When Gloria Tiller, the owner of Kazoo Books, was growing up in Sparta, Michigan, her family owned an apple orchard. As a child, she punched a timecard and, at 16, was put in charge of payroll.
Maybe that’s why, at 21, while doing payroll at a different company, where the boss told her to get him a cup of coffee and sit on his lap, she quit and became self-employed. And she hasn’t looked back.
It wasn’t exactly an auspicious start to employment, but Tiller was undaunted. She sold real estate for 18 years and in 1988 opened her first bookstore, the Book Exchange at 407 N. Clarendon St. in Kalamazoo. Starting out with a selection of gently used romance titles, the store grew into a fully stocked, new and used bookstore called Kazoo Books. In 2004, Tiller opened a second location at 2413 Parkview Ave.— while most independent bookstores were closing shop for good.
In her 30-plus years as a bookseller, Tiller says, she’s always had to think outside the box. “That’s kind of a cliché now,” she says, “But I had to be open for improvement. I’ve had a million changes in my life.”
Weathering a sudden loss
One of the most recent upheavals in her life was the sudden heart attack and death in 2016 of her husband of 17 years, Jim Tiller, who was not only her business partner, but also the store’s resident computer guru.
“I didn’t even know how to update a (computer) file,” Tiller says. “I had no idea how to process mail order (the business of selling books online).”
Months before losing her husband, Tiller had decided to close the Clarendon Street location, even though business was booming. “We were going crazy driving between the two locations. Every time we ordered a new book, we had to order two. It was an organizational nightmare.”
With just one location, she was better able to serve customers. Previously, her employees made about 30 phone calls a day between stores, tracking down books. Tiller was also able to double the number of staff at the Parkview Avenue location by closing the other store and keeping every employee and all their hours.
Talking about her husband’s death, Tiller references Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Option B, which is about being on a certain course when your end goal completely disappears. “You’re going down this road, from Point A to Point B,” she says, then pauses. “Well, when your husband dies, Point B doesn’t exist anymore.”
Unfortunately, Tiller already knew that from experience. She was previously married to Bud Walters, who ran Doug and Bud Auto Sales, and lost him to lung cancer.
“If you ask me, the hardest thing is to lose someone suddenly, when their coffee cup is in the kitchen sink and their clothes are in the closet, and they’re not coming home,” she says.
Tiller has now been through so many life-altering changes, she says, it’s almost normal for her.
“There’s stress, but I have a very deep faith. I think to myself, ‘Here we go again.’”
Currently, Kazoo Books involves multiple business lines: internet sales, a distribution business, the brick-and-mortar store on Parkview Avenue, and special orders like the one for a local school library currently being stocked with 800 books. Kazoo Books also acts as a distributor for local authors who self-publish their own books.
Tiller has four employees and in-house information technology and website support, which she wrangled after a long, expensive process in which she hired and fired four professionals. She finally just taught herself the IT side of the business and tells her people what to do now.
“There’s so much change in this business,” Tiller says. “If you’re somebody that needs to concentrate on one thing, forget that. You’ve got at least two or three things going on at once.”
Doing it all
Tiller also hosts a public access television show called The Local Scene, making her a store owner, a television host, a saleswoman, and an event coordinator — not to mention a Corvette enthusiast, begging the question: Is there anything this woman doesn’t do?
If you’re wondering if she can fly planes, the answer is: Yes, she does that, too.
Tiller has a degree in creative writing from Western Michigan University, as well as minors in psychology and sociology, but, while at WMU, she also studied aviation.
She’s owned and renovated 25 houses in her life. In 2010, she was awarded the Kalamazoo Network’s Glass Ceiling Award for being a grass-roots motivator and community volunteer, as well as an outstanding businesswoman.
And while courage and self-confidence seem second nature to Tiller, she credits her success to three classes she took in her youth: a typing class, a business class where she gave a sales presentation (selling apples), and an English class at WMU where she presented on Emily Dickinson and learned how to speak in front of people.
She speaks in public frequently now — at book clubs, store events, and even national conferences for the American Booksellers Association. Her message evolves, she says, even as she stands up to talk. She has trained herself to read rooms full of people, something she learned on her first day as a bookseller.
Before the Book Exchange opened during Labor Day weekend in 1988, she had spent the summer stocking her shelves with 5,000 romance titles, because she assumed women were the main book buyers and that they would want mostly romance novels. But the first customer who entered was a man who requested a mystery title. She didn’t have anything to offer him.
“It was the first change I made to the business,” she says. Instead of assuming she knows what will sell, she now responds to what her customers want every day. She likes helping customers, like the ones who call while driving down the road holding their phones up so she can hear NPR and saying, “Gloria, can you order this for me?”
“We got it,” she tells them, and she has the book available within a day or two.
Maybe that kind of service is why Tiller says her sales haven’t been affected by online giants like Amazon. And, with more than 47,000 books in her inventory, she owns more books than some chain stores. Referencing a bookstore opening in Rochester Hills that will reportedly carry 32,000 books, she says, “I can safely say I have more books than Barnes & Noble,” and laughs.
The 47,000-plus figure doesn’t even include books ordered directly for customers, since they never enter her inventory, or the 3,000 books she recently acquired at an estate sale that still need to go into the system.
“I’ve never had it so good,” Tiller says. “But I am excessively busy. You have to learn how to say no to some things, and I haven’t quite accomplished that yet.”