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Carolina Bookstore, an iconic Cuenca expat institution, changes ownership

By David Morrill

According to Lee Dubs, the decision to sell Carolina Bookstore after 11 years was easy. “It was simply time to move on,” he says, adding, “Carol and I are not getting any younger and there are other things we’d like to do.”

Lee and his wife and business partner Carol officially handed over the bookstore keys to the new owner, Stephen Page, on November 23.

Lee Dubs and Stephen Page at Carolina Bookstore.

In many ways, the story of Carolina Bookstore and Carol and Lee Dubs is the story of the Cuenca’s expat community. When they opened the bookstore with an Ecuadorian partner in 2005, there were less than 100 native English-speaking residents living in Cuenca, and most of those were married into Ecuadorian families.

At first, ABC Books, as it was then called, catered to English-speaking tourists visiting Cuenca, as well as the handful of early expat arrivals. Located on the street level of a historic building in El Centro, immediately west of the cathedral, the bookstore grew steadily during its first three years, due in part to the growth in the number of foreign residents.

“Toward the end of our time at the old store, we were beginning to see more expats,” Carol says. “We would ask them where they were from, thinking they were tourists, and they would say that they had moved to Cuenca,” she recalls.

Carol and Lee were making plans to branch off from their partner and establish their own store when fate intervened and rushed the schedule.

A fire broke out on the upper floor of their building in July 2008 and quickly spread to the lower floors. Much of what wasn’t destroyed by fire and smoke, was damaged by water used to fight the blaze. Although the water damage resulted in the loss of several thousand books, thousands more were saved as friends and passers-by helped move inventory out of the building.

Click here, to read the article about the fire.

Within days, Carol found the current store location on Hermano Miguel, a half block from Calle Larga, and changed the name from ABC to Carolina Bookstore.

Carolina Bookstore in 2011.

As Cuenca’s expat community grew from hundreds to thousands, the bookstore expanded to meet the growing demand. Lee and other teachers began offering Spanish classes upstairs and, over the years, taught hundreds of expats. At the same time, Lee taught Cuencano children English.

Downstairs, the growing bookstore served as a defacto community center for expats.

“So many people were asking us for information and advice, sometimes we had to tell them that our business was running a bookstore, not giving out free information,” says Lee.

Click here, to read the article about Lee Dubs.

Turning the page

Besides the personal decision to move on, Lee says the bookstore needed new blood. “Carol and I are very satisfied with how we developed the store but the bookstore business is changing, especially in the area of technology, and this is where Stephen can make a difference and continue to build it.”

Originally from Sandwich in Kent, England, where the local earl invented the sandwich in 1729, Stephen is a seasoned entrepreneur and world traveler at age 36. After dropping out of university, where he was studying Chinese medicine, he worked on a yacht in the Mediterranean, near Cannes, before moving to New Zealand where he started and then sold a business selling specialty baked potatoes.

Bookstore entrance on Hermano Miguel.

His first exposure to the book business came when he returned to Britain and began buying the stock of bookstores that were going out of business. “Most of the owners were old and had not kept up with technology, which is why they failed,” Stephen said. He shipped the books off to Amazon and continues to collect an income from sales.

Even though his motivation was to make money liquidating book stocks, exposure to the business also sparked an interest in the book-selling trade in general and in antique books in particular. “I also began to appreciate the characters associated with bookstores,” he said. “They are genuine, fascinating people.”

Stephen moved to Ecuador with his wife Becci and son Bear in 2014 to work with an international non-profit organization that purchases property and establishes fruit orchards to benefit local communities. The family first lived near one of the projects in Gualaquiza, a four-and-a-half hour drive east of Cuenca. “It was hot there and isolated,” he says, prompting the family’s relocation to higher ground in Cuenca.

In addition to developing the bookstore website, where he hopes to list the store’s entire inventory, Stephen spent most of the recent holidays rearranging the store, expanding display areas, and adding artwork to the walls. Part of the expansion includes the addition of a children’s reading room upstairs. For more information about the changes at Carolina Bookstore, including a change in store hours, click here.

Beyond upgrades to the existing store, Stephen is planning to open a second location in the Ordoñez Lasso area on Cuenca’s westside.

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About the Author

A California native who spent most of his life in north Florida, David
Morrill has been a newspaper and magazine editor, columnist, and book
and art reviewer. He was also a public relations agency owner and
university administrator. He has lived in Cuenca since 2004.

  • nards barley

    I don’t know any expats who read books, much less paper-based books. Clearly there is still a need for educational books that you can write in as well as books with lots of illustrations etc. However, book stores that aren’t selling books as antiques need revenue sources from more than just books, whether it be teaching languages, slinging lattes, or selling art. Good luck to the new owners.

    • Stephen Page

      Drop by and meet some! We have couches 😀

  • squeaky fromme

    I went into Carolina Bookstore last week, my first visit since the new owner took over. I have been a small customer there for years. Gotta say, I wish Lee was back. First of all, the same female employee was still there. She couldn’t smile to save her life, and provides ZERO customer service. With a change of ownership it would have been a golden opportunity to get rid of her. The new owner was nowhere to be found. I brought in some books to exchange, and what I was offered worked out to 6 books for one, a rotten deal by any standard. It used to be you could more or less figure out where to find something, most books were in alphabetical order and sections were more or less logical.. Not any more, a complete mish mash, nothing in alphabetical order, books thrown in boxes on the floor, a mess. And the aforementioned employee too busy surfing the net to care. I would say unless the new owner gets strict and puts things in order, the Carolina Bookstore won’t last much longer.