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How I Made It

Century Books founders Judith and Steve Marosvolgyi on the same page

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'When you love books you want to open a bookstore.' -- Century Books co-founder Judith Marosvolgyi
Opening a used bookstore in Pasadena seemed like a calling for couple. 'Are you guys crazy?' friends said

The gig: Judith and Steve Marosvolgyi are the founders of Century Books, a used bookstore on Green Street in Pasadena.

Judith and Steve were voracious readers while growing up in their native Hungary. After defecting to the United States in 1986, each worked odd jobs. But they had a passion for reading and spent much of their free time browsing through bookstores. They amassed a collection of more than 1,000 volumes that lined the shelves of their one-bedroom apartment.

Steve's job loss in 2006 forced the couple to sell some of their books. But that taught them how the used-book business works, and they decided to pursue it as a joint career. That led to the opening of the store in December 2011. "When you love books you want to open a bookstore," Judith said. "It's a given."

Refugees: Judith and Steve were married in 1984 when he was 24 and she was 17. Neither intended to leave Hungary, but they chafed at the communist country's limits on personal freedom. "If you didn't have the right affiliations within the political system, then a lot of doors were closed," Steve said.

The pair made plans to leave Hungary, with Steve waiting to tell his father of his intentions until the night before the couple left Hungary for Austria in early 1986. They spent eight months in a refugee camp outside Vienna before arriving in Los Angeles later that year under the sponsorship of a Catholic human-rights organization.

A new country: The couple strung together odd jobs for most of the next two decades. Steve, 54, worked as an electrician and a courier. Judith, 46, did secretarial work and graphic design.

The couple launched a tiny greeting-card company in 2002, which they still operate. Steve, who is a painter and cartoonist, does the artwork, and Judith handles the business side. They sell the cards through stationary stores and high-end gift shops.

They spent most of their free time, however, reading and browsing through bookstores. They often came home with more books than they would ever have time to read. "We went from bookstore to bookstore all the time," she said. "That was pretty much our favorite thing."

The hunt: The couple ran into financial trouble after Steve lost his job at a courier service in 2006 and decided to sell some of their own books. They decided to enter the used-book business after a friend suggested that the couple could benefit from their extensive knowledge of classic literature and nonfiction.

They became middlemen of sorts, driving around Southern California to buy books at library sales, estate sales and thrift shops before reselling them to used bookstores. "We fell in love not so much with the selling part but with the treasure hunt," Judith said. "We figured if we love books, somebody else would like them."

That led to the eventual next step. "At some point, we thought it would be nice to have a place to sell these books," Steve said.

More than books: Besides selling books, the store has a second-floor art gallery with displays of paintings and photography. The store holds an art opening every two weeks. Every Saturday night, the store turns into a music hall as the focus shifts to live jazz featuring local musicians. The store opens at 7:30 p.m. Saturdays — it's closed during the day — and the music starts at about 8:30 p.m.

Century Books has received glowing reviews on Yelp. "If this bookstore were in a movie, you would claim that it was the director's fantasy of what a bookstore might have been 30 years ago," wrote one customer.

Not crazy: Judith and Steve understood the financial challenge of running a bookshop. Just in case they didn't, their friends' reactions to the idea were nearly unanimous. "Are you guys crazy?" Steve recalled them saying. But the couple figured that they had a head start on inventory from the books they already owned. Two investors contributed start-up money. Besides, opening the shop seemed like a calling.

Though it seems counterintuitive in an age in which conventional bookstores have been pummeled by Amazon.com and other electronic distributors, the couple wagered that readers would be drawn to the nostalgia of yellowing pages, curled edges and sloppy notes hand-scribbled in margins. "I don't think when people find a Kindle they think, 'Oh, I wonder where this has been,'" Judith said.

The couple did extensive market research, including analyzing demographic and spending trends in the Pasadena area. The shop has not yet turned an operating profit but is ahead of expectations.

"It has a risk factor in it and it goes against the grain," Steve said. "It somewhat doesn't make sense, but it made sense for us."

walter.hamilton@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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