Juniper Books founder makes his own niche in a changing industry
By Mary Reed
When Thatcher Wine was a Dartmouth College student in the early ’90s, he often found himself in the special-collections library, looking at books from the 18th century along with handwritten correspondence from the college’s founder. He majored in history and art history, throwing in a healthy dose of studio arts classes. Though he immediately went on to work in management consulting, books were always a side project, particularly collecting and selling old and rare editions.
Then Wine moved to Los Angeles and launched an Internet startup “a little bit too early,” and it ended up going bust. Having quickly tired of LA’s car culture, he was spending vacations in Colorado to ski and enjoy what seemed like a better quality of life. He moved to Boulder in 2001 and started collecting and selling books in earnest. “I’d go to estate sales, library sales, buy books, put them online,” he says. “I’d go to Colorado Springs to buy out 5,000 books”—the inventory of a store going out of business. Juniper Books was officially launched.
In 2005 he got a request that set him on his current path: A friend of a friend of the family reached out to ask Wine to curate a home library. “They ended up needing 4,000 books,” Wine recalls. He interviewed the family to find out their needs and worked with an interior designer, and in the end everyone was happy with the results. “I started to wonder, are there other people in the world who have similar needs?”
Wine began curating more home libraries and increasingly worked with interior designers. Then something curious started to happen: Clients and designers occasionally requested that all of the book bindings be in one color, or that their spines create one large design when the books were stacked on a shelf. “I was like, ‘That doesn’t really exist.’” The proverbial lightbulb went on. Today, if you look at the Juniper Books catalogue, you’ll see photos of wall-size bookshelves that also serve as canvases—the covers are printed to show images of, say, the New York City skyline, a famous painting or a ski slope.
Wine’s interest in books and art intersected as he introduced small decorative book sets—“turning the content inside out,” as he describes it—that now account for about half of Juniper Books’ business. Picture a Hemingway set in which the spines come together to present an image of an elephant and the author’s distinctive signature. Or a collection of American classic literature whose jackets create an American flag. One of Wine’s own favorite authors, Mark Twain, is represented in this set.
Bucking Some Trends, Embracing Others
Juniper Books sells more than 100,000 books a year and is growing. How is this business bucking the trend of bookstores closing left and right across the country? “I think people who talk about the demise of the printed book … totally missed the whole story of the beauty of a well-made book,” Wine says. “Books are really nice for decoration. It makes a home feel like a home.”
Kimberley Bruckmann, owner of the Boulder-based interior-design firm Potlatch 30, has worked with Wine, and she agrees. She points out that 3-D architectural renderings often show a sample bookshelf with the “books” all one color, like gray, so they’re not too distracting. “It is crazy, like, how did he think of it? It seems obvious that it would be a great idea,” Bruckmann says, adding that books as an art installation will appeal to both the book lover and the art lover who isn’t necessarily a book lover. “He covers both people,” she says, “and that’s hard.”
Wine does face the challenges of larger trends; e-books are projected to outsell printed books in the United States for the first time within the next year or two. That is why he focuses on literary classics—not only because he feels that the quality of the works themselves should be as timeless as the concept of a library, but because those are the books that publishers still print in hardcover.
As Wine, 43, sits in his north Boulder warehouse, his 7-year-old daughter, Jasmine, comes in after school. (Wine has an affinity for trees—in addition to Juniper Books, his son, 10, is named Cedar.) The business space is full of books, of course, but also a resident cat, commuter bicycles, employees and employees’ family members. The family-friendly atmosphere is something that comes naturally to Wine, who grew up in New York City heading to his parents’ restaurant after school.
Wine inherited an entrepreneurial spirit and understands that his business has to evolve with consumers’ changing desires. At the moment, the company’s biggest seller is the Harry Potter series. “Our experience has shown that books are important to people, and people will always be buying books,” he says. “If you’re entrepreneurial and you’re willing to work with your customer … there will always be a role for you.”
Mary Reed (www.maryreed.biz) is a freelance journalist based part-time in Boulder. Her latest book is Best Easy Day Hikes Fort Collins (FalconGuides).