Sharing a Love for Books
Despite several decades of prediction of the doom and demise of bookstores, the town’s iconic R.J. Julia Booksellers has not only survived, but thrived. The store’s new president, Lori Fazio has worked her way up from a part-time clerk to the person in charge of the company’s three-store chain that is still bringing both literature and renown in-person events to the shoreline.
Lori didn’t always have a passion for the written word.
“I did major in math [in college], but I was the kind of kid who always had a book around. I loved math, but I love reading as well,” says Lori.
Lori and her family moved back to Connecticut in 2003 and began to raise her family in Madison.
“I definitely always had an interest in reading. When my daughters were little, we always had an emphasis on reading, so when they got into school, I wanted to do something part-time and found myself at R.J. Julia working part-time, two days a week, while my girls were in school,” Lori says.
According to Lori, she slowly began taking on more responsibility at the store and moved up the ladder as her love for literature was being fueled by her work.
“I started out part-time as a book seller, then I managed the book clubs. I was the children’s department manager, then I was promoted to store manager, and after that I became the general manager,” says Lori. “At that time, in 2016, we started to partner with another bookstore owner in East Hampton, New York, and we still manage that store from here.”
Lori says that after that successful launch, R.J. Julia opened another outlet at Wesleyan University in Middletown and her position shifted once again to operations manager.
Now that Lori is president, she says she has found her calling and is dedicated to her staff.
“First of all, it is quite an honor. Roxanne [Coady, long-tome owner of the R.J. Julia franchise] has really created this amazing place for community and staff alike,” says Lori. “We all feel really fortunate to work in such and incredible place and the environment is a truly joyful one to be a part of.
“I am honored that she trusts me to be the person to take on the task, as she steps back a little bit. She’s still involved of course, and still involved in the strategic side,” she adds.
The skills and effort required to keep the business going still surprises some people.
“It’s a lot of hard work,” Lori says. “Most people think, ‘Oh, you work in a book store, you must get to read all day,’ but not really. We are rarely ever quiet. There is always something to do.”
The pandemic presented major challenges for both Lori and the store. As pundits had been predicting the end of bookstores for a while, the unknowns that COVID presented were a true obstacle that Lori and her team needed to surmount in order to stay viable.
“During the pandemic, especially in ‘20 and ‘21, I really took the helm at that point, with Roxanne’s blessing. In the beginning...sales got softer and really no one knew what to expect, but I think we really transitioned well to provide our community and our customers what they needed,” Lori says. “There was so much uncertainty, so there was a lot to negotiate.
“I don’t think we were any different than a lot of businesses at that time—no one knew what was going to happen. We just forged forward,” she continues. “My leadership team just got focused and we kept our customers happy. The team got closer, and every day we learned something different. We adjusted and adapted, and I think that was the key. We were being as safe as we could, and being as thorough as we could, and we got through and ultimately did quite well thanks to our loyal customers and our dedicated staff.”
One of the key features of R.J. Julia’s is its ability to bring in some of the country’s top authors for readings and live events. The pandemic pretty much put an end to that, but despite having this critical aspect of the business on hiatus, Lori says staff rallied and the store in finally beginning to bring back this beloved tradition as COVID restrictions begin to ease.
“We were really well known for those events, and frankly the Zoom events just were not as popular as the in-person events, but we tried to bring as much of that as we could to customers,” Lori says. “We had Minnie Driver here the other night and that was really fun and we had a smaller event at the store as well. So people are thrilled that we are getting back to that tradition.
“The author events are really special moments. When we see a customer get to meet one of their favorite authors and see them in-person, it is a special thing to be a part of,” Lori says.
Coady said in a statement how valuable Lori has become for the stores and how much her passion and dedication to the people of Madison has informed their mission.
“In each of the positions Lori has held over the 15 years that she has been with R.J. Julia, she quickly makes her stamp, excels at her responsibilities, and looks to make a difference,” Coady stated. “Over the last two years, as she led our team through the monster known as COVID, these same talents served R.J. Julia, our staff, and our readers to an extraordinary degree, allowing us to survive and thrive.”
Lori is looking forward to the new challenges her position will bring, but says her staff and the guidance from Roxanne will allow both her and the store to keep readers and customers engaged for many years to come.
“Our staff didn’t complain. They stepped up and just focused on what we needed to do. I may be a bit biased, but I really feel we have the best staff out there,” says Lori. “I get a lot of satisfaction from so much of what I do there. I get up every day, and I’m so excited to get into work. I’m excited because I work with fantastic people, and because I’m surrounded by things that make a difference.”
And of course, there are the books.
Books can truly make a difference in your life. That is always thrilling. I am thrilled to be able to do what I do,” Lori says. “Madison is so special, and I think we have a lot of really great businesses in town. To be able to work at R.J. Julia’s is magical for me. I am truly blessed. It is such an honor and I am proud to work with Roxanne and the whole staff here. It is a great family.”