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Passion for a Local Institution Speaks Volumes About Vail

News that Verbatim Books was going under was a rallying cry, bringing in $75,000 and a new home for the Colorado shop.

September 20, 2006|Nicholas Riccardi | Times Staff Writer

VAIL, Colo. — When Robert Aikens warned his customers that his bookstore was on the verge of going out of business, the denizens of this storied ski town drew a line in the snow.

They had watched an increasing number of families become unable to afford life here and move to a cluster of fast-growing suburbs to the west. They had seen local businesses strangled by a four-year construction boom adding more luxury hotels to the mass of Bavarian-themed ski lodges and trophy mansions that make up Vail.

Residents -- ski bums and captains of industry alike -- began to flood Aikens with donations. The owners of one resort offered him a deal on a new spot in their building. This summer, Verbatim Books reopened in a slimmed-down space on a side street in the center of town.

"It was a rallying spot for the community," said Town Councilman Mark Gordon, a security foreman on the ski mountain who donated to Aikens. "A bookstore is one of those institutions a real town needs. A real town needs doctors and movie theaters and grocery stores -- and a bookstore."

Vail has often been derided as more of an alpine theme park than a true community. Master-planned in the 1960s, the town is a hodgepodge of interpretations of Teutonic architecture, souvenir shops and high-end restaurants.

But many of the 4,500 full-time residents -- the population balloons sixfold during ski season -- say that image hides a village that looks after its own. "I know people think we look kind of plastic sometimes," said Assistant Town Manager Pam Brandmeyer, another contributor. "But we're a very caring community."

That dynamic has drawn Aikens back to Vail repeatedly since he first moved here in 1989. "The people here, once you get to know them, will literally do anything for you," he said in an interview.

Aikens learned to ski growing up in Lake George, N.Y., and learned the book trade in Vermont after college. He ran a bookstore in the nearby resort of Beaver Creek, then hopped around Western bookstores in Aspen, Colo., and Laguna Niguel before returning to Vail and Verbatim in 2000.

After three years managing the store, he bought it and moved it from a 40,000-square-foot location on the west end of town to a space less than half that size in the pedestrian-oriented center. Aikens, 46, said he knew that competing against online booksellers and chains such as Barnes & Noble meant he had to scale back.

He also had to take into account the nature of bookselling in Vail. "I had to change my mind-set to realize the locals don't actually live here."

Aikens estimates that 90% of his business comes from tourists and other people who spend a few weeks or months in town at their second homes. He has tried to build community, however, hosting readings by authors at the library or other spaces, drawing several hundred residents. Aikens, who rents a guest cottage near the Vail golf course, also ran unsuccessfully for Town Council.

He gained renown for his attention to customers. One woman called Aikens asking if he had a book on butterflies because her backyard was full of them. Aikens didn't, but he printed dozens of Web pages on the insects and drove to her house to deliver the package.

Still, business was not going well for Verbatim. Situated in a pedestrian plaza with no street-side sign, the store was increasingly hemmed in by Vail's $1.3-billion construction project, which was lasting several years longer than forecast. Aikens heard of a bookstore in Menlo Park, Calif., that had closed only to reopen after receiving donations from locals. He remembered the example set in Los Feliz after the neighborhood bookstore, Chatterton's, closed. Residents helped fund its replacement, Skylight Books.

Aikens figured it was a long shot, but he began asking for help. He soon realized that his quixotic ploy might be successful when he spoke to one prominent local who volunteered $10,000 and said that it should be easy to find another 19 people willing to do the same.

Dick Hauserman, one of the entrepreneurs who founded Vail, also gave $10,000. He wanted to keep a place in town that could sell his two self-published histories of Vail. But Hauserman, 91, said he had other motives. "When all this big development came on, it kind of shut off local business," Hauserman said. Verbatim "has been a basic thing that everyone enjoyed."

Aikens ended up raising about $75,000.

The owners of the Sonnenalp Resort pleaded with him to keep his bookstore open -- in their resort. They gave him a favorable lease on a small storefront facing one of the town's main streets.

In July, Verbatim moved into its new digs. They're so small that patrons have to edge around tightly packed bookshelves that almost reach to the ceiling, leaving just enough room to be crowned with autographed photos of authors who have read at Vail, such as Jodi Picoult, Dr. Ruth Westheimer and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. Aikens' English sheep dog, Stella Blue, lounges in the doorway.

Aikens' struggle to keep a community bookstore in a glittery ski town also has reverberated in Aspen, where residents are struggling to raise $5 million to buy Explore Booksellers, which could lose its sprawling Victorian home.

In Vail, residents are thrilled they preserved a piece of the town. Liz Clark, 70, a retired attorney from Buffalo, N.Y., who bought a place in Vail four years ago, was frustrated she could only contribute $1,000 to preserve her favorite bookstore. So she decided to augment her gift and now volunteers there.

"This was selfish. It wasn't altruistic," she said. "I wanted this bookstore to stay."

nicholas.riccardi@latimes.com

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