Books – and readers – live on at Roseville’s Almost Perfect

Kelley Ulmer, left, and Scott Singley take in books from Holly Peterson and her son Carter Peterson, 3, at Almost Perfect Books last month in Roseville.
Kelley Ulmer, left, and Scott Singley take in books from Holly Peterson and her son Carter Peterson, 3, at Almost Perfect Books last month in Roseville.

Bookstore in Roseville

You can visit Middle Earth, Hogwarts, Oz and just about any other place you can think of – imagined or real – inside an old furniture store in Roseville that has become the Shangri-La of the printed word.

While words on paper seem to be gradually disappearing into digital clouds, The Almost Perfect Book Store celebrated its 24th birthday in June and shows no signs of folding in the face of Kindles or e-books.

Enter its unassuming glass portal and you can browse books of every genre, 99 percent of them used, packed on shelves and piled in mountains on the floor. “Two million is our latest estimate,” said Kelley Ulmer, 51, owner of this 7,200-square-foot castle of chaos. “My favorite part is playing with the books. The death of books is extremely exaggerated. I love it when bags come in.”

And boy do they come in, about 200 books a day. From 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Saturday, a procession of customers arrives carrying bags, boxes and baskets stuffed with every kind of book. The next day, customers return to find out whether their stash was deemed worthy.

From Wednesday to Saturday, customers can drop off books and see if they’ll fetch cash, 10 percent of purchase price. From Monday through Saturday they can angle for trade credit. The limit is two bags per family or organization per day, Ulmer said. That’s the only way to stay ahead of the tsunami of books rolling in.

The store’s most devoted customers include plenty of young people raised in the digital age.

Hannah Yeager, a 17-year-old senior at Western Sierra Collegiate Academy in Rocklin, came in with her mom recently to pick up a book Ulmer had ordered for her AP government class. Then she headed for the stacks, looking for gold.

“This store is really cool,” she said. “It doesn’t look like much, but if you really just dig in you find hidden treasures, signed books by authors, first-edition books.” Yeager, who started her own book club last year, comes in with her friends, and they routinely spread out to see who can score the best find. This time, she zeroed in on adult fiction and unearthed a book from the “Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants” series that had somehow eluded her.

With customers like Yeager, Almost Perfect is tapping into a continued attachment to physical books that endures despite the digital transformation and the closure of Borders and other chain bookstores. Nearly 70 percent of American readers read a print book in 2014, compared with 28 percent who read an e-book, according to the Pew Research Center.

“Clearly, there’s still something magical and appealing about printed books,” said Lee Rainie, Pew’s director of Internet, science and technology research. “Our data show young adults especially are reading at more or less the same level as older adults.”

Ulmer loves treasure-hunting for cool, rare books. She said the store sells about 500 books a day at an average price of $4.

But three-quarters of the books that come in the door, she can’t use. “Either we have too many copies, it’s not the right market, or they’re not going to sell, like Reader’s Digest condensed books, encyclopedias, textbooks,” she said.

Customers don’t have to cart home their rejects, however. Ulmer donates them to a variety of pet charities for use in fundraising. Those that remain go to the Placer County recycling center.

On a recent Wednesday, self-described domestic engineer Deana Zawacki plunked down two bags crammed with “a little bit of everything – what to eat, not eat, cookbooks, kids books, a bunch of hardback, I’ve read them all, or my kids have,” Zawacki said. “I also found `Navigating Psychology’ – my daughter read that.” Her described her kids, ages 10, 14 and 18, as great readers.

Inside, the store is an endless maze of stacks and piles. Ulmer said she hates aisles in grocery stores and absolutely can’t stand orchards. At Almost Perfect, she said, “everything is looped and whirled like crop circles, and you have to wend your way through to get to other things.”

Ulmer said she has a photographic memory and can find nearly every book in the store even if the customers are lost. She remembers what folks bought the last time they came in.

She said her passion for books started early. “When Scholastic had its little book club through the school I always ordered whatever my mom could afford,” she recalled.

Her first loves were classics such as Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter.” She read her way through Charles Dickens, H.G. Wells and Jules Verne. In grade school, she’d stake out the public library to be the first to get the new Judy Blume novel. “It was so exciting,” she recalled. “You only had five days to read it. She writes about what it’s like to be a teenager – it’s just as confusing whether you’re black, white, Jewish, Asian. ... She was your friend who talked about things you could never talk to your parents about.”

The girl from Yuba City worked at several used bookstores during her years at Sacramento State, where she graduated with degrees in construction and business technology.

A customer at the Book Rack on Freeport Boulevard who appreciated her personal touch offered her $11,000 to start her own used bookstore, so she began scouting out locations. When a Target opened in the Roseville Shopping Center, “I sat in the parking lot and counted cars,” she said. “I already had an inventory of 19,000 books I’d gotten from charity sales I stuck in my garage in Greenhaven – I’d thought I was going to turn them into store credit.”

Over coffee with her investor, he asked her what she wanted the store to be. “I said, all the different categories of books, I want to offer cash and trade.” He suggested she call it The Perfect Bookstore, but she said that was too much pressure, so they settled on The Almost Perfect Book Store. The investor, who has since died, also backed another used bookstore in Elk Grove called Almost Perfect Books, which has a different owner.

Ulmer opened in 1991 in a 1,000-square-foot space that rented for $1,200 a month, outgrew it in five months and took over a defunct computer store two doors down. Six months later, her burgeoning inventory required another move, into a 2,400-square-foot space belonging to a travel agency. In 2007, she and her crack assistants, Scott Singley and Justin Meredith, moved into the old furniture store.

Singley came in 20 years ago to sell his grandmother’s collection of 200 cookbooks, fell in love with the free-flowing chaos and never left. Over the years, customers’ reading habits have stayed mostly the same, he said, with some notable exceptions.

“There’s a huge leap in children’s fantasy,” Singley said. “Harry Potter, the Twilight Series and Christopher Paolini have really brought up the genre. Paranormal romance has grown – time travel, ghosts, vampires – while historical and contemporary romances have stayed about the same and Harlequins and series romance novels have dropped off.”

The store’s Facebook page celebrates the “old book smell” and includes quotes from Carl Sagan and other brilliant book lovers. It reflects Ulmer’s view that she – and printed books – are here to stay. “I’ve survived two recessions (and) the meltdown of the entire economic system,” she said, as she riffled through yet another carton of books.

Stephen Magagnini: 916-321-1072, @StephenMagagnini

If you go

The Almost Perfect Book Store

  • 1901 Douglas Boulevard, Suite 130, Roseville
  • 916-781-7935
  • Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Sunday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.