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At 78, this longtime bookseller can’t afford to keep her store open — or live in California

By Marisa Gerber, Los Angeles Times
Published: March 3, 2024, 6:00am

ARCADIA, California — “Welcome to the Book Rack,” Karen Kropp says, her eyes panning the increasingly sparse shelves inside her bookstore.

“It used to be a lot fuller.”

After 40 years — the last half under Kropp’s ownership — the beloved used-book store tucked between a hot pot restaurant and a chiropractor’s office in Arcadia, a suburb 13 miles northeast of downtown Los Angeles, is closing this week.

Slowed down by the consumer shift to online shopping and further decimated by cratering sales during the pandemic, the shop held on by a thread in the months since Kropp cashed out her life insurance policy to keep it afloat.

“The miracle is coming,” Kropp often assured herself. “When you’re in a bookstore, you have to be a dreamer.”

But the miracle never came, and Kropp, who turns 79 later this year, knew that even if she couldn’t really afford to, it was time to retire.

She plans to live off her monthly Social Security check — around $1,200 after insurance premiums are deducted — and can’t afford to stay in Southern California. Instead, she will move in with her younger sister in Albuquerque once she finishes clearing out the shop.

“I put everything I had into this place,” she said. “Everything.”

Kropp’s situation mirrors those of many aging small-business owners who, unless they have a relative eager to take over, are faced with complex questions about their legacy and finances.

In January, the owner of Vroman’s, a historic independent bookstore in Pasadena, announced on Instagram that, as his 80th birthday approached, he planned to retire and sell the shop to someone outside his family.

“This was not an easy decision for me,” he wrote, adding that the store had been under his family’s stewardship for more than a century.

Retirement in the U.S. is a patchwork system with “a really big gaping hole” for self-employed people such as Kropp, who never worked for a large employer that offered 401(k) matching contributions, said Nari Rhee, director of the Retirement Security Program at the UC Berkeley Labor Center.

Someone in Kropp’s situation — a single renter living in L.A. County — needs $2,915 a month to cover their basic necessities, Rhee said, citing a figure calculated using the Elder Index, a tool developed by the University of Massachusetts Boston to measure how much older Americans need to cover basic living expenses.

“That is basically twice the average Social Security benefit in California,” Rhee said, noting that, in recent years, more older Californians have fallen into poverty and aged into homelessness.

“It’s a crisis.”

Almost 30 years ago, soon after moving west from Green Bay, Wis., Kropp got a job at the Book Rack, then on Baldwin Avenue, a short drive from the current location.

She started as a clerk, earning around $3 an hour to price and organize books, and adored her boss, Pat Carlson, the shop’s original owner. For someone whose main childhood gripe with the library was that it limited how many books she could check out at once, it felt like a dream that someone paid her to bond with customers over a love of books. (Her favorite is “The Great Gatsby.”)

“Readers are different,” she said. “They’re thinkers.”

The shop eventually moved to the current location and, after Carlson died, the owner’s husband offered to sell it to Kropp, then 60. She purchased it in 2006 for around $100,000, pulling from her savings, as well as some from her daughter and a sum she inherited after her father’s death to cover the down payment.

“It’s been a joy,” she said of owning the store.

They were often busy in the early years, and she hired local high school students to help run the shop, although she manned it alone most of the time, working 10-hour shifts. They often did more than $10,000 in sales per month back then, but things slowed as customers adjusted to the click-and-receive-in-48-hours model of the Amazon era.

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“Everybody wants it now,” she said. “And I can’t do that.”

In the months before the pandemic, Kropp considered selling the shop and moving closer to her children, grandchildren and five great-grandchildren, but she decided to hold on a bit longer.

Then, during the shutdowns, sales dropped to almost zero. Bills still came due, as did the shop’s rent and the fee for a storage unit where she kept overflow books, which together cost about $2,000 a month.

Sales eventually crept back up but never fully recovered; now, she said, it sometimes takes two days before sales hit $200.

After the hardest times, a bright spark always followed — a busy week, a special interaction between customers. After one such spark in late 2022, she cashed out her $50,000 life insurance policy, receiving only $5,000 even though she’d paid $18,000 into it.

She put the payout toward bills, rent and payroll. For the first time in 20 years, her passion started to feel like a job. She realized that she had left no part of herself for herself — every spare second and thought had gone into the shop.

It was time.

On a recent morning, Kropp sat behind the counter, next to a gift basket with peanut M&Ms dropped off by a customer and stacks of books she planned to donate if they didn’t sell by the official closing date, Feb. 28. (She has a personal policy: No book ends up in the trash unless it’s moldy or there’s evidence an animal has been living inside.)

A man steadying himself with a cane walked through the door and she greeted him.

“Boy, I’m sorry to hear you guys are leaving,” he said.

“Yes,” she said, nodding.

As was often the case, books triggered memories and he began to tell her about how, in his 20s, he traveled California in a camper van reading novels by the mystery writer John D. MacDonald. He was looking for one of his books called “The Long Lavender Look.”

Kropp nodded and her friend Peter Tran, who sometimes volunteers at the shop, took off toward the back of the store, quickly locating a yellowing copy. With the liquidation sale discount, the customer paid $1.10 for the paperback.

Danielle Rosaria Nahas, a customer who lives down the street, walked in with her daughter. An artist, Nahas was carrying a painting of the storefront she had made for Kropp.

“Thank you, sweetie,” Kropp said, her emerald eyes dampening with tears. “This is beautiful.”

Nahas had written the family’s address on the back of the wood frame.

“So if you ever miss us,” she said, “you could write to us.”

Nahas doesn’t have family in the area, she said, and her children had come to think of Kropp as a grandma. Her family created a home library with books from the shop during the pandemic and Kropp, she said, had always made her and her daughter, Amy Rose, 8, who has autism, feel so welcome.

The little girl sprinted toward the children’s section, twirling.

“Books, books, read,” she said aloud.

A few minutes later, a woman arrived with a list of several titles. She was putting together an auction item with a T-shirt that said “I’m with the banned,” as well as some commonly banned books.

Kropp squinted at the list, noticing it didn’t include authors’ names, which is how the store is organized. She closed her eyes for a moment, conjuring a name.

“Oh, Cisneros!” she said to herself, as she walked to snag a copy of “The House on Mango Street.”

“My brain has always been my computer,” she said.

After the customer left, the shop got quiet and Kropp and Tran reminisced. Then they got quiet too.

“The end of the chapter,” he said softly.

“But,” Kropp said, smiling, “it was a long chapter.”

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