Horizon Books, on Front Street in Traverse City, has become a beacon for downtown—lit well into the night and beckoning not just book-lovers, but the entire community. As Vic Herman and Amy Reynolds look at their own next steps, the city is working with them to ensure this beacon shines on for years to come.
Featured in the September 2020 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine. Subscribe.
Its beginnings in Traverse City were humble but promising, like an author’s first completed pages of a novel—a story in the works, one without a blueprint for how future chapters would unfold.
Simply, Victor Herman had a passion for books, and he happened to have a friend who wanted to run a bookstore. Herman initially financed the store—Horizon Books—while pursuing graduate studies at Michigan State University in East Lansing.
The modest store—just 800 square feet—opened in the 200 block of East Front Street in the fall of 1961. Within a year, Herman gave up his studies and returned to Northern Michigan, taking over the store, where Cherry Hill Boutique stands today. Herman expanded the initial store’s location twice, stretching the business to 3,000 square feet, with books stacked floor to ceiling and tucked into any open spaces. Ernie Harwell, Dan Gerber and Jim Harrison were among the authors who dropped by for occasional readings and signings.
“Our goal and our focus was books and to make Horizon Books the greatest bookstore ever,” recalls Herman, who grew up in Suttons Bay. “It’s the community that supported and embraced it to make it what it is today, a community center.”
That sense of community, that “third place”—the space where people gather away from their homes or offices for coffee, conversation or entertainment, began at the original location with neighbors and friends bumping into each other and became prominent after Horizon Books relocated to a much larger space, its current home, in 1993.
Today, Horizon Books is much more than a local or even a regional bookstore. Its lower-level community space has drawn varied groups of people—from writers and musicians, to hobbyists and game players, to civic-minded residents and tourists.
Amy Reynolds, Vic Herman and Jim Harrison in April 2011 // Photo by Terry Phipps
Generations of families from near and far have frequented the bookseller over the years. Horizon’s business model focuses on stocking a vast selection of book titles, magazines and newspapers, managed by a staff of about 20 full- and part-time employees, comprising avid book readers. For many years, the store was open from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m., seven days a week. Only recently were hours curtailed, closing an hour or two earlier, depending on the day. The store is closed just three days a year.
“We made a real effort to provide what people wanted,” says Amy Reynolds, Herman’s second wife and business partner who began her Horizon career at the store’s original location. “Customers would come in and ask for a book, and if we didn’t have it, we’d have it for them the next day. We were known for our depth of inventory. We could carry all the books by certain authors.”
“It’s really the heartbeat of Traverse City. It’s not just a retail shop,” says Heather Shumaker, a longtime customer and author of “Saving Arcadia: A Story of Conservation and Community in the Great Lakes.” “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.”
Horizon Books has become such a part of the cultural fabric of Traverse City and beyond, that news of its impending closing—announced in January—rippled across communities like tidings of a death. After nearly six decades of selling books, Herman and Reynolds formally announced they were closing the three-level store and café, citing rising operating expenses and a desire to retire.
Since then, continuing to show their commitment to downtown and all those for whom Horizon has meant so much, the couple says the store will remain open and they have no plans to close at this time.
A Bold Move for Horizon Books
Three decades after opening for business, Horizon Books moved across the street to the former J.C. Penney department store building—its current location—which had been vacant about a year and was one of many empty storefronts along East Front Street. The 22,000-square-foot store afforded Horizon Books the opportunity to up its game, eventually stocking books on all three levels.
Herman, who was 63 at the time, saw the move as not only an opportunity to grow the business, but also to help anchor and reinvigorate the east end of downtown.
“It was a really bold move,” says Jean Derenzy, chief executive officer of the Downtown Development Authority, noting that downtown Traverse City at the time lacked today’s vibrancy; many shoppers had been diverted to malls and big box stores. “I’m not sure they understood then how big a move it really was.”
To help with the move, the city closed that block of East Front Street for half a day, and more than 100 volunteers helped move boxes of books by hand carts to the new location, next to the State Theatre. The store opened the next day.
“It was a real risk,” Reynolds concedes. “But we had amazing community support. It was a wild ride. Our sales were up 100 percent once we moved, and we had to hire more staff … People would walk in and say, ‘I didn’t know you had this selection of books.’ Well, we always had these books.”
Old J.C. Penney Store // Photo by John Russell
Now in larger quarters, Herman and Reynolds responded to customers’ requests for community meeting space. They opened the lower level in 1997, designed the space to be flexible and included a café. Everything from fashion shows, Easter egg hunts and clothing swaps have been held in the area.
Everyone was welcome—chess, knitting, quilting and reading clubs, civic organizations and more—even passersby looking for a place to chill.
“All the cliches are true. There just isn’t another place like it,” says Michael Delp, a long-time customer and the former director of creative writing at Interlochen Arts Academy. “It’s really a warm, welcoming environment.
“To me, it’s a downtown anchor, and it always has been,” adds Delp, who’s also a writer and poet and has read from his published works at Horizon over the years. “I can’t imagine what would replace it.”
Over the decades, Horizon has withstood competition from other booksellers, including national chains that moved into Traverse City, and they’ve sometimes had to weather poor sales. Regardless, expenses have increased. The biggest challenge these days has been online competition and the changing dynamics of society: For instance, magazine sales, which once amounted to $120,000 a year, have dwindled to about $20,000, Reynolds notes.
The company’s operations once included stores in Petoskey, Beulah and Cadillac. The store in Petoskey, which was open for 50 years, closed in early 2017, and the shop in Beulah shuttered 30 years ago. The 7,000-square-foot downtown Cadillac store, established in 1992, remains open.
In the weeks after Herman and Reynolds announced the Traverse City store would close at the end of 2020, sales were up at Horizon Books, driven, in part, by media attention. Then came COVID-19, and Horizon Books closed, and engaged minimal staff to ship books for online sales and to handle curbside pickups. Sales during COVID-19 were down 75 percent from the year before. “But we can survive this,” Herman says. With the store’s reopening in late May, sales have picked up and the couple is training a new manager. Herman has retired and Reynolds is running the store for the time being. That “third party space,” the lower level, has been closed and seating at the café reduced.
Committed to Local … Everything
Through the years, emerging writers and musicians are among the communities that have found a welcoming home at Horizon Books.
At the store’s first location, Herman began what would become a long-standing professional relationship with the late Jim Harrison, who had just published his first book and was at the start of his literary career. Harrison returned regularly over the years for book readings and signings.
Working with Harrison was “pure pleasure,” Herman recalls. “We had mutual fondness and respect for each other, both personally and professionally. I consider him one of the finest writers ever, and I miss him.”
Signed first-editions of Harrison’s many novels are housed in a glass case on the main floor. A selection of his novels and other works are displayed in the rear of the store, a standing tribute to the writer, who once lived in the region. Horizon Books has a reputation as the go-to bookstore for Harrison’s vast catalog.
Horizon Books has nurtured and supported a host of local and 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. It’s not uncommon to find local authors shopping, writing or drinking coffee at Horizon Books.
Author Doug Stanton credits Horizon Books for helping launch his writing career. He recalls reading 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.
Stanton, a Traverse City native who co-founded the National Writers Series, which brings national authors to the City Opera House nearly every month, was saddened when he heard about the couple’s decision to retire last winter, but he’s hopeful a new owner will be found. Horizon Books has been a staunch supporter of the National Writers Series, stocking author works to coincide with events and supplying books for school-related programs.
The Path Ahead for Horizon Books
The final chapter of Horizon Books has yet to be written.
Herman and Reynolds, concerned about the future of the space, are working with the Traverse City Downtown Development Authority and Traverse City Rotary to find appropriate uses and tenants. The hope is to retain the building as that “third place” for downtown and remain a gathering place, hopefully, with books. Some have proposed that the bookstore become a nonprofit operation, much like its neighbor, the State Theatre that is run by the Traverse City Film Festival.
The DDA has received a $21,000 grant from the Rotary Club to fund a study on potential activities and uses for the Horizon Books space. The study is being done by Illinois Facilities Fund, a real estate consultant that specializes in development solutions. The DDA also has provided $5,000 for the study.
“It’s an important resource for the whole community, a place we need to keep, a place people will feel comfortable going into,” says the DDA’s Derenzy. “People have a huge connection to that building.”
How the building might be reconfigured is not known; the consultant is expected to have a vision by early fall. Possible solutions include a mix of residential units on the upper floor, and a business accessible to the public on the main floor, an important component to help maintain that sense of community.
“You have restaurants downtown, you have the State Theatre, but you want to have something else that has the lights on after 6 or 7 at night,” Derenzy says.
Mike Busley, owner of Grand Traverse Pie Co. and long-time neighbor of Horizon Books, says the bookstore has been one of the elements that has added to downtown’s vibrancy, and, like others, he hopes any redevelopment will include a community learning space on the street level.
“You go to so many downtowns and they’re not what they used to be,” says Busley, who opened the company’s East Front Street location in 2011. “They’ve lost their essence, their energy. Look what we have with the State Theatre, Opera House, coffee shops, restaurants and bookstores. It draws people into downtown and we build around that.
“Horizon Books is one of those places that people tie to stories,” adds Busley, who has been a frequent browser and customer. “The impact it’s had on people and families over the years is incredible. You hate to see that not be part of the community … we need more of these places in the world where people unplug and simplify.”
Herman and Reynolds say Horizon Books will remain open. As they focus on getting through the challenges of the pandemic, they’re also waiting to hear the results of the IFF study funded by the DDA and Rotary Charities. They will seek either another entity to take over the bookstore or a compatible partner to preserve the community gathering space. “My crystal ball is a little cloudy,” says Herman, “but Horizon Books will be open and will continue to be open for years to come.”
And so, thanks to yet another commitment from Herman and Reynolds, the lights will stay on, beckoning readers well into the night.
Greg Tasker is a Traverse City-based freelance writer and works part-time at a winery on the Leelanau Peninsula. // Allison Jarrell is associate editor of Traverse Magazine. [email protected]