Love (of book store) at first sight

Viewpoint Books’ next chapter is a love story.

It’s about a husband and wife, their passion for literacy, their longtime bond to the Columbus bookstore and a desire for it to remain open.

The story of John and Beth Stroh — the next owners of Viewpoint Books — and their connection to the store began around Thanksgiving in 1981, nearly 25 years ago. The newlyweds, who met while both teaching at Fall Creek Elementary School in Indianapolis in the late 1970s and early ‘80s, had come to Nashville for their honeymoon.

During their getaway, the Strohs traveled to Columbus to have a look around because John had accepted an offer from a firm to practice law there. While in Columbus, the Strohs went inside the old Commons Mall, where they saw a movie and browsed the shops, including Viewpoint Books.

Thus began a longtime connection to the independent bookstore as customers.

That relationship officially changes July 1 when ownership will transfer to the Strohs from Terry and Susan Whittaker, who have operated Viewpoint Books since 1979, and at 548 Washington St. since 2007. The Whittakers took over the business from Susan’s family.

“We haven’t lived in Columbus without a Viewpoint bookstore, and it is such a valuable asset to the community. We read that Terry and Susan were interested in retiring, and felt like it was a legacy worth continuing,” Beth Stroh said.

Owning and operating a bookstore fits well with their belief — as former educators and also as parents — that reading is critical, and a building block for children.

“Education, reading and the pure joy of books that are shared by families and groups of kids, adult reading groups — I can’t imagine a world without books, and you need a book store for people to be able to have access to them,” said Beth Stroh, who most recently worked in Indianapolis as education director for United Way of Central Indiana. She also taught locally at the former Southside Junior High School, Northside Middle School and Lincoln Elementary.

John Stroh will continue to practice law as a partner with Sharpnack Bigley Stroh & Washburn, but Beth’s full-time job will be overseeing the day-to-day operations of the bookstore, with the help of about a half-dozen part-time employees.

The Whittakers let it be known in late 2014 that they intended to sell the bookstore. Their lease was set to expire in 2016, and they were not interested in signing a longer-term lease. Now both 68 and in good health, Terry Whittaker said selling the bookstore also would allow them to take advantage of the coming years, while still living in Columbus.

What the Whittakers found challenging was finding the right buyer. Ideally that was someone who lived in, understood and was interested in the community, Terry Whittaker said.

“We weren’t going to sell to anyone to just keep it open,” he said.

The Whittakers received a lot of interest about the bookstore, but many who dreamed about owning Viewpoint faded away after they were hit with the financial reality of the amount of capital needed to be successful, Terry Whittaker said.

Others were not good fits philosophically, he said.

The Strohs contacted the Whittakers late last fall about the possibility of buying Viewpoint Books, because they had heard nobody had yet stepped up to buy it, said John Stroh, 69.

Working in Columbus again appealed to Beth Stroh, 59.

“I’ve really missed being part of my home community, so this was also an opportunity for me to remain dedicated to education, which I am very passionate about, and to teach still, but in a very different way and in a different environment,” she said. “I’m probably the one who nudged John a little bit and asked, ‘Is this something we can think about?’ Fortunately for us, they were very receptive to talking to us about it.”

As discussions progressed, the Whittakers wanted to make sure the Strohs fully understood what they’d be getting into, so they paid for the Strohs’ registrations to attend the American Booksellers Association’s Winter Institute, conducted in January in Denver. The event offered a wide range of seminars and education opportunities about the industry, and helpful information about owning a bookstore, John Stroh said.

The experience was positive, John Stroh said, so when they returned the negotiations with the Whittakers continued.

“We wanted to make sure they thought we were the right people. This has been their legacy,” Beth Stroh said.

The Strohs had the financial means to own the bookstore and the Whittakers knew them because John Stroh has been their longtime personal attorney, but the Strohs offered something else, Terry Whittaker said.

“More importantly they just kind of fit the perfect idea of who we would like to take over. They’ve been in this community for a very long time, they’re very well known, they’re very community oriented, they want to be involved in more than just retail, they want to be involved in downtown and have a broader impact on the community,” he said.

A purchase agreement was reached in March, John Stroh said. The time until the official transition of ownership is being used to learn everything about the business that’s needed, finalize a lease with the landlord and establish relationships with publishing companies, he said.

During the first week of April, Beth Stroh attended an intensive seminar in Florida for people interested in owning or starting a bookstore.

Beth Stroh said she and John plan to operate the business for a while to get used to it, before possibly making any significant changes. They’d like to know from customers whether the store provides enough diversity in book titles and languages, for example. The Strohs said they also have discussed the possibility of selling vinyl records, expanding the store’s gift selection or even having a little coffee shop.

While some natural apprehension developed at taking on a venture such as this, the Strohs said they are excited.

“It feels like a very good decision,” Beth Stroh said.

Or perhaps a perfect marriage.

Meet the new owners

WHO: John and Beth Stroh

WHAT: Next owners of Viewpoint Books, located at 548 Washington St., Columbus.

AGES: John is 69; Beth is 59.

BACKGROUNDS: John is a partner in the law firm Sharpnack Bigley Stroh & Washburn, and is a former elementary school teacher. Beth is a former elementary and middle school teacher (including at the former Southside Junior High School, Northside Middle School and Lincoln Elementary), has worked for banks in their training and development area, and most recently was education director for United Way of Central Indiana in Indianapolis.

FAVORITE TYPES OF BOOKS: John enjoys fiction, particularly the thriller genre, and historical and religious non-fiction. He listens to audio books in the morning during walks. John still has the book he received for winning a first-grade reading contest: “The Adventures of Paddy the Beaver.” Beth has a passion for children’s books, reads periodicals, enjoys the NPR book collections and reads about business leadership development, and listens to audio books while traveling.

CHILDREN: Mary and Dan

About Viewpoint Books

Location: 548 Washington St., Columbus.

Hours: Monday-Saturday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Phone: 812-0778

Website: viewpointbooks.com/

History: Opened in 1973 with The Commons Mall in 1973; located since 2007 at 548 Washington St. Owners: Terry and Susan Whittaker.

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Kirk Johannesen is assistant managing editor of The Republic. He can be reached at johannesen@therepublic.com or (812) 379-5639.