What could be the final chapter of Amber Unicorn Books, a Las Vegas literary institution for more than 30 years, may be written over the next several weeks, and area book lovers may not like the ending.
Owner Myrna Donato has begun a GoFundMe campaign to raise operating funds for the store, which has suffered a potentially lethal drop in business since the closure of a Trader Joe’s that anchored the shopping center in which the book shop sits.
Donato hopes the online campaign will tide her over until she either finds a buyer for the store or some other way to keep it open. But if that can’t be done, Donato says she may be forced to close the shop sometime after the first of the year.
“It’s been really hard to come to those terms with myself,” Donato says, but “it’s just become very clear within the last few months that it’s just not going to turn around.
“Really, I’d like to see it moved to another location,” says Donato, 80, who started the business 38 years ago with her husband, Lou Donato, although “it’s not going to be me doing it, because I don’t have the money or the energy.”
“But if that doesn’t happen, then it’s looking pretty close to, you know … ,” Donato says, her trailing voice expressing the worst.
Donato’s GoFundMe campaign (gofundme.com/f/save-amber-unicorn-books) went live Aug. 30 with a goal of $60,000. Donato writes in the solicitation that “the viability of the store to operate for the immediate future is questionable, which could result in a potential sale of the business or its closure.”
“What we’re trying to do is get enough operating capital to see me through the end of the year and give me time to look at the options that are available,” Donato says. “I’d like to see somebody in the community come in and say, ‘Well, we can’t let this happen, so what do you need?’ or, ‘Well, you know, I’ve been thinking of something else to do. Can I buy the store?’ ”
But, she adds, “I really haven’t talked to anybody about selling yet.”
More than books
If the shop does close, “it’s going to be a huge deficit for the literary community,” says Drew Cohen, an owner of The Writer’s Block, an independent bookstore in downtown Las Vegas.
“Amber Unicorn is far and away the largest used bookstore in the city and it’s crucial. I can’t imagine the Vegas book scene without Amber Unicorn.”
Cohen says his store routinely sees customers seeking to buy or sell used books, and “we always send them to Amber Unicorn.”
Buying and selling used books requires “a particular expertise and they excel at that at Amber Unicorn,” he says.
The shop also offers readers “an impressively wide selection of what people are looking for in a good used book store,” Cohen says.
“In a good used book store — or a new (books) store — you want that kind of space where (customers) can explore and get lost in the inventory,” he says.
Cohen adds that Myrna Donato and her late husband, Lou, were supportive of him and partner Scott Seeley when they opened The Writer’s Block. Even now, he says, “we get together about once a month for dinner. It will be Myrna, Scott and me, and some other used book sellers.”
Anchor store away
“It just depends on how long I can hold on,” Donato says. “Where we used to have thousand-dollar (sales) days every day or at least three days out of the week, if we have a thousand-dollar day once a month, I’m lucky. And the other days, there (aren’t) even enough people to make salary.”
Donato says the store’s financial problems began when Trader Joe’s vacated their shared shopping plaza at 2101 S. Decatur Blvd. in June 2017. Left without an anchor store, and without the foot traffic Trader Joe’s brought, Amber Unicorn suffered a then-30 percent drop in revenue that more recently has been nearing about 50 percent, Donato says.
“There are a lot of businesses that can survive being destination places,” she says. “A bookstore can’t. We need the walk-in traffic.”
Donato has kept the store running since Lou’s death in November 2017. But even before that, “we were talking about it. We were bemoaning the fact that we didn’t have the traffic we used to have,” Donato says. “We had to sort of decide when the lease is up in 2021 that we’d either close or sell at that time, because we’d both be well into our 80s. We’ve been in business for 38 years and that would have made it a total of 40.
“I’ve been wrestling with it and for probably a year I just kept hoping things would change around and it just hasn’t. And customers will see it. They come in and say, ‘You’re not going to move, are you?’ I don’t know for sure.
“I love our loyal customers, and it bothers me that if I do have to go the route of closing, they’re not going to have this type of bookstore. The day we opened, there were 15 used bookstores in town. Eleven years later, we’ve got three.”
Donato says rent for her 4,800 square feet — the 2,400-square-foot main store and two adjoining storefronts of 1,200 square feet — runs $6,800 per month.
“When Trader Joe’s was there, we never had a problem with it,” she says. “Now it’s like, oh my God. That’s why I’ve got the GoFundMe up, so that I can make it be guaranteed of having enough money for the rent.
”I would love to see the store move more toward downtown into the Arts District or downtown someplace. But I don’t have the money to do it. That’s why I’m hoping someone who would like to see the store continued would come forth.”
As of last week, Donato had made no firm decision about what to do and no timetable of when things might happen.
“Lou and I never had a retirement plan,” Donato says. “This was our retirement. We just kept reinvesting in books all the time.”
The next few months could see something good happen, too, she says. “That’s why I don’t really want to say, ‘Yes, I’m closing.’ But it’s looking kind of bleak, you know?”
“I’m hoping there’s a fairy godmother up there,” Donato says.
She laughs. “I haven’t called on her for a long time.”
A literary love story
Lou Donato owned a bookshop in San Diego before moving to Las Vegas in 1978 and opening a store at Sandhill and Flamingo roads. He lost that store when he and his ex-wife divorced.
Three years later, while preparing to open another store at Charleston Boulevard and Rancho Drive, Lou met Myrna, who worked in a next-door dental office, when he stopped over to apologize for the construction noise.
“I had a bad day and used some choice words,” Myrna recalled in a 2017 Review-Journal story. “Then, the next day, I went over to apologize, and he was working so hard and doing most of the work himself, so I started to pitch in and help him, not knowing we were going to have a relationship.”
In 1981, Lou and Myrna opened Donato’s Fine Books. In 1984, they moved the shop a few doors down and opened Amber Unicorn Books (the name combines one of Lou’s favorite science fiction series and Myrna’s unicorn collection). They sold that store in 1997, sold books online for several years, and in 2008 opened at their current location.
On Oct. 31, 2017, Lou suffered a heart attack and died of complications shortly afterward. He was 77. He and Myrna had been married for 36 years.
Since Lou’s death, running the business “isn’t as much fun,” Myrna says. “And it’s a lot more work now, because he used to take care of the front part of the store and I did all the paperwork and stuff in back. After two years, I still haven’t figured out how to juggle both sides.”
But the store’s uncertain future is due solely to financial problems associated with the departure of Trader Joe’s, she says.
“With Lou dying, that didn’t help. But the fact is, we never recovered from Trader Joe’s leaving because we lost all of the walk-in traffic.”
In looking back over more than 30 years of selling used and rare books at Amber Unicorn, Myrna Donato says she’s particularly proud of the store’s welcoming vibe,”a place where you can come in and not feel like you have to buy something.”
The store is known among local book lovers not just for what Donato estimates are its more than 350,000 volumes, but for its rare and antiquarian books, its children’s books and cookbooks (Myrna’s interests) and science fiction and military volumes (Lou’s interest).
She’s also proud of the shop’s longtime customers. One, an avid reader who lost her vision to macular degeneration, no longer can read books, “so I’ve been buying books on CD for her,” Donato says.
Also among the store’s regular customers, Donato says, is a fourth-grade class from a local charter school that stops in for annual field trips, prompted originally by a teacher’s query about whether the store had any historical documents that the children could touch.
Donato’s husband, Lou, found an old book with a copy of the Bill of Rights in it. “Lou talked to them about this book,” she says. “They were able to hold it, and they went back to class and told the next class, ‘If you want a great field trip, you’ve got to go to the bookstore.’ “