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FORT COLLINS — For all the convenience it provides, the Internet may be the biggest challenge faced by “brick-and-mortar” stores. But one Northern Colorado business is finding a way to thrive alongside even the Web’s largest retailer.
Old Firehouse Books has been operating out of its current location, a former fire station on Walnut Street in downtown Fort Collins, since 2009. And if you ask owner Susie Wilmer, she will tell you that one of the keys to running a successful book shop is having the right location.
“Fort Collins is a community that loves to support bookstores,” she said. “This is a very well-educated town … we do quite well in kids books because we have parents who are convinced of the need for kids reading and having books in the home.”
Wilmer and her husband, Dick Sommerfeld, bought the business in 2001, after working many years for the previous owner and operating book stores in Cheyenne and Greeley. “At the time it was ‘used’ [books] only,” Wilmer explained. “We’ve moved it twice, it morphed into a lot more new books than used books, and we’ve been running as fast as we can the whole time.”
The most recent move was done with an eye toward improving foot traffic by taking advantage of the tourism trade. “To my amazement, Fort Collins is a tourist town,” Wilmer said. “I’ve lived here since the late ’70s, and I just thought it was a delightful town to live in. It never occurred to me how many people would come to visit, but at the time, the visitors center was handing out information that claimed Fort Collins was the third urban destination in the state of Colorado, behind Denver and Boulder.”
That prompted Wilmer and Sommerfeld to relocate from a storefront on College Avenue near Prospect Road to the downtown setting.
And while the change of scenery did improve the bottom line, Wilmer admits that selling books isn’t necessarily an easy business — especially when you are competing with the likes of Internet behemoth Amazon. According to Wilmer, the online retailer made a habit of selling below cost when it was first starting up, a practice she says wreaked havoc on the market. For reference, she shared a story from her college days.
“I took an economics course once, and the professor had a little production model where you produced widgets and sold them at such and such a price and all the students were supposed to compete,” she explained. “Well, two undergraduates decided to sell at a loss and make it up on the volume — they were really kinda slow on arithmetic there — and of course the whole thing crashed, but that was what Amazon did for their first years in business, and that screwed up a lot of the book business.”
Rather than try to compete on price, Wilmer relied on the “human touch” to set Old Firehouse Books apart. “The only thing we were ever able to offer was to have a knowledgeable, educated staff that could wait on people.” She credits that, combined with strong community ties and the growing “buy local” movement, with keeping the business going during those years. And with Amazon no longer selling below cost, Wilmer says the market has stabilized to a point where small businesses can once again compete.
Ann Hutchison, executive vice president of the Fort Collins Area Chamber of Commerce, also believes the company’s local presence makes all the difference. “[It’s] so much more personable and effective than Amazon or a big-box store,” she said. “We are lucky to have a strong, local book seller that can support our business community.”
Maintaining those strong ties to the community is something Wilmer views as critical to the success of Old Firehouse Books. “Working with the libraries, working with the schools, to have people think of it as ‘their’ bookstore, that’s one of the things we focus on a lot,” she said. That includes numerous “meet-and-greet” events featuring both local and national authors.
Laura Resau lives in Fort Collins and has published several novels for young adults that are available through Old Firehouse Books. “They’ve done an amazing job forming fruitful relationships with authors, teachers, librarians, book clubs, and the readers of Fort Collins,” she said in an email. “I’m blown away by the caliber of authors who they host at their store.”
For Wilmer, it’s a sign that those in the industry are taking note. “Once you get a reputation with the publishers for having a community which will come out and support authors, then you get better authors in, so it just keeps building,” she said.
Mother Nature has provided some additional challenges in recent years, specifically the High Park fire in the summer of 2012, and the floods that ravaged the Front Range in October 2013. “The flood had an impact just because everyone thought we had been affected like Boulder and Longmont even though we hadn’t,” Wilmer said. “But the fire was really hard … we lost the tourist trade completely that year.”
Natural disasters aside, however, Old Firehouse Books is on a roll. The business has grown to 11 employees — four of those full-time — with revenues running about 18 percent above last year. “We broke $700,000 gross last year, and we’re probably going to scare $800,000 this year,” Wilmer offered.
One last difficulty has been the death of Sommerfeld this past summer. “He was our money man, he kept track of the accounts,” Wilmer said. “So I’m having to learn how to do that … it’s all the things I should know and kind of knew, but when you actually sit down to do it, it’s its own challenge.”
When asked what lessons she’s learned along the way, Wilmer laughs before answering. “Be open to say ‘yes.’ See how many times you can say ‘yes’ to your customers, to your employees, to new business ideas — just be prepared to make changes.”