When Evan Schertz took over ownership from his parents of Maria’s Bookshop, a downtown Durango staple, he was already facing all the challenges of a new business owner in his early 20s.
Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
“He got thrown to the dogs, didn’t he?” joked his father, Peter Schertz.
While the constantly changing world of the COVID-19 pandemic brought a dizzying array of shutdowns, public health regulations and general uncertainty, it also brought Evan and his staff, as well as the community, together.
“It was terrifying,” Evan said. “But at the same time, I’m grateful for a lot of the outcomes it had for us. It was like we all had been put in a pressure cooker and just had to figure things out really quickly.”
Schertz’s parents – Peter Schertz and Andrea Avantaggio – purchased Maria’s in May 1998, though the bookshop had been around in some iteration for years. At the time of the purchase, Evan was just 6 months old.
“As a kid growing up, I was just always around,” Evan said. “I would sleep under the desk, crawl around the floor, unplug the computers. I was a familiar face around the shop.”
As he got older, Evan said, he had the typical rebellious teenage reaction most kids have to their parents, and he distanced himself from the bookstore. But all the while, he carried a love of reading throughout his early adulthood.
When it came time for college, however, Evan chose a different path than literature, enrolling at the Colorado School of Mines in Golden to pursue a career in mechanical engineering.
“Going into college, I think my plan was to be an engineer,” he said. “But I knew pretty early on I never wanted to pursue a career in engineering.”
Meanwhile, on the other side of the state, Evan’s parents were thinking about plans for retirement and what would become of the longtime Durango independent bookstore.
Peter said one night at the dinner table, they asked Evan whether he’d be interested in taking over the shop, and the couple was met with a less than enthusiastic response.
“We moved on trying to sell it in a conventional manner,” Peter said.
But one night a few years later, Andrea said Evan called and asked if they were serious about him taking over Maria’s. It seemed, she said, that Evan had a change of heart.
“We got him down here to see his face when he was saying that,” she joked.
Evan, for his part, said the idea of taking over Maria’s sat in the back of his mind throughout college. Though he was concerned about being young and relatively inexperienced running a store, he knew he could build a strong support network.
“Once I really considered it, it felt like a no-brainer to be part of this community in such an intimate way,” he said. “In the end, the decision was really easy, it just took a long time making it.”
The plan was for Evan to start taking over Maria’s in summer 2019, after he obtained his degree in mechanical engineering. With the luxury of a slow transition, Evan learned the ropes under his parents that first summer.
At the time, the family admits, there was a sense of relief from customers that Maria’s did not fall into the hands of out-of-towners or developers who would not stay in the spirit of the cherished independent bookstore.
“I think all of us at Maria’s were surprised by the amount of relief everyone in the community expressed when they knew what the future of the store was,” Evan said. “A lot of people were worried.”
Things were going swimmingly into the fall and winter, the family said, and they were ready to make the full transition of ownership. And then the COVID-19 pandemic hit in early March.
Maria’s, like many other businesses, had to close March 26, 2020, (though the shop had already planned to close April 1 for a remodel), which had an unintended consequence of thrusting Evan into a leadership position.
“When the pandemic hit, someone had to just make quick decisions all the time,” he said. “That naturally fell to me.”
After the store was allowed to reopen, Maria’s offered curbside pickup, delivery by bike and eventually a bump-out on Main Avenue to hang out. And in turn, the shop saw an outpouring of support from the community, Evan said.
“It was touching,” he said. “I think a lot of people are rediscovering a love of reading. It makes you realize all our local businesses are dependent on community support.”
Indeed, Durango has always boasted a healthy number of independent local bookstores, all of which appear to have survived the pandemic.
George Hassan, owner of Southwest Book Trader, which has been in business more than 30 years, said that during the shutdown, he put out free books on the porch of his store, on the corner of East Second Avenue and Fifth Street, giving away nearly 6,000 books.
Once public health orders allowed, Southwest Book Trader reopened Friday through Sundays, with Hassan as the lone employee. Many of his regular customers, and some online sales, have kept him afloat.
“Business is fine,” he said. “It was a hard road for everyone, and I’m not complaining.”
Keena Kimmel, owner of White Rabbit Books & Curiosities along the Animas River Trail, said she, too, was supported by locals, as well as tourists who happened to be walking along the trail.
Throughout the year, Kimmel said customers seemed to fall into two camps: those who bought books as a means of escapism from the turmoil in the world and those who bought books with themes centered in dystopian societies.
“Just things to slow them down and make sense of what was happening,” she said.
Evan said it’s hard to plan for the future, but he’d like to host more community events and readings at the shop.
If anything, he said the pandemic helped him re-evaluate the way Maria’s does business and stays true to its core mission of building a community.
“In the end, we’ve come out of it a year later being a stronger organization as a result,” he said. “It was so challenging and so stressful, but it forced us to make a lot of good improvements.”
Jack Llewellyn, executive director of the Durango Chamber of Commerce, said young entrepreneurs like Evan bring vibrancy and vision to Durango’s downtown, which ultimately contributes to the economy.
“Having Maria’s Bookshop in our community is iconic,” he said. “Having Evan take over the business, Maria’s will remain in the family ensuring the traditions, experience and phenomenal customer service will continue for years to come.”
His parents, for their part, are just happy Maria’s is still part of their family.
“It’s a big honor to realize Evan watched what we did growing up and realized that’s something he wanted to do,” Andrea said. “He was able to see that was a way of life he would like. It’s the perfect match.”