The sun sets on Sundance: The owner and patrons are sad to say goodbye, but celebrate 39 years of good times

In 1989, Leslie Burke brought her eldest son, then in the second grade, to Sundance Books & Music to redeem a gift certificate he won in school. 

“Sundance became a fixture in our lives for the next 35 years,” said Burke, a retired Washoe County librarian. “… Visiting Sundance was a treat, an indulgence I would often add to my to-do list.” 

The store, she said, has always been a great resource for buying books new, old or obscure, and for hosting local and nationally known authors and speakers, who often addressed audiences from the front porch of the store in the historic Levy Mansion at 121 California Ave. Sundance was a place of exploration and discovery—and a peaceful respite from the pressures of everyday life, she noted. 

“Thank you, Sundance, for providing memories of visiting your bookstore, of winding through the maze of rooms with books or ephemera in every nook, of the creaky steps going upstairs to look at paperbacks and used books,” Burke said. “This is a frenetic, changing world, and quiet, calm places like bookstores eventually succumb. … Your presence will be sorely missed.” 

Christine Kelly, who owned Sundance for 36 of its 39 years in existence, announced the closure on May 1. Kelly and her team spent the following weeks hearing testimonials from customers like Burke as the shop prepared to close its doors for good on May 31. Running both the store and its book-publishing arm, Baobab Press, was a seven-day-a-week job, she explained, and it’s time for her to start a new chapter in her life and spend more time with family. Baobab Press will continue publishing. 

“Closing has been a long and difficult decision for me to make,” Kelly said. “I know how vested and invested our community has been in this store for all of these years. The whole thing is heavy for everybody. It is certainly something that I have great empathy for. … I feel very heartfelt about it. It isn’t just a matter of enduring it; it’s a matter of embracing it and recognizing everybody has their feelings. I want them to know they’re heard.” 

As the news spread on social media, some Renoites speculated that the closure may be linked to the current expansion of Sundance’s neighbor and landlord, the Nevada Museum of Art, which owns the Levy Mansion. The nearby Sinai Mansion was razed last year to make way for the museum’s new wing, and critics feared the Levy property also might face a wrecking ball. 

David B. Walker, chief executive officer of the Nevada Museum of Art, said the museum has no plans for the building other than preserving it in place. “The best outcome for us and the neighborhood would be to move Sundance, as is, into the future,” he said. “We’d like to see a second life for Sundance. … We never talked about selling the Levy Mansion or tearing it down. It has great value to the neighborhood and the city.” 

During the last four decades, Sundance has forged relationships with scores of local organizations to bring programs and speakers to the shop. Those groups included Nevada Humanities, the Northern Nevada Literacy Council, Washoe County Libraries, the Food Bank of Northern Nevada, local schools, the Eddy House, the Domestic Violence Resource Center and others. Sundance, since its inception, was a center of both commerce and community. 

Bookshops remain viable 

“It’s always been a magical place,” said Joss Freeman, a Reno restaurant worker who said she prefers buying books in person rather than online. “I usually don’t know exactly what I’m looking for when I walk in the door, but I always find books that grab me. … I like wandering around, seeing what’s new and talking to the staff and other customers. You never know what you’ll find.” 

Freeman is among the 20 percent of American readers who prefer buying print books from brick-and-mortar stores rather than from sellers on the internet. That percentage has been shrinking since the 1990s, according to the American Booksellers Association, but recent surveys indicate that book shops aren’t an endangered species. The association has 2,433 members, including 200 stores that joined last year. About 190 more shops are expected to open in the next two years, according to the association.  

According to Statista, a research and data analysis company, the number of independent bookstores in the U.S. has grown from 1,971 shops in 2013 to 2,599 stores in 2023. That increase came even after the COVID-19 pandemic hammered retailers in 2020, when bookstore sales fell more than 28%, as reported in Publishers Weekly. Although the industry has been decimated by decades of innovations, including the proliferation of big-box stores, the popularity of Amazon and other online retailers, and competition from eBooks and audio books, sales by independent book shops topped $9 billion in 2022, according to Statista. 

It’s never been an easy business, Kelly noted. Managing inventory, building a wide selection of titles, anticipating readers’ tastes, dealing with publishers and distributors, scheduling author and speaker events, and finding ways to create unique experiences for customers are all parts of the job. A love for books is a start, but a store’s success depends on relentless labor.  

So if Kelly were starting a career today, would she open a bookstore? 

“Absolutely, hands down,” Kelly said. “Because it’s an incredible mix of art, ideas and people—and also the solving the Rubik’s Cube of small business, which in and of itself is a fascinating thing to do. It affords you opportunities. You can be light on your feet, and you can be very engaged in your community—as much engagement as you like. I think it’s a really great challenge to make something like this work with the components that you’re dealing with.” 

The trick, she said, is to take the passion for storytelling and reading and “make it its own economic force, modest as it may be. We’ve been in business 39 years and employed many people, and we’ve been able to bring something to the community that has been sustainable all these years. And that’s a very interesting and dynamic and challenging fun place to work in.” 

Barnes & Noble, at 5555 S. Virginia St., is the largest general-interest bookstore in Reno. Grassroots Books, at 660 E. Grove St., in Reno, has a large and ever-renewed stock of used and new books. The Radical Cat, at 1717 S. Wells Ave., specializes in books by people and on topics that have been historically marginalized, including volumes about feminism, LGBTQIA+ issues, social justice, anti-racism issues and policing issues. Radical Cat also carries tomes aimed at living a more sustainable, radical life, with sections on technology and labor, trauma and healing, farming and gardening, community organizing and more. A bonus: The shop also hosts adoptable cats. 

Still, many local readers and authors mourn the loss of Sundance. 

Reno writer Mark Maynard, who launched his short-story collection, Grind, at Sundance Books in 2012, said the store’s closure feels as though “my family home is being torn down.” But, he said, “As I slide through the stages of grief thinking about what a loss this will be for our community, I’m grateful to Christine and (employees) Dan Earl, Melissa Falk and all of the amazing people who kept it open as a gathering place, for all of the sacrifice and work Christine put in for so long to make sure necessary stories and voices were heard. 

“So, where will we gather now?” Maynard asked. “And how do we make sure there is still a space for literature in a time and place that need it more than ever?” 

As of the RN&R’s press deadline, no plans to buy the business had been announced, and the shop’s shelves were emptying by the day. Walker and Kelly said they hope the mansion will continue to host an independent bookstore. 

“If there was something that worked for the museum, or if there’s something that I can do in a transition period of time that would facilitate the maintenance in of an independent bookstore in this space, I would do what I could to make that happen,” Kelly said.