This past fall, Nick Smith, a student at the ASU Walter Cronkite School of Journalism had to do a project highlighting a local business. Nick chose Guidon Books since he loves history – and that is what we are all about. Nick wrote an article and produced a video clip. Below is the article about Guidon Books. Thanks so much.
On the corner of 2nd street and Marshall, in old town Scottsdale, the 16th President of the United States watches passing cars, buses, and people out for a walk. Next to him are Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee. Of course, Mr. Lincoln and his friends aren’t truly there. The images are enormous photos that stare out of a store window. The store is Guidon Books, a bookstore that sells exclusively books on the American Civil War and the American West.
In an age where bookstores are finding it harder than ever to survive, it may seem
surprising that one with a niche such as Guidon’s is profitable. But in fact, it is the niche
itself which keeps them thriving
A Scottsdale Staple.
The origins of the store go back to southern California in the mid-1960’s. Aaron and Ruth Cohen were living in the San Fernando Valley, working in manufacturing, and both loved books about American history. Aaron was interested in George Armstrong Custer, while Ruth was an avid collector of Civil War books, particularly those on the Confederacy. “My mother was actually born in Massachusetts,” said Shelly Dudley, Aaron and Ruth’s daughter. “But for some reason she chose the South as her interest.”
Tired of the rat race, the couple decided to follow their passion and open up a bookstore specifically for books on the American Civil War and the American West. They looked at several locations before finally settling on Main Street in Scottsdale, Arizona. The store opened its doors in 1964. “The store was very small, about 700 square feet,” said Dudley. “Books were high up on shelves and my husband is an attorney, so he was always worried about the books falling on a customer.”
The Cohen’s chose the name Guidon, which was the swallowtail flag used by the military
to designate a certain military unit. Custer’s devoted wife Libbie wrote a book after her
husband’s death entitled “Following the Guidon”. Dudley is certain that this is why her
parents chose the name.
The store was a staple of old town Scottsdale for over 45 years, and it benefited from an
era where most of the town art galleries were western art. According to Dudley, things
slowed down a bit when the area began to expand toward different types of art in the
galleries. The Cohen’s also went on an annual book buying trip, browsing used
bookstores across the country for three weeks, in search of unique finds.
After Ruth’s death in 1999, Aaron continued to work the store until he was 91 years old.
Before he passed away in 2010, he passed the store on to his daughter Shelly Dudley,
who decided it was time to make a big change for Guidon Books.
New ownership and a new era.
As Shelly Dudley puts it, history has always been in her blood.. After getting her masters
degree in history on an Indian water rights case in the Southwest, Dudley worked as a
historian for the Salt River Project for 26 years. After her parents passed away, she took
over the bookstore full time. Along with her husband Gordon, she found a new location
for the store, only a few blocks from the old one. The building they bought was still
located in old town, on 2nd street and Marshall, and it opened it’s doors in 2011.
“The first positive is that there is a big sign out front which advertises us,” said Dudley.
“The store has much more room now and we have are own parking lot now, so customers don’t have to worry about meters. Also, the building under construction that’s kittycorner to us is going to be the Scottsdale Museum of the West, and that should help draw people.”
Remaining in the downtown area of Scottsdale is important for the store, as curious
people who pass by are one of the stores two main types of customers. Old town has
always been a place where people walk, to different stores, museums, and any place that catches their eye as they pass. This type of heavy foot traffic enables Guidon to draw visitors who don’t even realize the bookstore is there, especially in March, when visitors come for Spring Training.
“A lot of people who find us initially are tourists,” said Beth Gouwens, who worked with
Dudley at Salt River Project, before coming to work at Guidon part-time. “People come
to visit the area and are surprised to see a bookstore with such a specific niche.”
The other major types of customer at Guidon are the readers who have a serious interest in the Civil War or the American West. To them, the bookstore is not a curiosity, but a destination. Hobbyists will come to Guidon to find books they otherwise might not be able to find, and to talk with the staff about certain books.
“One of the advantages of a small bookstore with a niche, is the personalized help when
they come in and the depth of our collection and books,” said Gouwens. “Someone who
is a serious scholar or hobbyist can come in and get the help they need.”
Guidon interacts with several clubs in order to be involved with local enthusiasts. The
store hosts the Scottsdale Civil War round table discussion that meets once a month. They also chair panels and act as a vendor of books at the Arizona History Convention, as well as having books signings and hosting the monthly meeting of the Scottsdale Coral of Westerners. They also hope that the new museum of the west will have events they can participate in as well.
Succeeding in a modern world.
The Guidon staff notes that surprise is a common emotion among visitors to the store
who see it while walking by. They express disbelief that a place with such a specific
focus can succeed in an era when bookstores all across the country are closing their
locations. Chains such as Waldenbooks and Borders have closed down, and the Internet
has changed the way books are read. According to the Open Education Database, e-books are projected to have $10 billion of the book market by 2016, and Amazon has captured over 22% of the entire book market.
The fact that Guidon is a non-chain is not a detriment. It is, in fact, the reason why they
have stayed afloat in the new world. The store is unique, and draws in tourists and
passersby in a way that a chain never would. For the returning customers who are serious about the Civil War and the American West, e-books are not going to be the draw that they are for normal readers.
“A lot of our readers are collectors to some degree,” said Gouwens. “They like to have
the books themselves on their shelves, to show others, or for themselves. It’s about
having the book in your hands.” Gouwens also notes that certain types of books at Guidon are out of print, or not accessible in e-book form as they would be in print. This can especially be the case for books with many photographs, or with maps. Many of the hard to find collector books can be expensive in e-book form as well. “Some of the in depth books may not be available online,” said Gouwens. “Or if they are, it’s not affordable. You have to get it through a database that you subscribe to. You might
as well come here if that’s the case.”
The Civil War, and the American West are subjects that have continued to remain popular with readers throughout the years. At certain times, interest will dramatically spike, leading to more book sales. Usually, rapid rise in interest among casual readers will be due to the subject being feature in a different medium. Dudley notes that there was a great interest in Tombstone and the West after the Kurt Russell film Tombstone was released in 1993. That same year, a film on Gettysburg sparked wide interest in the Civil War as well. “People like to learn more about what they see on television,” said Dudley. “When a movie like that comes out, people want to learn more about the subject and can read several different books to find out more.” Perhaps the biggest explosion of interest in the Civil War came in 1990, when PBS released Ken Burns’ nine-part documentary on the war. 40 million people watched the series and book sales on the war, as well as trips to battlefields, skyrocketed. Dudley says that, even 24 years later, people still come in looking for books used in the series. “There were two journals that were used heavily in the film, as well as the books written by Shelby Foote,” she said. “We still have people who want to buy those books to this day.”
Guidon books looks to continue it’s success for years to come. It’s attraction as both a
curiosity to the average reader, and a destination for the hard core buffs, have continued to make it a viable business, despite the change in how books are sold and read. The demand for books on the Civil War and the West will never change.
“They were very exciting periods in our history, with events that don’t necessarily happen today. People can go back through books and experience those times.”
The store won’t be changing ownership again any time in the near future. Shelly says she and her husband love the store and that she hopes she can work it until she’s 91 years old.
Just like her dad did.