Valley Views — Books: An essential business

Main Street is getting back its vibe as restaurants serve outdoors and more people venture downtown, trusting masks and their newly developed instincts to keep a distance. But action behind the scenes never ceased, as merchants worked feverishly to do what they could to keep their businesses open.

Take the case of Judy Wheeler, owner since 1998 of Towne Center Books near the Pleasanton Arch. When we all went into quarantine in March, she never quavered in her belief that books are essential — and she would continue to provide them.

The doors were locked and employees were told to stay home, but Wheeler continued to work long and hard, transitioning from having an online presence to being an online-only store, complete with increased orders and arranging timely deliveries and pickups.

“Actually it’s pretty exhausting because there are so many more steps in doing things,” Wheeler said. “Fortunately our customers are fabulous. They’ve been supporting us from the get-go.”

She also noted that some folks right here in town finally discovered the bookstore who’d never noticed it before — and they continue with their support.

Deliveries have always been free for orders $20 or higher, but Wheeler started pickups outside. For a while, paper bags containing books lined the back entrance waiting for their respective customers — all on the honor system.

One large order did disappear after bags began to be left in front, on Main Street. Someone took the books and left a box of tea, which made Wheeler shake her head, wondering if the book-snatcher considered this a fair trade. Now customers who have preordered can knock on the door and get handed their books if they prefer not to enter.

Wheeler said she reopened a little later than the nearby restaurants, because she had to install Plexiglas and make the store easier to browse without too much touching. Plus the space had to recover from its sudden input of boxes to fill online orders and the maze of wires quickly installed to facilitate increased Internet usage.

“There was probably more danger in tripping over something than getting the virus,” Wheeler said. “It’s much better now. We had to reconfigure displays and still have an area to process books.”

Now there is hand sanitizer “everywhere” and signs remind everyone to be respectful of each other. But people are good about keeping their distance, Wheeler said, and she oversees the operation, knowing it is OK for a family to convene in the back and still let others in the front. She will make appointments for those hesitant about mingling.

Wheeler said she has loved the shop’s location at 555 Main St. near the Arch since she moved in. She has been in the book industry for 35-40 years, first working as a publisher’s rep and for a book distributor, so she knew when she bought the book store that it was a tough business.

“When I started thinking I wanted a store, I knew I wanted it downtown because nowhere else really made sense,” she recalled. “Now my location is actually even better because Pleasanton has become more vibrant each year. Inklings has helped a lot, and Starbucks has brought more people, too.”

And the Arch is a draw.

“Everybody who comes to town has to take a picture under the Arch, and for graduations and weddings and special occasions,” Wheeler said. “My daughter had a wedding picture taken under the Arch.”

She bought Towne Center Books with its name, which has resulted in some strange calls as people confuse the shop with the city and telephone for all kinds of help.

“We’ve had calls from someone who wanted a dog license, and not long ago someone called to say they’d locked their keys in their car,” she said with a laugh.

Now business is picking up and Wheeler is optimistic about the holiday season. She pointed out that most people prefer browsing in person rather than online, plus the staff can offer suggestions. Jigsaw puzzles — especially those with 1,000 pieces — are selling well, too, and other games.

“We’re good for sheltering in place — we can keep you busy,” she said.

And that’s essential.

Editor’s note: Dolores Fox Ciardelli is Tri-Valley Life editor for the Pleasanton Weekly. Her column, “Valley Views,” appears in the paper on the second and fourth Fridays of the month.


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