By Craig Smith
Last November, when Naomi Chamblin heard that Main Street Books in St. Helena was closing, she was very upset. “I know, along with all of the residents, that Main Street Books is a true literary treasure,” she said. “I was shocked to hear this news.”
Chamblin has far more than just a casual reader’s interest in books. She and her husband, Eric Hagyard, opened Napa Bookmine on Pearl Street six and a half years ago, and a year later opened a second location, Napa Bookmine at the Oxbow Market. She couldn’t just sit and watch as Main Street Books, practically a St. Helena landmark, close.
“Opening any new business is scary and risky, and I anguished over the decision to reopen the store as Main Street Bookmine,” she said. Her first step was to gain buy-in from her staff. “We are an incredible team. We are a family.” Chamblin knew that taking on another location would mean extra work for the staff. “I knew I needed their excitement and support because everyone was going to have to work hard to get this off the ground.”
Next, Chamblin considered different scenarios for the upvalley location, most of which involved the current owner, Liza Russ. “I have admired Liza from afar for many years and was thrilled at the chance to work with her — I’ve always referred to her as my bookselling idol,” Chamblin said. One of her ideas was to partner with Russ. Another was to buy the store outright and retain Russ as the manager. Of course, no outcome would have been possible without a supportive landlord. “She’s an angel, and wanted to keep the store open.” After getting a business license, Chamblin sorted through the store’s inventory, ordered a ton of new inventory, painted the store white, and built new shelving. Chamblin ordered books, stocked the shelves and opened the doors. All within two weeks of the initial closing.
“It was an extremely fast turnaround, but working with Liza has made it all worth it. For our staff, seeing her in action is a gift. She is so connected to her customers. The way she talks to kids… it’s inspiring.”
And as to business? “The response has been amazing,” said Chamblin. Earlier in 2019, when rent on the Pearl Street location increased by 70%, Chamblin went public with that information, urging locals to shop at Napa Bookmine. People responded immediately. “Business definitely went up.” The store is now able to stay in business.
In her years in business, Chamblin has seen a lot of popular, quality businesses fade away. “If you love a business in your town, you really have to spend your money there to make it work. It’s so simple and so effective.” Chamblin says that the connection to people is lost when folks shop online. “While shopping online can appear to be convenient, something much greater — that community closeness and connection, not to mention tons of economic benefits — is lost .” She senses that many people in Napa don’t know how many Napan-owned businesses are downtown. “This is a great place to park the car and explore your own backyard. Start at the Oxbow, and walk around from there.” In addition to connecting with people, independently owned businesses appeal to Chamblin because of their unique inventory and how responsive to customer requests they can be.
Chamblin said it can take a couple of years to really know your customer base and inventory accordingly. Napa Bookmine on Pearl Street is 70% used books, while everything in the Oxbow is new. “We are modeling the St. Helena store after our Oxbow store, and we ordered all new books.” Days from opening, several large shipments hadn’t arrived, and with Russ’s help, they finished filling the several empty shelves with a number of carefully selected used volumes. “Those have been doing very well,” said Chamblin. “So, we’ll see how it goes. I think we will add in more used books over time.”
Hagyard is a successful winemaker and prior to opening Napa Bookmine, Chamblin was a respected school teacher. What inspired them to move to books? “Our philosophy is fairly straightforward. Reading is a way to slow down and think deeply in this fast-paced life. Also, we value ‘community’ above just about everything. Our first two stores are all about Napans, bringing people downtown, and inspiring Napa to be a city of readers. Now we can do that in St. Helena.”
Chamblin repeatedly expresses her strong community feelings. “It is grounding and uplifting to frequent a shop or restaurant where you know the staff and they know you. Our staff rarely changes, and I think the level of service you get here reflects that experience and passion.”
Napa Bookmine encourages everyone to attend the eighth annual Authors Forum and Scholarship Fundraiser on February 6. Four critically acclaimed writers from all over the Bay Area will be speaking about their experience becoming a writer. “This is hands-down the most inspiring event that I look forward to each and every year. This is the first year the event will be at the Napa Valley College,” said Chamblin. More information at Napa Bookmine.
Napa Bookmine is at 964 Pearl Street, open until 5 p.m. on Sundays, 8 p.m. every other night of the week. Napa Bookmine at the Oxbow Market is open until 7 p.m. during the week except for Tuesday, Locals’ Night, when they are open until 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday until 8 p.m. Main Street Bookmine is at 1315 Main Street in St. Helena. Open daily until 6 p.m., Sundays until 5 p.m.