the 19th century cracker barrel atmosphere here.
How are two bookstores thriving in a small town in a down market?
Dennis: We tend to employ the Macys/Gimbels philosophy from the Christmas film “Miracle on 34th Street.” Both shops are in constant touch with each other daily, checking to see if a particular title is available for a customer.
Another metaphor we suggest is the frontlist/backlist contrast. While Warwick’s will carry a vast number of contemporary releases, we will be more inclined to restock those backlist titles that have passed the test of time.
Nancy: The selection at Warwick’s and D.G. Wills uniquely reflects the particular interests of our community. Interesting merchandise generates customer loyalty, and this loyalty, in turn, is reflected in the quality and uniqueness of the selection itself. Such synergy between business and community is everything for an independent business.
Describe the 2010 highlights at your store.
Nancy: We had a great author line up this year, including Diana Gabaldon, Nicholas Sparks, Sue Monk Kidd and her daughter Ann Kidd Taylor, Ozzy Osbourne, Apolo Ohno, Anchee Min, Elizabeth George, Robert Crais, Anne Lamott, Raquel Welch, Gary Shteyngart, Robin Preiss Glasser, Mike Huckabee, Chelsea Handler, LL Cool J, and Rick Springfield.
We also initiated our monthly Coffee with a Bookseller.
Dennis: Like Warwick’s, we host author appearances periodically; but we are careful never to schedule anything during the Wild Card Weekend or Divisional Playoffs of the NFL, or during any important BCS college football championship games.
Otherwise, events from 2010 include (an appearance by) sportswriter Tom Cushman; our annual St. Patrick’s Day Open Reading of Irish Poetry and Prose (31 years thus far); surfing legend Mike Hynson visit; a Manny Farber film criticism event videotaped by UCSD TV; UCSB Professor Yunte Huang discussing the real Charlie Chan, videotaped by C-Span’s Book TV; Stephen Michael Shearer discussing his new book on Hedy Lamarr; and (last week) Robb Lawrence discussing his two books on Les Paul and the invention and evolution of the electric guitar.
What’s in store for 2011?
Nancy: Mirth, merry, and merchandise, of course! Seriously, we should continue to have about 2-3 book signings a week, which will include renowned writers, political figures, and children’s authors. We also anticipate that 2011 will introduce the public to a remodeled store interior. However, the remodel will not touch the Warwick’s storefront sign. That sign dates from the 1950s and is the last remnant of my great uncle’s short-lived business in Coronado.
Dennis: Well, after the football playoffs, prominent UCSD neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran will discuss his new book “The Tell-Tale Brain” on Jan. 22.
What’s your favorite color?
Dennis: Perhaps that indescribable tone of light that one may glimpse while standing humbly within a redwood forest gazing upward into ineffable, epiphanous eternity.
Nancy, please describe Dennis:
Scholarly, eloquent, dedicated, erudite, gracious, truly charming, sometimes ornery, kooky, more than a bit devilish, and, as it should be obvious to anybody, one-of-a-kind. You could say that I’m a fan. Dennis is a gentleman at heart, a good friend, and his store is an intellectual refuge. It’s also a decidedly decadent and delightful place to enjoy a glass of wine.
Nancy: Ph. D. in Anthropology from UCLA
Dennis: U.S. Air Force Intelligence, l967-71; Syracuse University (Intensive Russian, USAF), l968; Cal. State Dominguez Hills (Philosophy) l971-73; UCLA (Classical Greek), l972-73; Candidate, Rhodes Scholarship, l973; Oxford University (Philosophy and Religious Studies), l973-74; Institute of East European Studies, University of Fribourg, Switzerland (Soviet Studies), l974-75; Columbia University (Russian Institute, School of International Affairs), l975-77; Staff, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Research Institute on International Change, Columbia University, l976-77
What They Read
Dennis: Essays and reviews within “The New York Times Book Review”; books on military history and the problem of war; ontology and the concept of mind or consciousness; essays of the late, great Oxford philosopher of history Sir Isaiah Berlin
Nancy: Literary fiction with an existential twist, included in this mix would be foreign writers who introduce unexpected layers to one’s understanding of the alienated and downtrodden; well-written mysteries
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