BERNALILLO — Not everybody who opens a new business can keep the doors open for 10 years, but that’s what Rio Ranchoan Lara Harrison has managed to do with her Under Charlie’s Covers used-book store in Bernalillo.
Don’t turn ahead a few paragraphs and expect to read that she’s a thriving, wealthy business owner.
“I haven’t gotten paid yet,” she said, laughing. “Seriously, I haven’t gotten paid. I can pay my employees; I can pay my bills.
“This is a community service,” she explained. “This is a hobby. This is how I can share my love of books with other people — I don’t know how people with bookstores can make a living, truly.”
But, she added, “To start a business, you have to love what you’re doing, and that shows through, no matter what. I think if you love what you’re doing, you can be a success.”
Bequeathed with some 18,000 books upon the death of her father — he’s the Charlie in the store’s name — Harrison first had to find a way to get all of them from her home in California to her next home in Colorado, and later, from there to New Mexico. This is the state where she decided a bookstore would be a great idea.
And that’s when there were more bookstores to be found — since then, the national chains Borders and Hastings have gone out of business, Barnes & Noble has been reducing its book inventory and countless consumers have taken to online sources, such as Amazon, to obtain their reading material.
“It’s gotten better,” she said of her online competition. “It’s so convenient if you have a certain book that you want, to go online and order it. But then, when you order it, you don’t know what condition it’s going to be in, even though they describe it. It’s not guaranteed. (But) I can’t compete with that.
“But if you go into any bookstore, not just mine, you can talk to people about books,” Harrison said. “You can get recommendations of other books to read. (If) you don’t know what to read, you can find books — especially in a used bookstore — that you won’t find in a new bookstore, either. If you’re reading a series, and you want to start at the beginning, you go to Barnes & Noble and they only have the end.”
Of course, online shoppers don’t get an opportunity for customer contact — Harrison knows her inventory — or to join a local book club, such as Charlie’s Book Club.
“Lara’s the heart of this place,” said book club member Nancy Nolan of Placitas, who said she joined the book club because, “I like to read and I wanted to meet people in my community.”
Nolan and fellow book club members Ann Kepley and Peggy Reade read between 12 and 50 books a year, they estimated. Kepley belongs to three book clubs.
“(Harrison’s) a huge supporter of the community,” lauded Jerry Schalow, president and CEO of the Rio Rancho Regional Chamber of Commerce and on hand last Wednesday afternoon for a ceremonial ribbon-cutting to note her decade of success. “Whenever you need somebody, you can count on Lara.”
Harrison knows what it’s like to count on someone.
In her most-recent move, from her second location on US 550 to her current site, 160 South Camino del Pueblo, she sought help to move the tons of books.
“It’s really about the community, because the community has really helped my business, and not just by buying things,” she explained. “We’ve created our own community. Like when I moved, I mean, I had people that showed up for 25 days in a row that I didn’t know even know their names when they first came — and they showed up every day.”
She’s happy to carry on her father‘s legacy — Charlie had been a collector, not a seller, and he “got rid of all the paperbacks; he gave them to a library.
“My dad would be really happy about the community that we’ve built, because he shared his love for books with my sister and me as we grew up,” she said. “He would love to work in here, but he’d be like a curmudgeon: He’d be telling people, ‘That’s a crappy book.’ I wish he would have been able to do something like this, because he would have enjoyed it.
“I love coming to work every day — I look forward to that,” she said.
Her customers look forward to visiting her business, too.
“A community would be much poorer without a bookstore,” concluded Nolan.
Under Charlie’s Covers: Top-10 highlights from 10 years in business
1. We have sold books to at least eight movie and television productions. Some of the big ones were “Better Call Saul” (for Saul’s brother Chuck’s library), “Independence Day II” and “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” with Tina Fey. I think they got blown up in the Afghan marketplace.
2. Some of our brushes with celebrity include New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, best-selling mystery author John Sandford and actor Michael McKean.
3. We have had customers from all over the world, including as far away as Australia. We have several customers that come here every year from Canada.
4. At least once a month, we get a call from someone who thinks we are an adult bookstore and they are looking for videos or toys.
5. We are in our third location and never want to move again. The community has been a tremendous help, volunteering their time and muscle each time we have moved.
6. We have a book club that averages around 10-12 members. We started it in 2009 and still have some of the original members. We have a lot of laughs and get all kinds of perspectives on the books we read.
7. The highest-priced books I have sold were a five-book set of “Game of Thrones,” signed by George R. Martin for $700 to a customer in England.
8. We have donated more than 10,000 books to charitable organizations, jail and prisons. Many children have benefitted from our donations. We love to share the gift of reading with everyone!
9. The average time a customer spends in our store is 45 minutes. The longest time was five hours. Many times it’s been so long, we forget they are in the store! We have also found several people sleeping with a book in their hand.
10. All of the memes like, “I’m looking for a book with a red cover…” are true! We are also book detectives. A surprising amount of people come in without a book title or author and give us a short description of the cover or plot, and we do our magic.
— Lara Harrison, owner