PEOPLE IN YOUR NEIGHBORHOOD: Meet La Jolla bookseller Nancy Warwick

Editor’s Note: La Jolla Light’s “People in Your Neighborhood” series shines a spotlight on locals we all wish we knew more about! Light staff is out on the town talking to familiar faces to bring you their stories. If you know someone you’d like us to profile, send the lead via e-mail to or call us at (858) 875-5950.

To describe Nancy Warwick in one word, that word would be “determined.” Other adjectives that suit the owner of La Jolla’s oldest bookstore — Warwick’s at 7812 Girard Ave. — are “strong,” “opinionated” and “sweet.” She’s the force behind trying to keep an independent book retail store in the era of technology afloat, and she will persist in the challenge. She speaks dearly of her staff, some of whom have worked for her for more than 20 years.

Where are you from?

I was born in Austin, Texas because my dad was going to grad school there.

What’s the history behind Warwick’s Bookstore?

This is a family business, and we’re the oldest continuing family operated bookstore in the United States. My great-grandfather started the store in 1896. He first opened in Minnesota, but he was actually born in Iowa, so after 20 years in Minnesota he moved to Iowa. Twenty years later, his wife passed away, and his sister was living in La Jolla, so in the 1930s, he moved the store to La Jolla. At that point he was quite elderly. Both my parents were born and raised in the Bay Area. My father was pursuing graduate studies in biology when his parents decided they were going to retire, and they asked him if he would be interested in taking over the store.

When did you move to La Jolla?

My father moved to La Jolla in 1964, when I was age 2. We rented a house in University City for two years, and then they found the house in Muirlands, where my mother still lives. My father passed away 10 years ago.

How was growing up in La Jolla?

Great! I went to La Jolla Elementary, Muirlands and La Jolla High, and the store was such a powerful force in our family life. My parents shared an office and worked together throughout their lives. I know sometimes my dad might get tired of talking about the store, but it was fun to talk about the funny things that happened, and if you’re in retail, you have to have sense of humor, because strange and weird things happen all the time.

When did you take over the bookstore?

My parents never put any pressure on us to take over the store. My dad always thought I would become a school teacher, and my sister became a school teacher. And the other thing they did is, even though they didn’t pressure us, they made the store feel like it was our store, too, from a young age. They really valued getting our opinions on how to handle situations, products that came in, and they included us in all the stories all the time. So the store became part of my identity.

When the opportunity came up for me to take over the store (my parents unexpectedly announced they were going to retire when my dad was 65 in 1997), I was in my final year, finishing my dissertation for a Ph.D. in anthropology at UCLA. My husband was working, and we had just had Zachary, our son, and so I had a newborn, and I was working on my dissertation.

I wasn’t expecting it to come up. I wasn’t prepared to make that decision and knew that I had to. It was a major life change. But we did it and it’s been a really good move for us, because I just love the store. I actually never had a business course, but I’ve always had a very good instinct for the store and have great employees.

What were some funny stories that happened in the shop?

We used to have a customer come in with a Standard Poodle, and the Standard Poodle would be off-leash wandering around, and if he wanted to find his owner, he would get up on his hind legs, start walking around like a circus dog, trying to look over the counters.

My grandmother was a force. She worked until she was 98 years old. I had the pleasure of working with my grandfather, he died in the 1970s, but I had a few years where I could work with him because we all used to come in on Sundays when the store was closed and catch up on things. Basically, my sister and I would just play in the store. But my grandparents and parents were here, and we would sneak out books that we really shouldn’t have been reading at that age.

What changes have you implemented?

We had Hallmark cards for over 40 years. The first big change I made when I took over was to sell other card lines. I’d become aware, living in LA, that there were many other card companies out there. So I made the change and it was very successful. I really appreciated that even though my parents felt very strongly about not dropping Hallmark, they supported me.

What do you do for fun?

My husband and I are really quiet people, so we really enjoy our home. I have a big garden and we enjoy the garden a lot. I love cooking, I read a lot, and I’m pet crazy. I have four cats and two dogs. Apart from that, we’re both passionate about collecting ethnic art. On my first date with my husband, when I got to his apartment I discovered he had ethnic art all over, which I’d loved since I was a little girl. Back then, we emphasized Latin American folk art, but over the years we’ve collected Asian and African art. We’re very passionate about it. We also love to travel and hike. We were in Patagonia in April.

Where do you get your love for animals?

We always had a dog growing up, but I’ve always loved animals. I still have all my stuffed animals! When I was little, my dream was to be a dog-breeder someday. I had all these posters of dogs in my room. I was crazy about dogs, and I still am. I have two Poodles.

How many books do you read?

It varies a little bit, but for the past half-year, it would be one book every 10 days to two weeks. It’s not a huge amount, but you know, I’m working (laughs). I love literary fiction and books where the story takes place in another country. I also like stories about an extended family over decades, dealing with war, strife and discrimination.

What’s the secret to recommending books?

There’s an art to hand-selling: Find out what book someone has read and really enjoyed, or if they already have something in mind, or if they’re looking for something similar to a favorite book.

How do you choose your attire?

I like to shop local. I like unusual clothes, but not so trendy that I can only wear them one season. I love dresses and skirts, and I like pretty clothes. There’s a number of stores up and down Girard Avenue that have great dresses.

How has La Jolla changed over the years?

It’s gotten really run down with the trash and the broken sidewalks, but this will change dramatically with the new Maintenance Assessment District. I sit on the board of Enhance La Jolla, which I’m very excited about. Also, it will help reduce our storefront vacancy problem, because the other big change in La Jolla is the huge amount of vacancies in The Village. It’s so sad that we lost Burns Drugs next door (to Warwick’s) because there was a very symbiotic relationship between the two stores. It’s hard to fill these huge retail spaces.

What’s something about you people don’t know?

People would be surprised to learn that I’m a very introverted person and I really enjoy quiet time. I never speak to the person beside me in an airplane if I can help it — I open my book so fast, and I’m sending out all the signals! So yeah, I’m just a shy, introverted person, although at the store I come across as a more extroverted person than I really am. But I’m really bad at small talk.