Book Smarts at the Vero Beach Book Center

The Leonard family's Vero Beach Book Center has been enriching the local community for nearly half a century

189
Elizabeth and Chad Leonard keep the Book Center’s family atmosphere alive. Photo by Steven Martine
Elizabeth and Chad Leonard keep the Book Center’s family atmosphere alive. Photo by Steven Martine

For close to 50 years, the Vero Beach Book Center has been a destination for year-round and seasonal residents, tourists, and visiting children and grandchildren. This independent bookstore has not only survived but thrived while many booksellers, from small local shops to national chains, have closed their doors.

Regular visitors to the 11,400-square-foot establishment on 21st Street, just a short hop from the Merrill Barber and Alma Lee Loy Bridges, know why. The knowledgeable staff, perfect assortment of books for local tastes, outstanding children’s section, and well-staged author events are just some of the obvious answers.

Of course, there were the long hours and a bit of experimentation on the part of Leonard family members, who still own and operate the Vero Beach Book Center. But their love of books and a love of people and the community have fueled the success through the early years of struggle, several economic downturns, hurricanes, a pandemic, the introduction of online bookselling, and the proliferation of electronic reading devices.

For Tom and Linda Leonard, the founders, and their son Chad, who is now general manager, it has not been all hard work and grueling hours. They admit to a great deal of joy in connecting with the community, in the once-in-a-lifetime experiences, the hobnobbing with celebrities, and the national and local awards, proving it is gratifying to run a bookstore in a small community full of readers who appreciate and support them.

Tom and Linda Leonard mark the Vero Beach Book Center’s 1975 grand opening with young sons Todd and Chad
Tom and Linda Leonard mark the Vero Beach Book Center’s 1975 grand opening with young sons Todd and Chad.

The year was 1975 when Tom and Linda Leonard took the step into entrepreneurship. They had arrived in Vero Beach five years earlier as recent college graduates and newlyweds towing a U-Haul trailer. Linda’s parents had moved here to retire, so the couple was familiar with Vero Beach.

After a few years in their chosen careers, the environmental planner and the nurse sold their home to downsize and put the money into a business.

“Everybody thought we were crazy,” Linda says. “We had a 1-year-old and a newborn, the economy was not good in the early ’70s; we all remember the long gas lines. And we couldn’t get a loan.” They considered several other businesses, but as Linda quips, “Tom said a bookstore appealed to him because he thought it meant he could sit by the cash register and read all day and just take people’s money.”

After Tom attended a booksellers school in New York to learn how to deal with publishers and handle invoices, the appeal was still strong and the couple opened the Vero Beach Book Center at its first location, in the strip center across from Treasure Coast Plaza, which was then anchored by Woolworth’s, on 21st Street. At the time, this area was considered the main commercial district of Vero Beach outside downtown.

VBBC’s Sheila Grange, Pat Long, and Linda Leonard celebrate the nation’s Bicentennial in front of the store
VBBC’s Sheila Grange, Pat Long, and Linda Leonard celebrate the nation’s Bicentennial in front of the store.

“We had the location where West Marine is now,” Tom says. “And on one side was Melody Music, which is still there, and on the other side was a dance studio.” The walls were thin and at night—the store was open from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.—customers shopped to the beat of “The Hustle,” which was the pop song and eponymous dance the students were learning at the time.

On the corner, in what is today the location of Kelley’s Irish Pub, the couple established their niche children’s department, known as The Children’s Store. Because they had small children of their own, they wanted a ready supply of books for them. “And in the ’70s, new printing processes dramatically changed children’s books,” Linda says. “They went from having boring black-and-white line drawings to beautifully illustrated color pictures, and the books became glorious.” She supplemented the books with educational toys and cuddly stuffed animals and dolls. “I liked the idea of a character along with the book. Small children or reluctant readers often need to hold something when they are read to,” she explains.

Before children’s authors found their way to the fledgling Vero Beach Book Center, the Leonards promoted The Children’s Store with events, complete with costumed characters—Linda’s dad stepped into costume and transformed into Clifford the Big Red Dog. They hired a puppeteer to present puppet shows and participated in the Children’s Art Festival held annually at Riverside Park as early ways to connect with the community.

When the dance studio closed, the bookstore expanded into it with the right mix of books for the Vero Beach market. “This is a community where readers want recreation and entertainment in their fiction and serious but commercially popular nonfiction. That’s what sells here,” Tom says.

Vero Beach Book Center. Photo by Steven Martine
Vero Beach Book Center. Photo by Steven Martine

What also sells books is an author appearance. “At first it baffled the publishers that we were selling so many books in Vero Beach,” Tom says. “The president of Little Brown flew down on the corporate jet with Sandra Brown, one of its bestselling authors, and he took us to dinner at the Ocean Grill. He asked why this tiny bookstore in Vero Beach is selling more copies than bookstores in New York, Atlanta, Los Angeles, and Chicago. We said that in our little town, hosting an author was a big event.” Indeed, author events still draw people from surrounding areas in addition to Indian River County itself.

Eugene Lyon, Linda Leonard, Sheila Grange, Joan Carlson, Tom Leonard, Jim Murphy of HarperCollins, and Mel Fisher show off some treasures at a 1979 book signing
Eugene Lyon, Linda Leonard, Sheila Grange, Joan Carlson, Tom Leonard, Jim Murphy of HarperCollins, and Mel Fisher show off some treasures at a 1979 book signing.

Also at play was the fact that the Leonards know how to stage an event. When Steve Allen, the first host of The Tonight Show, visited to promote his book, VBBC borrowed a piano from its neighbor Melody Music. Allen sat at the piano and played, sang, and talked, and everyone had a great time.

The first time celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse came to VBBC, the owners set up a cooking area in the parking lot, surrounded by bleachers. The chef was late arriving, but when he did, Bam! he was on, and cooked until around 9 p.m. Then everyone moved inside the store for him to autograph books and inscribe each with his famous “Bam!” motto.

This went on until 1 a.m., by which time most of the remaining customers who had reserved books had gone home to bed. However, Lagasse, fortified with a glass of wine Tom handed him, continued to sign and inscribe the remaining customers’ books. “He didn’t leave until 4 a.m., knowing full well that he had to leave immediately for Palm Beach for a morning radio interview. He was by far my favorite guest,” Tom says, adding that Lagasse returned on two other occasions.

Over the decades, children’s authors and illustrators have left their marks on the walls 1. Photo by Steven Martine
Over the decades, children’s authors and illustrators have left their marks on the walls. Photo by Steven Martine

Then there were unplanned happenings that made an author event spectacular. Linda recounts the time Ridley Pearson was scheduled to speak. “Out of the blue, two of his buddies showed up: Carl Hiaasen and Dave Barry. Can you imagine having the three of them on the same stage at the Book Center?”

Over the decades, children’s authors and illustrators have left their marks on the walls 1. Photo by Steven MartineWhen the store has been unable accommodate the sellout crowds, it has moved to larger venues for the likes of Jodi Picoult, Nicholas Sparks, and singer Andy Williams.

Being in the bookselling business has allowed the Leonards to meet and interact with many bestselling writers and celebrity authors. Chad recalls having dinner with Pat Conroy at a book convention, and Linda served tea to Julie Andrews while the singer-actress had her makeup applied prior to an invitation-only appearance at the VBBC. In addition, the store has hosted two former U.S. presidents, Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush.

One other experience stands out to Tom and Linda. Random House called on short notice and invited them to a dinner in Miami. “They said, ‘We can’t tell who the author is, but you need to be there,’” Linda says. “It was a workday, and we were annoyed to have to drive to Miami, but we found someone to cover for us for the evening and we went.”

Elizabeth, Chad, Linda, and Tom Leonard with store mascot Kiki. Photo by Steven Martine
Elizabeth, Chad, Linda, and Tom Leonard with store mascot Kiki. Photo by Steven Martine

On route the publisher called with a change of venue, adding to the mystery and inconvenience. When they arrived, they were escorted to a back room of the hotel, where they recognized fellow booksellers. “They didn’t know what this was all about either,” she says. Later, they all learned the event was the author’s opportunity to thank this special group for out- standing sales of his notorious book, despite the death threats. (Yes, death threats even in Vero Beach!) And then in walked Salman Rushdie.

Linda Leonard receives a hug from Bishop Desmond Tutu after her inspiring words accepting the 1994 Charles S. Haslam Award for Excellence in Bookselling
Linda Leonard receives a hug from Bishop Desmond Tutu after her inspiring words accepting the 1994 Charles S. Haslam Award for Excellence in Bookselling.

“And on top of that, the publisher seated us at his table for the dinner,” Linda says. “If we had known, we sure would have prepared better questions for him, but we did have his ear until dessert, when he moved to a different table.”

The Book Center moved, expanded, contracted, briefly opened a satellite store, and also invited a café to share space for a short time until settling into its present two-story location.

Tom and Linda retired in 2004 and sailed their custom-made 40-foot sailboat from South Africa, where it was built. “They were gone for Hurricanes Frances and Jeanne that year and missed all the fun,” notes Chad. His parents spent the next few years sailing. They said this was made possible with Chad at the helm, along with his wife, Elizabeth, and the rest of the competent and long-serving staff, which included longtime store manager Sheila Grange, who was at the Leonards’ side when they opened their doors and just retired last year.

George W. Bush participates in a book signing at the Vero Beach Book Center. Photo by Grant Miller
George W. Bush participates in a book signing at the Vero Beach Book Center. Photo by Grant Miller

Today Tom and Linda are back as “volunteers.” Tom works much shorter hours, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and Linda, who still does all the buying for The Children’s Store, often works from home.

The Vero Beach Book Center has earned a number of awards, both locally and nationally, over the years. One the Leonards point to most proudly is the 1994 Charles S. Haslam Award for Excellence in Bookselling, the top national award in the industry.

Linda gave the acceptance speech at the awards ceremony held in Los Angeles, and Tom snapped a photo of Linda as Desmond Tutu was moved to embrace her after she concluded with what summed up their feelings about the store and its place in the community: “You can’t always measure the success of your actions monetarily. There is more to it than that. We are all brothers. None of us goes alone.”

Chad and Elizabeth Leonard stand amidst the stacks where local readers love to browse. Photo by Steven Martine
Chad and Elizabeth Leonard stand amidst the stacks where local readers love to browse. Photo by Steven Martine

Summer Reading List

from the staff of the Vero Beach Book Center

  1. The 9th Man by Steve Berry
  2. The Five-Star Weekend by Elin Hilderbrand
  3. Lady Tan’s Circle of Women by Lisa See
  4. The Wager: A Tale of Shipwreck, Mutiny and Murder by David Grann
  5. The Collector by Daniel Silva
  6. Dead Fall by Brad Thor
  7. The Beach at Summerly by Beatriz Williams
  8.  Never Give Up: A Prairie Family’s Story by Tom Brokaw
  9. The Wind Knows My Name by Isabel Allende
  10. Must Love Flowers by Debbie Macomber

Facebook Comments