Time turns the page on Traverse City's beloved Horizon bookstore

Greg Tasker
Special to The Detroit News

Traverse City — The impending closing of this resort town’s oldest bookstore, a beloved downtown institution and gathering spot for decades, is rippling through communities here and well beyond the icy shores of Grand Traverse Bay. 

Far more than a local bookstore, Horizon Books has appealed to varied groups of people, from writers and musicians to civic-minded residents and tourists. Generations of families from near and far have frequented the bookseller over the past six decades.

“It’s like a death in the family,” said Heather Shumaker, a longtime customer and author who showed up with a bouquet of flowers for the owners Thursday.

Vic Herman, 90, President of Horizon Books and his wife Amy Reynolds, 64, CEO,  pose for a photo inside their iconic shop, which will close later this year.

“It’s really the heartbeat of Traverse City. It’s not just a retail shop. It’s something much greater, like the City Opera House or the State Theatre … maybe even greater. It’s always been a place that is accessible and free.”

On Sunday, owners Vic Herman and Amy Reynolds formally announced they were closing the three-level store and cafe, citing rising operating expenses and a desire to retire. The business began at another, smaller location on Front Street in the fall of 1961.

“Horizon Books has been our focus all these years, but now we find that our focus is turning towards other needs of family,” Vic Herman said in a statement.

The closing will occur sometime this year. The couple has expressed hope that future use of the building will continue to “enhance the vitality of downtown.”

A display of the late local author Jim Harrison at Horizon Books in Traverse City.

“I’m very saddened by the news,” said Doug Stanton, a Traverse City resident and a New York Times best-selling author. “They’ve really had a kind of a town hall effect. If a civic group had some issue they wanted to talk about, they could organize and meet in the basement at Horizon Books. I was one of the co-founders of the Traverse City Film Festival, and we held our early meetings at Horizon.”

Stanton, a co-founder of the city’s National Writers Series that brings well-known authors to the City Opera House for readings and discussion, said Horizon has long supported regional writers — showcasing their works at the front of the store — providing space for readings and book signings, and selling self-published books on consignment.

“They helped launch my book career,” said Stanton, who read from his first book, “In Harm’s Way: The Sinking of the USS Indianapolis and the Extraordinary Story of its Survivors,” to a standing-room-only audience at Horizon nearly two decades ago.

A sign in Horizon Books in Traverse City displays the departments on the mezzanine level.

The store also has provided a venue for local musicians. Among the locals who have gained national attention, The Accidentals and Billy Strings, played early gigs on the lower level. Northern Michigan Songwriters in the Round, a group of acoustic musicians, performed the third Friday of every month in that same space for two decades.

Horizon’s business model included not only stocking a vast selection of book titles, magazines and newspapers, but also maintaining extensive hours. The store is currently open from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. or 10 p.m., depending on the day. The store is closed just three days a year.

The staff, about 20 full- and part-time employees, is knowledgeable and comprised of avid book readers. The staff includes family members, Pam Herman, the company’s buyer, and Erica Ankerson, who has been the accountant since 1988.

Everyone was welcome — book, chess, knitting, quilting and reading clubs, civic organizations and more — and even passersby looking for a place to chill.

“All the cliches are true. There just isn’t another place like it,” said Michael Delp, a long-time customer and the former director of creative writing at the Interlochen Arts Academy. “It’s really a warm, welcoming environment. … I’m really going to miss the store and the interaction with the people at the store.”

Horizon Books in Traverse City was a busy place this week as customers and friends stopped in to visit with staff after it was announced the iconic shop would be closing some time this year.

'It was a real risk'

Horizon Books began its story at the other end of Front Street — the site where Cherry Hill Boutique is now. 

The original store was around as one of northern Michigan’s most acclaimed writers — the late Jim Harrison — was launching his literary career.

“We were lucky to have Jim Harrison in our first store with some of his first books,” Reynolds said.

Horizon maintained a long-lasting relationship with the writer. Signed, first-editions of Harrison’s many novels are housed in a glass case on the main floor.

The relocation to East Front Street, near the State Theatre, came in spring 1993. Horizon moved from 3,000 square feet of space to a vacant J.C. Penney department store, a site that would ultimately encompass 22,000 square feet. The move became a community event. The city closed Front Street and more than 100 volunteers helped move boxes of books by hand carts to the new location. The store opened the next day.

Amy Reynolds, center, CEO of Horizon Books in Traverse City (top) assists a customer inside the 28,000 square-foot store which is slated to be closed later this year.

“It was a big move, and it was a real risk,” Reynolds recalled. “We had so much community support. It was a wild ride. Our sales were up 100% once we moved, and we had to hire more staff. We over hired. People would walk in and say, ‘I didn’t know you had this selection of books.’ Well, we always had these books.”

With the move to larger quarters, Herman and Reynolds responded to customers' requests for community meeting space. They opened the lower level in 1997 and designed the space to be flexible. Everything from fashion shows, Easter egg hunts and clothing swaps have been held in the area.

Over the decades, Horizon has withstood competition from other booksellers, including national chains that moved into Traverse City, and sometimes poor sales. Although sales have been steady, expenses have increased. The biggest challenge these days has been online competition and the changing dynamics of society; magazine sales, which once amounted to $120,000 a year, are now down to about $20,000, Reynolds said.

The company’s operations once included stores in Petoskey, Beulah and Cadillac. The stores in Petoskey, which was open for 50 years, and Beulah have closed; the 7,000-square-foot downtown Cadillac store, established in 1992, will remain open.

A mahjong  group plays in the basement of Horizon Books in Traverse City. The informal group has been meeting in the Shine Cafe for nine years on Wednesdays, and has no idea where they will go when the book store closes.

'Considering options'

A closing date for Horizon Books has not been determined, and when asked about the building’s future, the owners have said only, “We’re still considering our options.”

There is hope swirling around social media and the community that the building will remain a gathering place, one, hopefully with books.

Stanton is among those who are hopeful the space can remain a bookstore and community space. He said he has been approached by people who are interested in finding a way to save the bookstore.

Horizon Book's owners Vic Herman, left, and Amy Reynolds, right, along with Vic's sister Pamela Herman, center, pose for a photo inside their iconic Traverse City book store. Opening over 58 years ago, the 28,000 square-foot store has been a gathering place for the region where meetings were held, music was performed and great books and magazines were sold.

Stanton, who has been on a National Writers Series tour downstate, said he has been asked about Horizon Books wherever he goes, in Grand Rapids, Detroit and Lansing.

"There's real interest in what happens with the bookstore," he said.

Some have proposed that the bookstore become a nonprofit operation, much like its neighbor, the State Theatre, run by the Traverse City Film Festival.

"I know people have hope for the future, but it’s really not in our hands," Horizon's Vaughn said. "It’s been a really great 60-year run.”

Greg Tasker is a Traverse City-based freelance writer.