Oakwood Neighborhood

Don't judge this store by its cover: Kazoo Books is one of Oakwood's quiet successes

Editor’s note: This is the third story in Southwest Michigan Second Wave’s “On the Ground Oakwood” series.
“Unique” and “comfy” may be the easiest ways to describe Kazoo Books.

At 2413 Parkview Ave., new and used paperbacks and hardbacks line shelf after shelf on the upper and lower levels of the two loosely connected buildings that make up the store. 

Wooden cabinets, throw rugs and comfortable chairs make the place feel more like two converted houses than anything meant to be a business. But “quietly successful” may actually be the best way to describe this, Oakwood Neighborhood’s most enigmatic business. 

“The book business has been good,” says store owner Gloria Tiller. Despite winter doldrums, she says, “It’s the best it’s ever been, right now.”

“A lot of that is the Internet -- what we’re selling online,” she says. “And we’re doing a lot more with our local authors and we’re offering them distribution. We’re the distributors for a lot of new books and we’re selling them on our site and we’re selling them third-party.”

Kazoo Books is the extension of a business Tiller founded in 1988 on Kalamazoo’s West Side. The Parkview Avenue location is now its only retail operation. Huddled for more than 16 years in one of the very few commercial areas of the Oakwood Neighborhood, it can be easily missed by anyone driving too fast on Parkview Avenue west of the busy Oakland Drive intersection. Oakwood is three miles southwest of downtown Kalamazoo and is bordered primarily by Oakland Drive on the east and Parkview Avenue on the north. But the store is successful.

Last year may have been Kazoo Book’s best year. Sales have risen by about 20 percent during each of the last three years, Tiller says. And last year, that involved sales of more than 30,000 books, up more than 25 percent. She says sales were flat during the Great Recession years (2008 through 2012). But the steady business was a sign of strength during times when many retailers were struggling to survive.

Customers come back to Kazoo Books thanks to the expertise of those selling books there.

People want the  'experience'

Kazoo Books has become a destination point for book lovers from all over Southwest Michigan, and a small-town alternative for a growing number of out-of-state readers who find it online.

“People want experiences now,” Tiller says. “They want to touch, feel, smell. They want to walk.”

Speaking particularly of the Millennial generation, she says, “People come in here because they don’t want to shop online because that’s not an experience. That’s just a click of a button.”

Of books, she says, “You can feel a book. People want an experience.”

The unique environment her store provides is something big stores cannot offer. “People come in just to pet the cat,” she said, referring to the store’s “official greeter,” a 10-year-old Norwegian Forest cat named Radio. 

Trying to be flexible

Kazoo Books has benefitted from remaining flexible. When Tiller started the business in 1988 on Clarendon Street in Kalamazoo, she intended to cater to a female clientele. But she says she quickly learned that she needed to serve a wider range of customers to be successful.

Kalamazoo had several independent book stores in the late 1980s as well as national retailer Barnes & Noble Booksellers. Computers were coming into wider use, she recalls, and people were saying, “You’re never going to read a book again.” But that has not been the case. “We’ve transitioned now,” Tiller says.

Lots of independent bookstores have gone out of business over the years, facing competition from national chains and online booksellers. But she says some closings were the result of attrition – store owners opting out of the business or failing to sell more new books. And some suffered from an image of being unkempt, unorganized, or laid-back to the point where they weren’t attractive to enough consumers.

Now that most people stare at computer screens every day, she says, “People have discovered that they don’t like the eye strain. They miss having a book in their hands. And the business has rebounded.”

Just-closed 2019 was the first year that Kazoo Books’ online sales surpassed its walk-in sales, she says. Fifty-five percent of her 2019 sales were online. 

Making people comfortable

Tiller says the knowledge base of her five-person staff is something that continues to bring customers back. Aside from keeping novels and classics organized, they do book reviews and write quick teasers for lots of books. The teasers are attached to shelves to help customers make their selections. The well-read staff members also help customers translate something they heard about at a party into the actual title of the book they want to find.

There is a fireplace in one sitting area at Kazoo Books, making it downright cozy for poetry readings. There are cushioned seats in a few other spaces, making them places where you can be alone and read. And there’s a kitchenette with a table and chairs. It’s good for preparing refreshments for group meetings of five or 10 or more.

Today, the bookstore is the regular meeting place of at least 10 local groups who seem to prefer its tapestry of 30,000 book titles to sterile modern space where they’d have to pay more to rent. Tiller says she charges groups about enough to cover the cost of coffee.

The clubs include some you’d expect to haunt a bookstore, such as the Science Fiction Book Club and the Joy of Writing Group. But they also include others like Death Café, a discussion group that looks to “increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their (finite) lives.” And the Michigan Typochondriacs, a monthly confab of typewriter enthusiasts who gather to display and talk about their typewriters.

“We’re a community center,” Tiller says, mentioning that some groups would have no place to meet if they couldn’t meet at the bookstore. It remains open to groups from Oakwood and the surrounding area. And it hosts an open house that leads into Oakwood’s annual neighborhood reunion in June.

Rooted in the community

Tiller participates in off-site events that help promote the business but also help promote education and locally-owned small businesses. When the location in Oakwood became available, she jumped in to buy it, hoping it would give her access to Portage customers who would never venture as far north as her original store on Clarendon (off West Main Street). She also expected the Parkview location to attract affluent residents of the Parkview Hills, Bronson Boulevard and Winchell neighborhoods, as well as walk-in traffic from Oakwood itself. Her predictions have been correct. The business generally attracts customers from a 60-mile radius.

“The demographics for this area are still really, really good,” Tiller says. 

Kazoo Book’s main building was one of the first commercial structures in Oakwood. Keith Howard, a digital preservation specialist for the Kalamazoo Public Library, says it was built in 1925 and originally served as an ice cream parlor and diner. It was built just as the Oakwood Amusement Park was being closed. The amusement park, which attracted tens of thousands of visitors to the area from 1983 until 1925, was located on the opposite side of Parkview Avenue, at Woods Lake.

The park opened as Lake View Amusement Park and was known as Oakwood Amusement Park before it closed. It was first established on the eastern bank of Woods Lake and later the southwestern bank. It featured picnic grounds, a roller-coaster, dance halls, a merry-go-round, a roller rink, a Ferris wheel, and canoeing. Amusement park managers and workers were among the first people to build homes in what is now the Oakwood Neighborhood.
Tiller bought the Parkview Avenue location in Oakwood in 2003 after a previous owner decided he no longer wanted to continue. He had asked Tiller for advice when he opened the business in 2001. His book store was called The Golden Bough.
“He DOES work here,” says bookstore owner Gloria Tiller.
Creativity counts 

“We’ve had customers come in and say, ‘Where do I check out the books?’” says Mark Rahn, an information technology specialist for Kazoo Books. “They think we’re a small branch of the public library.”

They don’t realize that computer technology is essential for the business, he says.  Rahn manages third-party online sales,  upgrades computer systems, and maintains the store’s hardware and software. He is working to help the business find more ways to attract and serve new customers.

Kazoo Books has discount sales on some new book titles to keep up with national book store chains. 

“We offer pretty much a 15 percent discount on all new book orders and things like that,” Rahn says. “So you can get them cheaper here.”

Tiller and her staff continue to host book signings for authors. She does off-site book sales each month at special events and occasions related to book topics.

Creative thinking means more work for the store’s cat. “Radio” has become a book reviewer. When news organizations have done features on Kazoo Books, they have invariably photographed the large cat. And people respond to his image on FaceBook and other social media, Tiller says.

“The cat gets new, advance-reading copies (of books) from publishers,” Tiller says. 

With a promotional spirit, publishers have tried to get the store’s attention by sending advance copies of books to Radio.

“He DOES work here,” Tiller says with a laugh. 

So she says it’s fair for him to take on some additional work. She's made him a reviewer. Reviews of books generally related to animal life appear online under his name from time to time.

Stay tuned for Radio's soon to be offered insights on a book titled “The Karma of Cats, Spiritual Wisdom From Our Feline Friends.”

Photos by Susan Andress unless otherwise indicated. See more of her work here.
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by Al Jones.

Al Jones is a freelance writer who has worked for many years as a reporter, editor, and columnist. He is the Project Editor for On the Ground Kalamazoo.