Allison K. Hill is the kind of person you want seated next to you at a dinner party. She not only loves stories (so she’ll adore yours); she’s got some of her own.
Her family hails from the small town of Henrietta, Tex. (pop. 3,000). “Right on the Red River,” Hill said, “almost on the border with Oklahoma.”
She’s lived in Dallas, San Francisco and, hold on … even Michigan. Now married, with a 17-year-old stepdaughter, she resides in Silver Lake.
Her website says she’s a speed-reader. “It seems to be some sort of gift that runs in my family. This weekend I read two books.” Yes, from beginning to end.
It turns out “delicious” is her favorite word. Hill asks me to say it out loud. I obey; she smiles. “It’s the most perfect word,” Hill said. “It feels great in your mouth [and] it’s congruent with the actual definition.”
What’s the “K” for? “When I first started writing,” Hill explained, “if you Googled my name, you got the name of a gynecologist.” “I was getting emails asking questions I am not prepared [or] qualified to answer [laughs].” She tells me: “it gets better.” And it does. Ms. Hill was referred to Dr. Hill, saw her for an exam and … “it was very confusing for everyone involved.” More laughter.
And, Hill announced: “I’m a total book slut. I will read anything and everything.”
In Hill’s case, promiscuity (of the literary kind) is a plus. She is president and CEO of Vroman’s, the Pasadena bookselling Holy Grail founded in 1894 – and the company that acquired WeHo’s legendary Book Soup on the Sunset Strip almost seven years ago. What do people, such as random party guests, say to her upon learning what she does? There are two main reactions. How much they love Book Soup, and/or then the question she is absolutely sick of hearing: “So how do you compete with Amazon?”
That may be one of your questions, too, right? How do independent bookstores survive these days?
“Less than 1% of my business is online,” Hill said. “I say we don’t compete with Amazon because we don’t. I can’t compete on price. And they can’t compete with me on the things that we offer.”
Those are some bold-ass words, whether spoken or in print, and I see her point.
“We do 900 events a year amongst all the stores,” Hill said. Example: David Sedaris appeared at Vroman’s the previous evening. (Even though Hill spent six hours with the humorist she provided no word on whether he’s finally learned to talk pretty). “The kind of customer service you get. The kind of experience you get. They can’t offer that.” (Though they may try soon. Amazon plans to occupy a retail space in the revamped Century City by the end of the year.)
Hill has been in the business of selling tomes for two-and-a-half decades. She began at Simon & Schuster, then jumped to Waterstones. In 1998 she started at Book Soup, was GM for six-plus years when Vroman’s snagged her. That was 13 years ago. “The whole time I’ve been in L.A. I’ve been in the book business,” Hill said.
Book Soup, as so many WeHo residents can attest to, is one of a kind. The late Glenn Goldman started the bookstore after earning his business degree at UCLA. In a truly Tinsel Town twist on Local Boy Makes Good, he founded Book Soup in 1975, when the LGBTQ community was in its early stages of influence and the Strip was very different from what it is today.
“You watch people as they step over the threshold,” Hill said. “For someone who’s never been here, they do this sweeping look around…. Like a kid in a candy shop, they can’t believe their good fortune.”
Many feel that walking into Book Soup is like slipping through Alice’s looking glass or climbing into the wardrobe in “The Chronicles of Narnia” – a sacrosanct, magical portal. “There are a few secret compartments that were built in,” Hill said “when [Goldman] designed the store. And the letters of his children are in the alphabet above the door.”
Wait. There’s more. The Elvis bust. The two gilded dogs atop a tall bookshelf that used to be a trio. “The sign still says three gold dogs,” Hill said, “which Glenn always thought was funny. People see the two…and then three and…’What?’” Yeah, that Goldman guy was a riot.
There’s also the inexplicable star magnet/coincidence thing. “I’ve had it happen where people are [in the store], talking about someone,” Hill said, “a celebrity you wouldn’t think you’d ever meet and, as they’re talking, that person walks in behind them.” (One of my best pals scored a prized selfie with Sir Elton Hercules John on a Sunday morning not too long ago.)
In terms of local starf—cker history, “When I first started here it was daily paparazzi,” Hill said. A celeb would be in the store and photographers’ lenses traced every move from outside on the sidewalk. “There were rumors the National Enquirer had rented an apartment across the street in the hills with a telescope to look into Book Soup so they would know [who walked inside].” Dunno, maybe TMZ has the 411?
But underneath all the kitsch, on top of the quality content, and in addition to the helpful, knowledgeable salespeople, there is the genuine emotional connection customers report. “I start to get teary about it,” Hill said, “because, to me, it’s all about the alchemy that happens … It’s not just business. It’s not just retail. It transcends and becomes something truly meaningful.”
Yet let’s not overlook the tagline. “’Booksellers to the Great and Infamous.’ Who knows what Glenn was thinking?” Hill reminisced before playing journalist with me: “What do you think, as a customer?”
Bowie. Warhol. Drag. I think “drag queen.” “It is very drag queen,” Hill admitted. “I think Glenn recognized that this [the store] was a show, right? And I think that is the spirit of WeHo in a lot of ways.”
Whatever you do, don’t ask her how many employees she has. It may shock you. “Probably…215,” Hill said. “Isn’t that crazy?” Uh, yeah.
Just over 20 are in WeHo. Then there are the “licensing partnerships at LAX” with Book Soup and Vroman’s each having two locations. That makes five. Six is the main Vroman’s in Pasadena. “At any given time there are probably 70 people,” Hill said. “It’s 30,000 square feet.” And lucky number seven is Hastings Ranch, “a mini version of the main store” 20 minutes away, also in Pasadena.
This blog, WeHo@Work, has also profiled the leaders of marijuana dispensary MedMen and sex emporium the Pleasure Chest. Hill’s guiding Book Soup puts the bookseller in the same challenging niche, what can perhaps be called “Creative Retail”.
Hill agrees. “This is always the challenge,” she explained. “There is something about books that is similar to vinyl. A tradition. They like to touch the pages and smell the books.” So how does Hill ensure Book Soup stays relevant?
“You probably noticed we have more gift items” Hill said. “Just a little bit here and there.” That strategy has helped their bottom line.
I ask Hill what her vision is. “[To} think about us as an experience, not just as a store,” Hill said, “and how we can take that out into the world.” A speakeasy may arrive soon (yes, there will be a password), branded podcasts may soon be downloadable, and there are some other items she just can’t talk about yet, darn it.
Hill finds it “very surprising” that so many of Book Soup’s customers are young people. “We were told it was Baby Boomers buying all the books,” said Hill. “That we would never capture millennials, [but] books have become accessories.” (Can’t help being reminded of Gloria Upson in “Auntie Mame“: “Books are awfully decorative, don’t you think?”)
“We’re voting with our dollars all the time the community we want to live in,” Hill said. “That is sometimes hard to acknowledge because it’s not always the most convenient or the least expensive.”
Call first. That’s what I do. “If I don’t have something,” Hill said, “I always thank them for trying us first. Hopefully, we can special order something or transfer it from another store.” (I’ve had great luck with this technique and I get to support a local business.)
One of Hill’s favorite things to do is recommending new reads. She does this with abandon on her own website, and in her essays for Huffington Post. Because I can’t promise you’ll see her at a party anytime soon, below please find Hill’s personal hot list of suggested Summer 2017 reading.
Allison K. Hill’s Recommended Summer Reading
— “Theft by Finding: Diaries 1977-2002” by David Sedaris. Anyone who has read Sedaris or listened to him on the radio won’t need convincing to read his newest book—the first of two volumes from his personal diaries. He’s a master storyteller whose literary snapshots in the form of journal entries are perceptive, funny, poignant, and surprisingly compassionate and vulnerable.
— “White Sands: Experiences from the Outside World” by Englishman and Los Angeles transplant Geoff Dyer. The intersection of this book’s latitude and longitude is “travel essays,” but Dyer’s wanderlust is not limited to travelling the physical planet and his writing reflects that. He is compelled to wander through ideas and art and emotions and memories, even mixing fiction and nonfiction to create a place in the literary landscape that is uniquely his.
— “The Wangs vs. the World” by Los Angeles author Jade Chang. Chang’s engaging novel, set during the recent economic crash and centered around an immigrant family, is a charming and entertaining road trip that kicks off in L.A. Fresh and funny.
— “Woman No. 17” by Book Soup alum and bestselling author Edan Lepucki. Edan and I worked together at Book Soup years ago so my bias is suspect but I’m in good company recommending this book (Entertainment Weekly, Harper’s Bazaar, New York Times Book Review, GQ). Edan’s written a sexy family drama with dual protagonists and she’s taken on heavy concepts—sex, art, motherhood—with a light touch and a Hollywood Hills backdrop.
— “Smilla’s Sense of Snow” by Peter Hoeg. My first year in bookselling I fell in love with this book and I’m still recommending it 25 years later. It’s the perfect summer escape. A literary crime novel set in Denmark with a page-turning plot, a memorable (obviously, I’m still thinking about her decades later!) protagonist full of contradictions, and a uniquely quiet, cold suspense.
Book Soup – booksellers to the great and infamous
8818 Sunset Blvd.
West Hollywood, CA 90069