Owls well that ends well

Liz Murphy looks back over time at The Learned Owl

by Stephanie Fellenstein • Photos by Lisa Scalfaro Published:

An owl sits on a stack of books outside The Learned Owl Book Shop on Main Street.

From his perch, he has watched people and books come and go over the years, but one thing has remained constant for the past 30 years -- proprietor Liz Murphy.

Don't take his word for it, though, head on in to find out the secret to her success.

It's 10 a.m. and Murphy has already been hard at work since 7:30 a.m. And that's just the time she arrived at the book shop.

"I got an email from her at 4:50 a.m.," says Learned Owl Events Coordinator Kate Schlademan, who sits nearby.

Murphy is busy entering special orders, making sure to stock extras for local book clubs.

"Twenty-nine years ago, I used to do this by phone," she says clicking through the orders online. "This is so much easier."

Online ordering is only a tiny portion of what has changed in the almost 30 years since Murphy bought the book shop. (The official anniversary is Oct. 15.)

Her website, another of the new additions over the years, lists some of the other accomplishments -- the store went from one phone, a cash register, two employees and a six-day-a-week schedule, to five networked computers, four phone lines, a web page, email, a fax, 21 staff members, plus a seven-day-a-week schedule that includes evening hours. Not to mention the fact that the store grew from 1,500 square feet on the main floor to 2,300 square feet on three levels.

While the bookstore has been wildly successful -- 2012 boasted the best sales ever in 29 years -- it was never in Murphy's life plans to actually own a bookstore. It just sort of happened.

Life before The Learned Owl

Murphy grew up in College Park, Md. where her father was an English professor at the University of Maryland and her mother was a librarian.

The family, which included her two younger sisters, would sit down together for cocktail hour and read every day.

"We didn't have a TV," Murphy says. "Most pictures of me as a baby or toddler involved books."

Murphy headed to Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisc., a school that met both of her criteria for college -- it was co-ed (she went to an all girls Catholic High School) and it was away from home. She earned a liberal arts degree with a focus on world religions and a minor in English.

"My mother was great. She didn't mince words and said, 'What the hell are you going to do with world religions?'" Murphy says.

What she did, was move around a lot.

"I had 12 major cross-country moves after college -- Wisconsin to Georgia to Delaware to Oklahoma to Northern California to Southern California to Chicago to St. Louis to Northeast Ohio," she says.

During that time, Murphy worked for Marriott, Hewlett-Packard and Pacific Bell, just to name a few.

It wasn't until she was working for an executive search firm that she started thinking about branching out on her own.

"It didn't occur to me to buy a bookstore until I was 35 years old," Murphy says. At the time, she was part of a business woman's group and she happened to meet with them for a glass of wine after work one day.

"I said I wanted to do something on my own and another woman at the other end of the table said, 'me too,'" Murphy says. "At first we thought coffee, but neither of us drank coffee."

Aurora resident Elaine Ober, the woman at the other end of the table, remembers that day well.

"If ever there was a situation or person to do that with, it's Liz," she says.

A guy Murphy worked with then told her about a bookstore for sale and the rest is history.

True to form, Murphy's mother was not happy about her decision to buy the book store.

"My mom wrote me a scathing letter. Crown Books were big out East and they were all going out of business at the time," Murphy says. "My mom wrote, 'how can you be so stupid ...'"

Murphy kept that letter and when she won an award from the Chamber of Commerce years later, she read part of the letter during her acceptance speech.

Her mom, one of her closest confidants, even ended up moving to Hudson where she lived for 10 years, helped out at the store and became enmeshed in the community.

Life with a book shop

Murphy threw herself headfirst, whole-heartedly into her new life.

"Without any kids, the bookstore quickly became my life," Murphy says. "I'm very proud of the relationship the bookstore has with the rest of the town and my relationship with not only my customers, but also the people I interact with. It's my family. People came in 29 years ago with their little kids and now those kids come in with their little kids. In my mind, we share the good times and the harder times."

With that said, the secret to The Learned Owl's longevity is actually not a secret at all.

Take a quick look at some of Murphy's community involvement and the secret will shine through.

Anyone who knows her knows how involved she is in the community. Murphy is the past president and a current member of the Hudson Area Chamber of Commerce; past president of the Aurora chapter of the American Business Women's Association; and past president and a current member of the Great Lakes Booksellers Association. She also played an important role on the steering committee for Hudson's downtown redevelopment and is on the board of the Merchants of Hudson.

"I've always thought that if we [local merchants] work together, advertise together to get people to come to Hudson, it will be good for all of us," Murphy says.

She also gives the City of Hudson some credit for her success.

"I can't imagine a more perfect place than Hudson with its thriving Main Street and shop local motto," she says.

Mayor Bill Currin says he is a strong supporter of Murphy.

"I think the world of her and the work she's done here in town both with the merchants association and, of course, with her wonderful business," he says.

Being flexible is another key to Murphy's success.

"You have to change," she says, pointing out that e-books are available through her website and she also sells Kobo eReaders.

And then there are the special visitors, programs and huge extravaganzas.

Remember Harry Potter?

Murphy will never forget him, and neither will the Hudson Police, she says.

When J.K. Rowling's fourth book, "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire," debuted in 2000, Murphy says several big box bookstores opened at midnight to sell the book.

"I thought, I can do that," Murphy says.

So when book five, "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix," came out in 2003, Murphy walked up and down Main Street imploring merchants to stay open late for a little party. "I had about 10 stores that agreed to help," she says. "We closed at 5 p.m. and reopened at 10 p.m. as Diagon Alley. I was thinking we'd get maybe 400 people."

But when the news stations in Cleveland and Akron started publicizing the event, Murphy decided to increase her order of books to sell that night.

"The morning of the event, I thought that maybe I should tell the police that I'm having a little party," she said. "I'm not sure the police have forgiven me yet."

It was like Times Square on New Year's Eve, Murphy remembers. "There were 4,000 people on Main Street. The police had to call in everyone they could, and had to close a state route at St. Mary Church because there were so many people in the street. It was magical," Murphy says.

By the time book six arrived in 2005, First & Main was built behind Main Street and Murphy asked them to join the extravaganza.

And in 2007, when the final book in the series debuted, Murphy got smart and hired an event planner. The Harry Potter Festival had grown to include not only Main Street and First & Main, but events were scattered throughout the city and loudspeakers piped music through the whole town.

"I remember walking down the hill dressed as Professor McGonagall," she says. "The Harry Potter theme music was playing and I thought, 'I really have to sell the store before she writes another book.'"

Police Chief Dave Robbins insists the police were never mad at Murphy.

"It was scary because nobody expected the amount of people that very first time," he says. "I wish her well in her retirement. I hope she can find a buyer for the bookstore. I've been in there many times. It is something unique to Hudson and very special in this day and age when bookstores are going by the wayside."

Harry Potter was not the only celebrity to visit The Learned Owl over the years. Authors, sports heroes and British royalty all came, and continue to come, knocking.

"Big guests came about sometimes by happenstance," Murphy says.

Take Winston Churchill's daughter, Lady Soames, for example. "She was a friend of a friend who was going to be in the area and stopped by," she says.

Cleveland Indian Bob Feller, authors Jan Brett and Eric Carle, the Cat in the Hat and Clifford the Big Red Dog are just a few of the other visitors.

Author Jennifer Chiaverini, who writers the Elm Creek Quilts series, promoted her very first book at The Learned Owl.

"At most we had maybe 15 people there," Murphy says of that first book tour. "Now people come from all over Ohio and Pennsylvania to see her."

And Author Cinda Williams Chima promoted The Learned Owl on her website for her book, "The Crimson Crown."

"We did pre-orders and she personalized all those books," Murphy says.

More people are coming. Terry Gordon, author of "No storm lasts forever: transforming suffering into insight," is coming to the Yoga Lounge Feb. 28. Plus authors Michael Buckley [The Sisters Grimm and N.E.R.D.S. series] and Tracy Chevalier [Girl with a Pearl Earring] are visiting soon too, Schlademan says. And World Book Night -- where 500,000 books were given out around the world last year -- will take place April 23.

As times changed, The Learned Owl changed too. Besides the ebooks, the Owl's progressive "Book Club in a Bar" meets the last Thursday of each month at a different local establishment. New members are always welcome, Schlademan says.

Check The Learned Owl website -- www.learnedowl.com -- for more information on any of the upcoming programs.

Looking beyond the Owl's front door

Murphy admits it took her about five years to realize that it might be time to retire.

Part of it was getting married six years ago, she says, adding she had less time to devote to The Learned Owl and needed more time to devote to husband, Greg Wybel.

"Over the past couple years I would get close to selling the store and then back off," she says.

Even Ober, who has remained close friends with Murphy all these years would ask her every once in awhile when she was going to retire.

"She'd say, 'don't worry. I'm not ready, but I'll let you know when I am,'" Ober says.

The time came in March 2012 while Murphy was on vacation.

"I took an almost three-week vacation," she says. "I was sitting with my feet in the surf, reading my book and I knew."

In April 2012, she announced her quest to find a buyer for the store.

"Things change so fast in the book industry," she said. "The Learned Owl really needs someone with more energy. Someone more in tune with social networking."

Since then Murphy says she has talked to more than 30 people. She also set up a team of advisers to help her with the interviews.

The number of those interested has been whittled down to three, including Schlademan, who started an online fundraising campaign.

While Schlademan fell short of her $50,000 goal in mid-January -- she raised close to $25,000 -- she is still moving forward with her plans to try to buy the store.

"I'm putting together a business plan and visiting banks," says the Stow native who often visited The Learned Owl as a child.

Negotiations were still underway when this issue was being printed.

When the time finally comes, will Murphy actually be able to walk out The Learned Owl's front door?

"It has to be done," she says. "There will be change, but as long as I sell it to the right person, it will be change for the better."

And if Murphy goes, Ruby the book shop dog also will bid the store farewell.

On a cold winter morning, Ruby is sprawled out on her side between the front counter and a display table right inside the front door. Her tail thumps on the ground when the door swings open. She gets up, stretches and makes her rounds through the store, pausing to sniff the arm of a patron sitting in a chair reading.

"Ruby will be sad," Murphy says. "She gets so much loving here."

No matter who takes over, Murphy will leave behind a lasting legacy.

Just ask the owl outside. He's seen it all.v

Want to leave your comments?

Sign in or Register to comment.