In a move that could cause certain members of the East Coast literati to lose their minds, the New York book scene is about to take up residence in Santa Monica.
OK, maybe not the entire scene but certainly a very big player: On Feb. 18, Zibby Owens is opening her first bookstore, Zibby’s Bookshop, on Montana Avenue.
In less than four years, Owens’ wildly successful, award-winning podcast, “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books,” has made her one of New York’s most highly praised (and desperately sought after) bookfluencers. And this is not a side gig.
Unlike Oprah, Jenna Bush Hager, Reese Witherspoon or other celebrities who used their clout to anoint certain authors through must-read lists and book clubs, Owens had no platform before she created one, solely out of books and 30-minute author interviews (and, it must be said, unlimited funds).
Stepping into the gap between Oprah and the A-listers and Colleen Hoover and BookTok, Owens is now not so much a podcaster as she is an ecosystem, the center of an ever-widening Zibby-branded media empire that includes seven podcasts, a magazine, a book club, classes, retreats and, beginning this year, a publishing company.
This month, she is settling bricks-and-mortar roots not on the Upper East Side of Manhattan but on the Westside of Los Angeles.
It makes perfect sense, both universally and personally. Even as the industry has struggled, Los Angeles has always embraced independent neighborhood bookstores (please see The Times’ ”65 Best Bookstores in L.A.,” complete with map).
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Though Owens is a born-and-bred Park Avenue New Yorker (a donation by her financier father resulted in the main branch of the New York Public Library being named the Stephen A. Schwarzman building), she and her husband, Kyle Owens, have had a home in Pacific Palisades for five years.
She admits to looking at a few spaces in New York, but she said the rent was so high, “There was no way to make it a viable business.
“In New York,” she said in an introductory Zoom interview, “there are bookstores everywhere and it’s so easy to get from one to another. I didn’t think there would be a value for another bookstore, and I like to meet unmet needs. And L.A.,” she added, “L.A. is my happy place.”
She originally wanted the store to be in Palisades Village, but the Montana site was such a deal, she said, that she couldn’t resist. “I’ve gotten to know so many authors in L.A. and there’s a real desire for more bookish stuff out there.”
It is a small slice of a store, formerly a dry cleaners, standing, conveniently enough, right next to a chocolatier, and on the same block as other specialty stores including the Quilted Monkey (children’s clothes) and Ten Women (local handmade art).
The store’s out-facing wall has a painted mural of an open book and the words “Stories are best when shared.” The stories in books, yes — but also the social media variety.
“That’s the Instagram wall,” Owens said on a visit to the store a few weeks before its opening. “We want to make it easy for people.”
Within, the shelves are beginning to be filled with books. More than half are by authors, mostly women, who have been featured on Owens’ podcast, which leans heavily on novels and memoirs. Several shelves hold curated selections reflecting how Owens and her small staff believe the books will make the reader feel.
Post-It notes stand in for labels that will direct customers who “want to … cry, lust, tremble, escape, laugh.”
It’s a lighthearted way of dealing with a problem that’s bedeviled the publishing industry ever since Amazon’s algorithm ate the browsing experience. The issue is summed up in one bookseller buzzword: discoverability.
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“Independent bookstores can’t compete with product availability,” said Owens, whose shop will stock roughly 1,300 titles. “But that’s not what I believe is the value. ... I want to offer curation, to help people find books easily that they are going to love and that will resonate with them — and maybe not the book they came in to find.”
In addition to the emotionally organized volumes, Zibby’s will feature shelves curated by “what type of person you think you are — books for the foodie, books for the athlete, books for the historian,” as well as “a huge local author’s section” and shelves curated by writers, including Kristin Hannah and Kevin Kwan.
“We’re also going to be doing a lot of events,” Owens adds. “We want to have book clubs at the store” — including her own, which is virtual but could now be hybrid.
Unlike the podcast, this will not be a one-woman operation. Owens’ bookshop staff includes Sherri Puzey and Diana Tramontano, who have worked on other Zibby brands; events manager Sofie Parker; and store manager Jenny Wannir Tarzian, who until recently managed Flintridge Bookstore, to help her stock the store. But in the end, Owens chooses which books to Zibbify based on what she is looking for as a reader. “I realize that a lot of the instincts I have going into stores, a lot of people think the same way.”
Owens’ understanding of the current vogue for personal curation is reflected even in the color scheme of her store — the same deep-sea blues that echo in her Palisades home. For the simple reason that the same painter-contractor who did her house — Joe Nicoletti from Chameleon Paintworks, she is quick to note — also did her shop.
“I said, just use the same colors, the same wallpaper,” Owens said.
Puzey, Tramontano, Tarzian and Parker gather round as Owens opens one of two just-delivered boxes containing high chairs that will be used for author events. The women debate where to store the chairs, discuss the possibility of having a coffee on offer via a Keurig machine and marvel at how fast the shop has come together.
“We had our first conversations in November,” said Puzey. “We basically planned the thing in one weekend.”
In fact, the bookstore was not supposed to be part of the Zibby-verse until much later, after Zibby Books was firmly launched. It will publish a book a month beginning this month with Alisha Fernandez Miranda’s “My What if Year: A Memoir.”
But then so many parts of the Zibby empire have formed very slowly and then all at once.
After joining the fourth hour of ‘Today’ as a co-host in 2019, she began recommending books in a monthly segment on the program, and in a short time has became a publishing taste maker.
“I just wanted to write a book and get it published,” Owens said, laughing. “Which I did, finally, but not before all this.”
The book, published last summer, is Owens’ memoir, “Bookends.” (She is also the author of a children’s book, “Princess Charming.”) At the moment, it occupies two shelves in Zibby’s Bookshop, and it could be read as business backstory as easily as memoir.
Owens grew up amid New York’s elite, hitting all the predictable rich-kid markers — friendly childhood doorman, private school, parents’ divorce, undergrad at Yale, internships at Vanity Fair and Ogilvy & Mather, Harvard business school — and some much less predictable, including near-crippling shyness, a stint as a Weight Watchers rep and a string of devastating losses. One close friend was killed in the Sept. 11 attacks; another was plagued by addiction that led eventually to suicide. A published essayist since she was in her teens, Owens attempted to make sense of it all by writing a memoir — and then couldn’t get it published.
Somewhere along the way, Owens married Andrew Right (the terms of their divorce preclude her writing about the marriage, and her ability to sidestep it in “Bookends” borders on the miraculous). They had four children.
As is almost always the case, the challenges of motherhood took Owens by surprise, and she began writing about it for various publications. When she floated the idea of publishing a collection called “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read,” an agent informed her that essay collections don’t sell and suggested she start a podcast.
It sounds laughable — how many people have tried to start a podcast? — except Owens and “Moms” quickly became serious business. As the podcast episodes stacked up, she began holding salons and even private book fairs inside her Park Avenue triplex. Authors, agents and publishers, flailing about in their attempts to publicize books when book tours were increasingly reserved for the few and already famous, soon heralded her as a marketing messiah.
Especially during the COVID-19 pandemic when, desperate to help authors any way she could, Owens produced her podcast daily. As in: a book a day.
“I go through all the pitches and anything I think looks interesting, I ask for a galley,” she said. “I don’t read the books start to finish; I can pick up a book and spend 15 minutes with it and be able to talk about most things in the book.”
This appears to be amazing but true. None of the shyness she describes in “Bookends” is evident on her show; Owens is an engaged, engaging and informed interviewer.
“Now I’ve done this 1,500 times, I’ve gotten pretty good at it,” she said. “I wasn’t as good when I started.”
It is important to note that Owens is not a critic but a booster; her mission is to present books and authors she believes her audience will like, something she now also does on “Good Morning America,” to which she regularly provides “Must Read” lists.
Her superpower as an influencer is so well known that when Owens was on tour with “Bookends,” it often overshadowed her career as an author. “People would come up to me and say, ‘I loved your book. I’ve written one, would you read it?’” she said, adding with a laugh, “and I’d think, ‘Can I just have my moment in the sun?’”
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As the podcast grew and branched into other podcasts, including “Moms Don’t Have Time to Lose Weight” and “Moms Don’t Have Time to Grieve,” Owens asked authors to write essays. After posting them, one a week, she decided to collect them into a book. “Moms Don’t Have Time to: A Quarantine Anthology” was published in 2021.
That was the seed of her foray into publishing. Having seen what goes into making a book, Owens said, “I realized I’d have to do it myself. ... Everyone kept telling me how hard it would be,” she said, “but I’m not afraid of hard work.”
When asked about the irony of a woman whose brand is “Moms don’t have time for…” somehow managing to build a media empire, Owens laughs, admitting that the fact that her twins are now in boarding school, and that her custody arrangement leaves her with child-free days, certainly helps. “I don’t think I could do it if I had the kids full-time.”
She also has the financial resources that make all these ventures less of a risk. Owens herself does not wear wealth on her sleeve — when I met her at her Palisades home, which is lovely but not showy, she was wearing a denim skirt, a worn “Moms Don’t Have Time” T-shirt and a blue hoodie — but her father remains one of the richest men in the country.
Still, if her path is not one everyone could follow, it is her own, not her father’s. She has said she did not start the podcast, now a company known as Zibby Audio, to make money, but she does have a Harvard business degree.
“It is a business, not a nonprofit,” she said in an email, adding that some elements of the empire, including Zibby Audio and Zibby Classes, are profitable already, and it’s too soon to know how the publishing house and bookstore will do. “There has been prelaunch investment across channels and now I’m hoping the books take off,” she said, adding, “If I find some areas aren’t working, I’ll pivot and try new things.”
Although the other podcasts in Zibby Audio are hosted by other people, Owens is still very much in charge of “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books,” which features a disparate mix of guests, from the very famous (Hillary Clinton and Alicia Keyes) to emerging voices. On a recent Friday, Katherine Schwarzenegger Pratt joined Owens in the office/studio in her Palisades home to discuss her new children’s book, “Good Night, Sister.” The writer was running late and Owens filled the time recording the lead-ins to upcoming podcasts.
Following the half-hour conversation, Owens told her guest about Zibby’s Bookshop and invited her to have a signing there. When Schwarzenegger Pratt agreed, Owens told her there was a children’s book section where they would host Mommy & Me classes every day.
“I’ll be there,” Schwarzenegger Pratt said.
“We want this to be a communal space,” Owens said later, at the store. She and her husband split their time between New York and Los Angeles, but she says she will be in the store as often as she can, beginning with an opening weekend chock-full of author events.
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If interest from the street is any indication, there is definitely an appetite for what Zibby’s Bookshop offers. During the 45-minute visit, a string of people popped their heads in asking if the store was open. “We were just saying that Montana needs a bookstore,” said one man, accompanied by a woman with a baby in a sling.
“February 18,” Owens said, pitching the Mommy & Me classes again. Stepping outside, she fretted a bit about the greenery she had planted in a small strip of dirt beside the door. “I think we should get something taller,” she said.
But she is not worried about opening a bookstore, or starting a publishing company when the industry remains in turmoil.
“There is something about books that will never really go away,” she said. “There is some sort of instinct for people to write them and, not to be woo-woo about it, there’s something about leaving something tangible behind.”
Like a bookstore.
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