Bibliophile Kelley Ulmer closed her Almost Perfect Book Store on Wednesday after 25 years of business at Rocky Ridge Drive and Douglas Boulevard in Roseville, saying that the added expense from minimum-wage increases had made it impossible for her to continue operating.
“We used to joke that this was like the Hotel California: Once you got here, you’d never leave,” Ulmer said. “And realistically, it wasn’t a bad deal prior to the ever-increasing minimum wage. I had a profit-share with my employees, so at the end of the week, when they got their paychecks, whatever money didn’t go toward bills or whatever, I shared with them. They actually made more money at $7 an hour than they make at $10.”
Small, independent bookstores have faced a huge challenge since Amazon.com rose to prominence in the late 1990s, brick-and-mortar chains consolidated to compete with the online colossus, and some used bookstores migrated to the web to be able to offer deep discounts. But a study by the Booksellers Association, a trade group for the U.K.’s independent booksellers, showed that the number of indie U.S. bookstores actually has grown by 27 percent since 2009. While Ulmer and other U.S. independents continue to decry tax incentives given to Amazon, a wave of minimum-wage increases nationwide has prompted the American Booksellers Association to make this topic the top item on its page listing small business issues.
Several customers stood outside the rambling used bookstore, which boasted 7,400 square feet of space, before it opened Wednesday morning. Ulmer was selling all books for a quarter, 27 cents with tax, as she told one customer. Her store is not affiliated with the store of the same name in Elk Grove, although each received a startup investment from the same investor.
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Laura Laskowski, a customer of 22 years who became one of Ulmer’s best friends, dropped off cookies to cheer up the staff. She recalled Almost Perfect’s early days, when it had a much higher checkout counter. Customers began calling themselves “leaners” because they would lean against the fixture and talk for hours.
“Every book lover cherished that store,” Laskowski said. “I can’t prove it, but I suspect that for most people the first glance – used books as far as the eye could see – was accompanied by harp music.”
Ulmer said customers – and her daughters Stephanie and Victoria – have moved her to tears as she has prepared to close up shop, and she struggled to hold her composure as she shared their comments and stories with me. Victoria, who’s 17, told her: “Mom, you had a life before the bookstore. Stephanie and I never have.”
Ulmer’s six employees have worked for her for 10 years or more. Jeffrey “Scott” Singley, who has worked there for 24 years, said that he’s still in shock over the closure and that he’s angry with lawmakers. “I’m going to take advantage of the government’s largesse since they put me in this position, so it’s unemployment as of tomorrow,” he said. “Or, at least I’m going to file as of tomorrow.”
Ulmer said she hasn’t had one unemployment claim in 25 years, but now the state will have six of them. Before she announced plans to close on the store’s Facebook page, she said, she had more than a million books in her inventory. She estimated that she has sold about 20 percent of her books since her announcement.
It’s hard to know how many workers are displaced by minimum-wage increases, but Ulmer predicted that media will be covering more stories like hers as California’s minimum wage increases to $15 an hour by 2022. These latest increases were signed into law earlier this year by Gov. Jerry Brown, who described them as morally justifiable for the state’s poorest workers. Research varies on the economic impact of minimum-wage increases, with some projecting rising unemployment and others saying the employment impact is negligible.
“I could either pay my employees or pay my rent. I paid my employees,” Ulmer said. “Now I can’t do either. It’s just too much. There’s literally no place to absorb the cost. They were like, ‘Well, the businesses can just absorb it.’ OK, where? Can we not pay our taxes? I get no government funding, no subsidies, no tax breaks, and I’m taxed at the same level that the big corporations are.”
Ulmer will be packing up books at her store at 1901 Douglas Blvd. through Saturday with the assistance of an army of customers who have volunteered, she said. Once she’s assessed how much she has, she’ll be looking for space in a warehouse with lower rent than her retail store. She plans to start an online bookstore that caters to locals who might want to swing by and pick up books rather than paying for shipping. Singley said he hopes that Ulmer quickly turns a profit and he can be rehired.