TRAVERSE CITY — Vic Herman and Amy Reynolds dug in after J.C. Penney pulled out.
It’s been 20 years since the couple relocated Horizon Books to its current location in downtown Traverse City. At the time, the east end of the 200 block of East Front wasn’t the vibrant collection of shops and restaurants that it is now.
Ask anybody who was paying attention at the time and you’ll hear that Horizon’s decision to expand downtown instead of leave for greener pastures had a lot to do with the transformation.
“If there’s anything that started the turnaround for downtown on its way back to what it is today, it is the courage Vic and Amy had to purchase that building,” said Bruce Rogers, longtime downtown Traverse City businessman and leader. “It was huge."
Room to grow
In 1993, Horizon was outgrowing its old location at 224 E. Front, current home of Americana Gallery. Established by Herman in 1961, the business was growing at a fast pace and needed more space.
“There were a lot of (vacant) storefronts, and Penney’s was the big one,” Herman recalled.
It was a gamble, he admits, though not as big as it would have been if they hadn’t bought the building.
“I made a ridiculously low offer on the building and figured it was as good of an investment as anything else, and if it didn’t work out, I would still have the building,” Herman said. “And we were growing so fast.
“The first year we were in the Penney’s building we doubled our sales almost exactly to the year, so it was very successful.”
Community support played no small part in that success, as was evidenced in the very way Horizon moved from its old location to the current one on a Sunday in May 1993. About 120 volunteers who included everyone from community leaders to customers and employees physically carried about 30,000 books in a single day.
“I do remember carrying books across Front Street from their little store to their big location,” said longtime customer Mary Sharry of Empire. “I still have it right here, my coffee mug that says, ‘I helped move Horizon Books in 1993."
Richard Lewis, city manager at the time, said, “It was a great day and a great experience.”
Little bookstore that could
Herman said Horizon’s is a story of steady growth.
“When we moved into that building, the business next to us doubled their sales also,” he said. “It just brought people into that area, and I think it kind of helped put some life back into the town.”
Not that there wasn’t room for improvement in the neighborhood.
“When we opened, we had Kurtz Music on one side of us, and then, there was a tire store on the corner and that was torn down,” Reynolds said. “We sat really lonesome for a few years.”
Doug Stanton, New York Times best-selling author and one of the founders of the National Writers series, described Horizon as “a cultural island” downtown in those days.
But as Downtown Development Authority Executive Director Bryan Crough likes to say, one thing leads to another. Just as downtowns deteriorate one storefront at a time, they come back that way.
“When Rotary made the decision to save the Park Place Hotel, I think that gave Vic and Amy some hope so that they could make the very difficult decision,” Crough said. “And things began to fall into place. Other vacancies began to fill. People had a renewed sense that stuff was going to happen here."
Staying the course
The only “crink,” as Herman calls it, came when Borders opened in 1996 and Horizon’s business dropped by about 15 percent. On the flip side, sales shot up about 20 percent when Borders closed in 2011. Books-a-Million, which has since opened in the Borders space at Grand Traverse Crossing, hasn’t affected Horizon one way or the other, he said.
“Probably the most important reason we didn’t go out of business when Borders came was because we owned our own building,” Herman said. “If we’d have been paying rent, we’d probably have been gone.”
Today, Horizon Books’ downtown Traverse City store employs about 25 in its 22,000-square-foot, three-floor space. The company also operates locations in Petoskey and Cadillac. Reynolds remains in the role of sales manager in Traverse City, while Herman continues as president. Gary Wolf is CEO, and Herman's daughters also work there — Pam Herman as buyer and Erica Ankerson as the accountant.
Store hours have remained virtually unchanged in 20 years: 7 a.m. to 11 p.m., seven days a week.
“That’s something we’ve never messed with,” Reynolds said. “We have never wanted our customers to worry about if we were going to be open or not.”
Longtime downtown property owner Terry Beia of Traverse City Development said Horizon set the pace for those who have come since.
“They kind of dug their heels into downtown when others were leaving,” he said. “I think the property owners — I know I do — we owe Horizon a debt of gratitude for their vision and resiliency because they are the anchor.”
Reynolds and Herman say their customers deserve thanks. The feeling seems to be mutual.
“Every good city needs a good bookstore,” Sharry said. “And we have one.”