STORY BY MIA BASSETT AND CEDRIC CHAN, PHOTO BY EMILY MCNALLY
Linden Tree Children’s Books has transported children to a world of storytelling for generations, almost becoming a bona fide rite of passage in Los Altos. But few remember its origins as a record store 40 years ago.
Founded by Dennis and Linda Ronberg in 1981, Linden Tree fulfilled their vision of a children’s music store, operating out of their home in Seattle. When the couple moved back to Ms. Ronberg’s hometown, Los Altos, they decided to take the next step and open a storefront on State St.
Now, a new location and two sets of owners later, the records are gone from the shelves, but the store has maintained its original vision as a resource for Los Altos families.
Most Los Altos children grow up browsing the shelves of Linden Tree for new books or sitting in its large, cozy chairs and reading for hours. But the community that Linden Tree has created around a love for sharing stories stretches beyond the borders of its home city.
“People from 20 or 30 miles away will come to our store because that’s the only resource,” Mr. Ronberg said.
Linden Tree has seen generations of children grow up — some have even returned to become employees, said Lisa Blanchette, who has worked at the store since the Ronbergs first opened shop. It’s a testament to the dedication that Linden Tree has inspired in its community, extending beyond just a place to buy books.
Part of the Linden Tree experience, customers and employees said, is having conversations with employees who can tailor suggestions individually.
And these recommendations have become friendships too, said Linda Parish, who has been taking her daughter to Linden Tree “since she was chewing on books.” Over her years of visiting the bookstore, Parish said she has gotten to know several of the employees, even texting some on a regular basis.
“I think [the kids] just adore knowing someone in the store, who knows their name and knows their interests and can make recommendations for books,” she said.
“I think that’s really what sets a store like Linden Tree apart, … not just from other bookstores and other retail stores, but it also sets us apart from online shopping,” Saccheri said. “I’ll confess I’ve used Amazon for 20 years and the recommendations are just as bad now as they were 20 years ago.”
These interactions aren’t just limited to shopping, either. Part of what has kept customers coming back to Linden Tree time and again has been the events — from movie nights to author visits to writing workshops — that the store regularly hosts.
IMPORTANCE OF BOOKS
Almost three decades after Linden Tree began planting roots in the Los Altos community, the Ronbergs made the decision to move on in 2009 because of Mr. Ronberg’s illness, and sold the store.
The future of Linden Tree was thrown into flux, however, when it went up for sale again in 2019, but found few bidders. Fortunately for the store, former LinkedIn employee and local parent Chris Saccheri and his wife Anne, who visited frequently with their daughter, weren’t quite ready to let one of the last independent bookstores left in the Bay Area die out, Saccheri said.
“I feel like everybody has a moment [where] you hear that something you love like a business is in trouble and you’re like, ‘What if I got together some friends and we bought that,’ but nobody ever does it,” he said.
Determined to break that trend, Saccheri reached out to his former LinkedIn coworker Flo Grosskurth, and together they purchased Linden Tree, stepping from tech industry into literature.
“I think our first goal primarily was just keep it in business and prove to ourselves — and to the world around us — that a small, independent bookstore can still be profitable and can survive in the age of Amazon and online shopping,” Saccheri said.
Their vision, Saccheri said, is to get children excited about reading and revive Linden Tree’s community through its events.
“The community is kind of depending on you to carry this thing forward … and you want to live up to that standard [the previous owners set] for great service and a fantastic, welcoming environment for kids to come in and get excited about books and reading,” Saccheri said. “It was definitely scary — it’s still kind of scary — but I think the best things are a little bit scary, right? That’s where the fun is.”
It’s been a difficult undertaking as a children’s bookstore, which Saccheri described as a “niche within niche,” but it’s also helped keep business alive for Linden Tree by attracting customers from faraway cities.
Shopping for books in person — or perhaps just hanging around the store — is an irreplaceable experience, defying increased accessibility to digital books, Blanchette said.
“A lot of children … are growing up with so much screen exposure, and a book is a way to not encourage so much time in front of a screen,” Ms. Ronberg said. “When ebooks started to happen, the demise of the physical book was predicted. And it’s just not the same, holding a book, the way a book smells, the turning the page yourself.”
By early 2020, Grosskurth and Saccheri had finally started learning the ropes of the store, and in around March, they hosted their first Linden Tree book fair. A raging success, it left the two optimistic about Linden Tree’s future in the community, Saccheri said.
Then they were struck by COVID-19.
“I remember very distinctly driving home from that book fair and being like, ‘I think we’re finally getting it. Like, things are starting to click,’” Saccheri said. “I was so optimistic on that drive home, and then a week later we had to close the doors completely.”
The pandemic dealt a heavy blow to the bookstore, which had only dabbled in the online retail market. Despite having an online inventory and purchasing system, Linden Tree only attracted a couple online orders a month, at most.
Fortunately for the store, its loyal customer base transitioned to online shopping as quickly as Linden Tree closed its doors, and online orders skyrocketed. But without any robust infrastructure to handle the orders, Grosskurth and Saccheri took a traditional approach: doing things by hand.
With each drop-off, employees would load up their trunks with up to a dozen bags of books and drive them to customers’ houses. Saccheri said that for him, it became an opportunity to get to know new parts of the community that loved Linden Tree so dearly.
“Los Altos is sneakily big,” he remarked with a laugh.
Purely online operations remained in effect for three months, until easing restrictions allowed gradual steps back to normalcy. Recently, Linden Tree has been able to start hosting the book readings and other events that have made it so beloved by children in Los Altos.
“It was fantastic, being able to see the kids get excited and react to those readings, and it was really fun for the authors too,” Saccheri said. “It was [a couple of the authors’] first times actually getting to read their books face to face with children, seeing their reactions as they read. And that’s what it’s all about.”
These in-person events put on by Chris and Flo are carrying on founders Dennis and Linda’s original vision for the store as a community-building resource for Los Altos families.
“They’re young and enthusiastic, and they’ve done an amazing job keeping it going and really making it a wonderful store again,” Ms. Ronberg said.