Iconic Madison Bookstore For Sale

Feb 13, 2012

News this week that the book world will soon mark the end of an era. Roxanne Coady, doyenne of independent booksellers, is putting up the “for sale” sign on her creation, RJ Julia. The store has been a fixture in Madison for more than 20 years. WNPR’s Harriet Jones went to visit.

You only need walk in the front door at RJ Julia to know this is Roxanne Coady’s mission. Coady left a lucrative corporate career when she was turning 40 to begin this personal passion. Now 22 years later, she says it’s time to move on again.

“You know you know something, but you don’t know you know it until things sort of stack up.”

Selling the store has actually been on her mind for a couple of years, but a number of factors have come together now. Her son is graduating college, and she has a third career in mind for herself in education and literacy.

“But the thing that really tipped the scales for me, is because 2011 ironically was a better year for the bookstore than the last number of years.”

That she says, makes it possible to find the person who will be the right steward to take RJ Julia into its next two decades.

“And it is a reinforcement that independent bookstores are not some cute little nostalgic thing, but something very vibrant, something that is very modern.”

The book world that has been turned upside down in the last few decades. First came the advent of the big boxes, Barnes and Noble and Borders in the 90s. That thinned out the ranks of independent booksellers.

“They were 25 thousand square foot stores, so you could buy anything, right? Not like here where we only have 50 thousand books in the store. But once Amazon came along, you don’t need all those books in a store, right? That’s a lot of space that they do not need.”

Ironically, according to Coady, the Internet, which in its turn decimated the big boxes, may actually turn out to have been good for independent book stores. Of course times have been tough - from about 7,000 independent bookstores two decades ago, there are now just about 1,300 left in the nation, but she firmly believes the survivors are here to stay, and they’re still innovating.

“We’re doing more bookclubs, more educational classes, more screenwriting. Next week we’re getting in a print-on-demand machine – you’ll be able to get any out of print book from us in six minutes. We’re going to have services for authors that want to self-publish books. So what I think we have the opportunity to be is a cultural department store.”

RJ Julia’s loyal customers agree. Downstairs, Kirsten Pritchard is perusing the staff picks.

“Well we’re new to Madison – we moved here in June from England, and we love it. We've really enjoyed coming. The previous summer we came to look round and we were in a diner, and someone said 'ooh, are you going to live in Madison? There's this great bookstore!'"

Store manager Lori Fazio says Coady will be sorely missed, but she’s confident about the transition ahead.

“I really think that she knows who will be the right person to take it over. And I think that she’s created such a staff here that we all are committed to keep it as part of the community and as great a bookstore as it always was.”

Coady says she looks forward to coming back to this store – as a regular customer.

"People think of me as being RJ Julia. But RJ Julia’s RJ Julia. You know, all the authors, all the staff, all the customers – they’ve left their mark here. The store is bigger than just me."

For WNPR, I’m Harriet Jones.