How Changing Hands Bookstore Has Changed Over The Years

By Christina Estes
Published: Monday, April 22, 2019 - 5:05am
Updated: Monday, April 22, 2019 - 11:27am

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exterior of original location
Tempe History Museum
The original Changing Hands Bookstore on 5th Street in downtown Tempe.

It’s a narrative often repeated: Amazon is killing bookstores. Over the last decade, big chains like Borders, B Dalton and Waldenbooks have all closed their doors. But the number of local, independent bookstores has increased nearly 50 percent. In our five-part series, “Business of Books," KJZZ explores on the local landscape.

First up is the Valley’s oldest, independent — Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe.

Standing on a small stage, Gayle Shanks clutched a microphone, faced dozens of people and asked for forgiveness

“I’ve been an emotional wreck all day today,” she said.

On a recent Saturday afternoon, customers and employees raised champagne glasses to celebrate Changing Hands 45th anniversary.

The Beginning

“I was thinking we were going do a bookstore for one year,” Shanks said.

That was in 1974. Shanks joined Tom Brodersen, who has since retired, and Bob Sommer to sell used books in a 500-square-foot space in downtown Tempe. In 1978, they moved to Mill Avenue.

Changing Hands owners
Christina Estes/ KJZZ
Cindy Dach, Bob Sommer and Gayle Shanks own Changing Hands Bookstores.

“It was then being rebuilt by this new group of hippies who had businesses,” Shanks said. “And it became a little gold mine, it was unique, it was different than anything else you could find anyplace else. We used to have busloads of tourists who would come from all parts of the city.”

In the 1990s, things started changing for Changing Hands.

“We were victims of our own success,” said Sommer. “The street became so popular that the national chains moved in and the landlords looking for the quick dollar and long-term tenants raised the rents to what only national chains could afford and the independents started disappearing, one after the other after the other.”

Current Tempe Home

In 1998, Changing Hands settled into its current location, a shopping center at McClintock Drive and Guadalupe Road. The bigger space means more books, more activities for kids and more author events. In the New York publishing world, Changing Hands has a reputation for filling seats and selling books. The company attracts diverse authors like former presidents Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama, Hollywood stars like Jamie Lee Curtis and Neil Patrick Harris, and musicians like Linda Ronstadt and Billy Idol.

“It’s just amazing when that happens,” Sommer said. “The people who are there are just wowed sometimes. They’re almost floating off the floor just being in the presence of somebody like that.”

Those experiences slowed dramatically in 2008.

“The recession kicked our butts,” said Shanks.

Shanks said they avoided layoffs by cutting back hours and getting the landlord to reduce rent.

“They just loved having us in this center,” she said. ”They had the big picture and compassion to say, ‘We want you to stay and we’re going to make this work.’”

checkout area
Christina Estes/KJZZ
The Phoenix store will celebrate its fifth anniversary in May 2019.

The Second Store

For two years, they struggled. Then, as the economy rebounded, Changing Hands started feeling a different kind of pressure.

“We were asked all the time to open a store in Phoenix,” said co-owner Cindy Dach.

Changing Hands asked the community to prove how much they wanted a store. Through a crowdfunding campaign, the owners set a $60,000 goal to help build a store at the former Beef Eater’s restaurant at Third Avenue and Camelback Road. Bob Sommer said they received $90,000.

“We had some authors that had been at the store multiple times that, in a way, we had helped promote on a national level and they just showed their appreciation by kicking it back to us and that was so heartwarming,” he said.

Shanks recalled being caught off guard by the community’s support.

"I think there can’t be any bigger legacy in my mind than a business creating a place that people love so much that they call it their own.”
— Gayle Shanks, Changing Hands co-owner

“This is the day we’re going to open it and we’re throwing computer cables over the rafters because the computers wouldn’t go on at the last minute and I look outside and there were 3,000 people filling the parking lot, waiting to get in the front door,” she said.

The Phoenix store is part of an adaptive reuse project. Two original fireplaces from the 1960s create cozy gathering spots. Customers can touch the original Queen Creek adobe brick walls and lean on the original redwood while sitting at the bar. Yes, a wine and beer bar. It’s called “First Draft.”

“And, just last night I was listening to somebody explain our name to somebody else and they were like, ‘Don’t you get it? It’s like a first draft of a novel,’” said Dach.

As she prepares for the Phoenix store’s fifth anniversary next month, Dach is looking ahead.

“As long as we keep our focus on being a community gathering space and being profitable and being fair wages and we do all those things and we intersect them, we have a long future ahead of us,” she said.

Bar at changing hands in phoenix
Christina Estes/KJZZ
Changing Hands' Phoenix location is part of an adaptive reuse project.

Employees And Politics

During the anniversary party in Tempe, Shanks gave credit to Changing Hands’ 60 employees, including Brandon Stout the marketing director who pushed the owners to step out of their comfort zones.

“It’s Brandon who has said to us, ‘We have to be political. You cannot live in this environment and not take a stand on some of these issues,’” Shanks said. “And I am eternally grateful.”

The company’s social media platforms often criticize President Donald Trump’s policies and, in 2016, Changing Hands publicly supported Proposition 206, which raised the state’s minimum wage.

Bebe Axelrod doesn’t mind the company’s political views. She’s been shopping at Changing Hands since it opened and attended the anniversary party.

“I’ve always encouraged people to come here,” she said. “This is a great place.”

As customers and employees shared memories, Bob Sommer and Gayle Shanks contemplated cutting back on their work hours. Both are in their 60s, but neither is ready to say goodbye.

“It’s become an institution in a way, but it’s become an institution that’s owned by the community,” Shanks said. “I think there can’t be any bigger legacy in my mind than a business creating a place that people love so much that they call it their own. It’s my bookstore.”

Checkout counter
Christina Estes/ KJZZ
Changing Hands has 60 employees at its two stores.

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