Plastic gold stars and red curtains adorn the open store window of Linden Tree Books. Children and parents are scattered across the colorful chairs and couches outside the store, enraptured by the storytelling of author Christine Evans, a Bay Area local, as she delights the crowd. Soon, pedestrians begin to congregate around the store, drawn in by the bright decorations and riveting narrative.
Amid a harrowing pandemic, Linden Tree has stood resilient while countless other stores have closed their doors. Flo Grosskurth and Chris Saccheri, the current owners of Linden Tree, bought the store to save it from closure in September 2019, just a few months before the pandemic hit. Neither of them had any experience running an independent bookstore, let alone during a pandemic, but they felt they had to try. Against all odds, Linden Tree not only survived the pandemic but even managed to increase its profits since the acquisition.
Grosskurth and Saccheri initially stepped up to take over the store when the original owners couldn’t find another buyer and were planning to close. From the start, they had wanted to make the store a hub for the community, and now partner with nearly every elementary school in the Los Altos School District to schedule free author visits. During the pandemic, they were forced to move the talks online but hope to return to in-person when restrictions relax.
“Local authors are what the store is all about,” Grosskurth said. “It’s about creating an environment for people to get to know local authors…It’s such a small, intimate setting, it’s not scary, especially for kids. And kids need to be able to see them as real people.”
COVID-19 led its staff to turn to more creative solutions for increasing sales and fostering relationships with its customers. Since customers couldn’t go to the store in person, the store set up FaceTime appointments so shoppers could virtually browse and receive book recommendations. People would sign up for time-slots and log into an online meeting where they would be taken through the store by one of the employees.
This aligns with the store’s increased focus on personalized services as a way of connecting with the community. Nearly all of the books at Linden Tree have been read by an employee, and most are carefully handpicked into a curated selection based on popularity. The employees’ familiarity with the store is evident in their recommendations and passion for books.
Alan Whitehorn has been working at Linden Tree for eight years and is one of the most experienced booksellers on its staff. He still finds that recommending books for customers to be the most rewarding part of his job.
“I’m a big reader, so it’s like being seven years old in a candy store,” Whitehorn said. “Finding the right book for somebody, when it works well, it’s really, really, really satisfying.”
Linden Tree employee and Los Altos High School sophomore Noor Khan treasures the relationships she’s forged while working in the store. Prior to her employment there, she was a regular at the store, going there every week with her family. The opportunity to help other people discover a love for books has only grown her own passion for reading.
“One time someone came in and was like, ‘You helped my daughter find her new favorite book.’ And I just was like, ‘Oh,’ and went to the bathroom and cried.” Noor said. “That I was able to impact someone the same way that Linden Tree impacted me was so valuable to me.”
Despite the dedication of the staff, COVID-19 naturally reduced the amount of work needed to run the store. Many booksellers wanted to work more hours, but didn’t need to work at the register or in-store when there were no customers. Nevertheless, they persisted, developing online options for ordering books and growing the store’s social media presence. The owners found new projects such as hand-delivering book orders to nearby addresses, which helped the store expand.
Only once restrictions were relaxed did Linden Tree open its doors to its customers again, this time through private appointments. Still, this came along with its own set of challenges.
“In the beginning, people were really scared to touch the books and it took some convincing that it’s okay — you can touch the books,” Grosskurth said.
Slowly but surely, their clientele began to return to the store. Their return shows that Linden Tree doesn’t have to undercut corporations such as Amazon on pricing or selection. Unlike large corporations, Linden Tree can directly interact with the community in a way wholly unique to independent bookstores.
“What we’re doing here really is building relationships, relationships between readers and books, relationships between us and the community,” Grosskurth said. “And so if that all goes away, we will become a work of fiction. It’s very cheesy, but it’s true.”
Their effort to give back to the community has not gone unnoticed. During the pandemic, the community has responded to Linden Tree with support. Many have realized the importance of local stores and rediscovered their love for reading.
“Sometimes I realize some [books] are like maybe one or two dollars more, but my husband and I, we said we support our local businesses,” a frequent customer at Linden Tree, Vivian said. “Otherwise, they’ll all close.”
Indeed, it is difficult to miss the sign taped to the store window, reading in bold, black font, “Don’t let indie bookstores become a work of fiction.” According to Linden Tree’s owners, the fight to preserve privately owned stores is one every person in the community can get involved in.
“Keep buying local, and keep participating in how to make your own world better,” Grosskurth said. “Essentially, we’re just a small part of that.”