In an age when many bookstores around the country are struggling, Browseabout Books in Rehoboth Beach just keeps on keeping on and thriving.
The Rehoboth Avenue store celebrated its 40th anniversary May 2 with story readings, gifts for customers and a proclamation from Gov. Jack Markell delivered with a champagne toast by Sen. Ernie Lopez, R-Lewes and Rep. Pete Schwartzkopf, D-Rehoboth Beach.
The founders of Browseabout, Steve and Barbara Crane, did what they have always done: business was humming along while they kept a low profile. Steve could be found in the store’s event room, holding court with those who came to say hello.
For the Cranes, that low-key approach has been one of the secrets to the store’s longevity.
“We’ve always tried to fly under the radar. I never wanted anyone to know how successful we were because I didn’t want 100 bookstores here,” Steve Crane said.
As part of the celebration, Browseabout decorated the event room with photos from book signings and customers from years gone by, with testimonials from many who have passed through the doors.
“Our love was always books”
Browseabout grew from humble beginnings. The Cranes were married and living in Wilmington; Steve said his father was in the retail business, managing Woolworth and 5 and 10’s around the state. Barbara also grew up with a family in retail; her father ran a gas station among other ventures.
“My father had a few health problems. He had sort of semi-retired. He was offered a job in Rehoboth, where they had several 5 and 10’s – he was managing the Boardwalk 5 and 10," Steve said. The Cranes were teachers at the time and would come down to Rehoboth on weekends; both of their parents had homes in the area.
Steve said he was concerned about caring for his parents as they grew older, so he hatched the idea to open up a business in Rehoboth. Barbara said it was always her greatest wish to run a bookstore.
“I’m pretty much a book nut. It’s a way to go to worlds you’ve never been to or never will go. I can’t think of anything better to do,” she said, showing off her purse, decorated to look like a hardcover copy of an Agatha Christie novel.
Steve said his dad had some ties to wholesalers in Wilmington, and that helped get Browseabout’s first orders in time to open in May 1975. Steve said at first, he looked at the store as something his parents could do when they stopped working, with Steve and Barbara helping in the summer.
Browseabout’s first store opened at 47 Rehoboth Avenue, now Five Guys, Steve said. At the time, the Cranes were still teaching and trying to raise two children. Steve said he would open the store and work until 4:30 p.m. At that point, Barbara would pull up with the children and Steve would run out to take them home while Barbara worked the store for as long as people were out on the Boardwalk, Steve said.
In 1977, the Cranes moved the store to 7 Rehoboth Ave., where they sold books and jewelry – the previous tenants had sold jewelry, Steve said, and one of the conditions of the sale was they would sell the jewelry stock. After one year selling jewelry, the Rehoboth Avenue store went back to just selling books, Steve said.
Browseabout opened a second another location at 1 Virginia Ave., where Steve's parents sold gifts and toys.
“It was a neat store,” Steve said.
Browseabout next moved to 135 Rehoboth Ave. to what is now Browseabout’s gift shop. The toy store and gift shop moved to Village By The Sea and was eventually shuttered.
“People couldn’t believe I’d moved to the second block,” Steve said. “People said, ‘You’re never going to make it down there. Nobody is going to walk off that first block.’”
Steve said the Cranes reinvested almost everything they made back into the business. At one point, the Cranes also had a store in Salisbury, which lasted five years.
The part of Browseabout that is now the bookstore, at 133 Rehoboth Ave. was an open-air mall with seven stores. Steve said there was a great deal of turnover and by 1992, his landlord asked if he wanted to take the entire store. The walls were knocked out, a roof was put on and the store became the Browseabout that is there today, he said. Steve said with the bigger building, Browseabout was able to reintroduce gifts and toys to go along with books.
“Our concept all along was not so much to be a book store, it was more to be a store for people to shop in and have fun,” Steve said. “Our love was always books.”
The future of Browseabout
Browseabout has survived competition from big box-style store and the rise of internet sellers and e-readers and has continued to thrive. Steve said Browseabout’s survival comes from its focus on fun and friendliness.
“We pick our niche out, and we just try to do that niche. The people who visit here are coming from Washington, Philadelphia and Baltimore – they’ve lost what we have here,” Steve said.
He said he believes those people are attracted to Browseabout in part because they have lost small, independent books stores. Steve said people are reading paper books more than ever because a paper books can be shared socially more easily than an iPad or e-reader can.
Steve also made sure to praise those who keep coming back to Browseabout year-after-year.
“We just have the nicest customers,” he said. “Now, we’ve got third and fourth generations.”
Steve said he tries to buy local and made-in-America products as much as he can and Browseabout employs 15 full-time employees with up to 40 full and part-time employees in the summer.
It’s the employees who will take the reins and lead Browseabout into the future, he said. The Cranes, while still owners and a presence at the store, have handed over the day-to-day operations to their management team: general manager Susan Kehoe and assistants Noemi Todos, Alex Colevas and Laura Adam.
“The bookstore will go on,” Barbara said.
The Cranes have begun looking beyond Browseabout. Steve recently recovered from a serious heart episode last year, and the couple has decided to see the world. In January, the Cranes will embark on a cruise that will see them touch all seven continents.
“We’re to a point in our life where I’d rather do things now more as you start running out of time,” Steve said. “It’s time to enjoy it a little bit more.”
Reflecting on their 40 years in business, Barbara said, “Am I lucky? Yeah. I hope that Browseabout is always here.”
For more information go to browseaboutbooks.com