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Tale of Two Closings
Roxane Farmanfarmaian &Barbara R ther -- 3/6/00
This past winter, two Bay Area stores closed. Tillman Place Bookstore in San Francisco had survived nearly 80 years before business began to wane, while Afterwords, in San Rafael, opened five years ago and was sustaining itself but couldn't find a new owner. Both stores closed with rousing -- and emotional -- parties.
Tillman's owner, Jim Armistead, had informed close associates weeks before he shut his doors in a nostalgic letter typical of the nature of his small, general-interest store:
"As I write this it is early on Thursday morning two weeks before the event," began the letter, "the cat is asleep on her side of the table. Most of you have never been up the stairs. All of your names are here, though, your likes and dislikes, your purchases, your piques, the urgencies for Christmases long forgotten, now filed away with many kindnesses, your divorces, changes of address, your births and deaths. Oh, it's a grand mess, I know it is. A room that resembles the past. An old brown room full of old brown books and years of catalogues."
During the 1920s, the store was known as The Old Book Shop and was purchased in 1952 by Charlotte Newbegin, wife of one of the city's famous retail families. Newbegin made a name for the store among the city's editors and writers who appreciated its small drawing-room ambiance, and almost secret location at the heart of the city.
"It really d s feel like a death," Armistead told PW. Newbegin hired him as a bookseller in 1956 and the store was willed to him when she died in 1989. "In some way, the viability of a very small general-interest bookstore has just outlived its time."
On the other hand, Afterwords was a thriving store, poised to expand. The store, which stocked both used and new books and offered cappuccinos, was breaking even, had a strong clientele and, according to proprietor Kathleen May, had lots of growing room in the used-book area.
When May decided she wanted to sell the store in order to accompany her husband into retirement in Colorado, she couldn't find a buyer. She advertised the store for almost a year in newspapers from coast to coast -- including the Wall Street Journal and Bookselling This Week -- but found no one. "The store really needed a partner," May told PW, "to take it from carrying itself to turning a profit required expanding -- especially in the area of used books, where there's a significant profit margin."
"We had several strong candidates interested in buying," May said, "but no one in that time of their lives when they were prepared to give their all to this store."
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