Staying Power: How Nicola's Books has thrived despite book industry turmoil

This article is part of "Staying Power," a recurring series about Washtenaw County's longest-lived businesses and their keys to success. For more in the series, read our past installments on Arcade Barbers, Old Town Tavern, Stadium Hardware, and Downtown Home and Garden.
Feb. 4 was unfolding as a fairly ordinary work day for Meagen Kucaj, the general manager of
Nicola's Books – until she noticed an elderly woman sitting alone in the self-help section.

 

The woman needed some law books, and quite urgently. She had been left an estate, had no idea what to do, and was very afraid to sign the papers.

 

"When I suggested that maybe she needed an elder care attorney, she grabbed my hand," Kucaj says. "She agreed, but she didn't have a computer and didn't know how she would ever be able to find one."

 

Without hesitation, Kucaj got a piece of paper and wrote down the information for a lawyer she had used with her own mom. The woman immediately started to weep. She told Kucaj that she had just said a prayer for help right before Kucaj walked over to her.

 

"Bookselling is magical and sometimes it doesn't mean just selling a book. It means connecting with the community," Kucaj says. "Our store is one that cares about more than just the bottom line. We care about our customers and I think that is why we've been around for so long."

 

The opening chapter

 

Nicola's Books is tucked away in Westgate Shopping Center at 2513 Jackson Ave. in Ann Arbor. When Nicola Rooney bought the store in 1995, it was called Little Professor Book Company. Rooney gave the shop a new identity in 1997 and ran it until she retired in 2014.

 

Rooney passed the torch to the store's current owners, Bill and Cecile Fehsenfeld, who also run two Schuler Books locations. According to Kucaj, their chapter in the independent bookstore's history also involves an element of romance.

 

"A lot of people don't know that Bill and Cecile met and fell in love while working at a bookstore when they were students at U of M. Then they worked at Borders before opening their store in Grand Rapids," Kucaj says. "They always wanted to have a bookstore in Ann Arbor because it was their home for many years and where everything started for them."

 

A cast of compelling characters

 

Despite the business changing hands, many fundamental elements of the store's success and popularity have been preserved.

 

"The warm, friendly vibe and the incredible depth of our inventory are big draws," Kucaj says.

 

But it's not just the books on the shelves that keep customers coming through the doors. It's also the people behind the counters. Nicola's staffers have previously worked for local libraries and bookstores including Borders, Shaman Drum Bookshop, Webster's Books, and Common Language Bookstore.

 

"All of our booksellers have many years of experience putting the right books into customers' hands," Kucaj says. "But what is hopefully obvious is that all our staff not only love books, we truly love our customers."

 

It's not uncommon for bonds to be created through the care and assistance staff members provide across a lifetime, and sometimes over generations.

 

"We help excited first-time parents pick out books for their babies. We help them choose the perfect gifts for birthdays and graduations. And even books to help them with grief when a loved one dies," Kucaj says. "We're there for them across many milestones."

 

Continuing the story

 

Nicola's Books is celebrating a milestone of its own as it enters its 25th year of business. The shop has soldiered on despite major industry changes that have contributed to the closure of other local bookstores, including Borders, Shaman Drum, and Common Language.

 

The store's location on the west side of Ann Arbor has proved to be an advantage.

 

"Being outside of downtown has given us a boost in business because we aren't relying primarily on university students. We also have families as a customer base who come in to buy all sorts of books for all sorts of occasions," Kucaj says.

 

The store takes pride in giving back to the community and has a strong commitment to working with schools and a number of local nonprofits. The store offers discounted and free books for fundraisers ranging from ice cream socials to baseball games.

 

Additionally, the shop regularly hosts an array of events (both in-store and offsite) such as author signings and family storytimes. Earlier this month, the store teamed up with the Michigan Theater to present an evening with hip-hop legend and author Joseph "Rev Run" Simmons and his wife, Justine Simmons.

 

"We pride ourselves on being a thriving community center that is dedicated to the written word and the public exchange of ideas. We host book clubs, writing groups, (and) literacy groups as well as local and national authors. We are open to all," Kucaj says.

 

Kucaj says Nicola's is here to stay. She points to the 2019 holiday season – the best in the store's history – as an affirmation that the store is "doing something right." She invites everyone to stop in and let her staff demonstrate why they have been successful for so long.

 

"Tell us what you are looking for and I promise that you'll leave with a great read," she says.

 

Jaishree Drepaul-Bruder is a freelance writer and editor currently based in Ann Arbor. She can be reached at jaishreeedit@gmail.com.

 

All photos by Doug Coombe.

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