Hicklebee’s in San Jose brings stories to life

Editor’s note: The Biz Beat is a series highlighting small businesses and local restaurants in Silicon Valley.

Sitting comfortably in an aisle of the Hicklebee Bookstore, 11-year-old Calvin shares a book with his 9-year-old brother, Malcolm. The boys look like they’re at home, which isn’t surprising since their mother Emily Liu-Elizabeth has been bringing them there since birth.

Liu-Elizabeth herself has been coming to the store since she was a little girl.

“Bookstores are places where kids come, where they feel safe,” she said, “and where they can find all these wonderful books.”

Emily Liu-Elizabeth said her boys Calvin, 11, and Malcolm, 9, enjoy exploring Hicklebee’s shelves and looking at graphic novels and toys. Photo by Lorraine Gabbert.

Hicklebee’s is a family 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 staff members are former teachers and librarians.

Together they have created a magical place for children. On the walls, frolic 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 spark children’s curiosity by getting them to read these classic tales.

The bookshop has hosted a who’s who of authors, many before they were well known, including JK Rowling. When Rowling visited Hicklebee in 1998 before ‘Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was released’, only a handful of customers showed up. 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.

Children’s author and illustrator Rosemary Wells reads to a crowd at Hicklebee’s. Photo courtesy of Hicklebee.

The bookstore, located on Lincoln Avenue in Willow Glen, opened in March 1979 with four longtime friends: Jan Gottlieb, Lewis, Georgia Osborne and Vicki Villarreal. They started without any commercial experience, seeking advice from librarians and contacting publishers for catalogs.

When Villarreal and Osborne returned to teaching, Gottlieb and Lewis ran the store. Soon Holmes joined them. Gottlieb moved out in 1991, and it’s been just the sisters at the helm ever since.

Hicklebee owners Valerie Lewis and Monica Holmes enjoy working together at the Willow Glen Bookstore. Photo by Lorraine Gabbert.

Part of Hicklebee’s longevity is its strong community support. When he moved across the street in 1989, an ambulance driver carried books on a stretcher while teachers directed traffic. Six months later, when the 6.9 magnitude Loma Prieta earthquake shook the books off the shelves, a line of community members came to help put them back in place.

“We give back to the community,” Lewis said, “and they give us back, and that’s how we survived.”

Running an independent bookstore is not without its challenges. The sisters had to contend with large bookstore chains and competition from Amazon. Lewis said the store’s reputation for personalized service and specialty children’s books sets them apart.

Customer E. Clay Buchanan agrees. He appreciates the recommendations from the staff and being able to leaf 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 tell someone about it. You can’t get that online.

Hicklebee owner Valerie Lewis displays a collection of author’s artifacts. Photo by Lorraine Gabbert.

save store

Although Hicklebee’s survived the book behemoths, they almost closed permanently in the summer of 2020 after the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. The bookstore turned 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 help through a GoFundMe campaign. The community responded, raising enough in two weeks to maintain them.

“It was overwhelming,” Lewis said. “I was in tears.”

In addition to receiving help from publishers, authors and publishers, children came to donate their allowances, teenagers held a bake sale and a woman donated her federal COVID relief check. .

In the aftermath, the sisters added merchandise like stuffed animals, greeting cards, science kits, craft projects, puzzles, games, toys, and even reading glasses to help the store grow. to survive.

Joy Steuerwald comes regularly from Fremont to shop for picture books with her son, Harrison Prioste. Steuerwald said they love the vibe of the store and never leave disappointed.

“It’s really interesting,” said Prioste. “You can’t get bored here.”

Children’s author Mac Barnett reads to teachers at Hicklebee’s. Photo courtesy of Hicklebee.

For more than four decades, Holmes said the sisters have been proud of the beloved bookstore and the way it attracts customers from across the region.

“How many people wake up in the morning and can’t wait to go to work?” said Lewis.

Cathy Nichols, who has worked at Hicklebee for about 15 years, said that every Saturday the children sat on the floor reading books or listening while the parents read to them.

“It’s a great community place to come,” she says.

Contact Lorraine Gabbert at [email protected]

Hicklebee Bookstore: A Neighborhood Favorite

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