Considering that Books Inc.’s history goes back to 1851, when Bavarian publisher and book dealer Anton Roman struck gold in Shasta City, Calif., it seems about time the bookstore, whose tagline is “The West’s Oldest Independent Bookseller,” garnered PW’s Bookstore of the Year Award. When nominating the store, Donna Paz Kaufman of the Bookstore Training & Consulting Group wrote, “In over 20 years of working with PW on the awards, it was clear that the book industry often assumed some booksellers had already won. I think this is especially true for California-based Books Inc.”
Having weathered every challenge possible since its founding, Books Inc. demonstrates its commitment to bookselling, even in difficult circumstances. From Shasta City, Roman went on to open the first bookstore in San Francisco, in 1857, where he began publishing books and magazines until the 1906 earthquake destroyed it. Since then, the store has changed hands several times, until Lew Lengfeld purchased the business and incorporated it as Books Inc. in 1946. The company expanded to Seattle, Southern California, New Mexico, Dallas, and Denver through the 1950s, and by the 1970s there were 26 stores along the West Coast.
When Lengfeld died in 1995, he left the company to employees Michael Grant and Michael Tucker. The timing was unfortunate; the expansion of large chains and the recession resulted in Books Inc. filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in order to restructure and save the company, which meant closing 13 of the 15 remaining stores.
By 1997, Grant and Tucker were able to turn the company around, and by 1998 the company had grown to five stores. Currently, Books Inc. has 11 outlets throughout the San Francisco Bay area, including two airport locations, and a central office and warehouse in San Francisco. All stores are general interest and between 3,500 and 5,000 sq. ft., with large children’s sections. Tucker thinks this is a good size for the San Francisco Bay area: large enough to accommodate events, but small enough not to break the bank in the wildly expensive rental market.
Michael Grant died in 2000; Books Inc. is now co-owned by Tucker, the president and CEO; Margie Scott Tucker, director of marketing & human resources, who is married to Tucker; Nikolai Grant, senior buyer; and Shannon Grant, senior children’s buyer, and Nikolai’s wife. Nikolai is Michael Grant’s son and inherited his portion of the company upon Michael’s death.
Though Books Inc. has multiple locations, for Tucker it’s important that each location retain autonomy when making decisions, particularly about stock. There is a restock buyer in each store, which means it can select inventory that matches the needs of the neighborhood; the buyers also work directly with local schools, authors, and community groups, ensuring an authentic relationship with their customers. And for now, 11 stores is a good size for the company. Tucker says there isn’t a target number in mind for total stores, and it has a lot to do with where competitors exist. “We wouldn’t open in a location where there is another independent bookstore. There are more opportunities now in the Bay Area with the exodus of the large chains, and there has been an expansion of several local indies,” Tucker says, adding, “I don’t want to get so big that I don’t know all our staff on a first-name basis.”
On winning the award, Tucker says, “We didn’t do this by ourselves.” He adds, “This is something that’s collectively shared. If it weren’t for the relationships that we have with every aspect of the trade and fellow booksellers, this wouldn’t happen. For me, it’s really thrilling because it’s gratifying for staff to get that kind of recognition.”
The business has faced hard times. “Everything has been thrown at us,” Tucker says, “and will continue to be.” But one thing he’s not concerned about is Amazon, particularly the opening of its bricks-and-mortar locations. “Those stores are going to suck,” he says. “They were terrible publishers, and they’re not going to be bookstore people. There’s an authenticity to this trade.”
Though Tucker believes shopping online works when consumers know what they want, it’s “a terrible place to look for something when you don’t know what you want.” It’s this discovery aspect that’s still missing from shopping online for books, according to Tucker, who thinks that, so far, there’s no replacement for hand-selling, something Books Inc. prides itself on. Though Books Inc. has an active online presence, e-books are not a large factor; selling print online does well and is most useful for customers who want to see complete inventories online, place orders, and pick up their purchases at a neighborhood location.
Margie Tucker handles a variety of things, including HR and events; the company calls events “the experience you can’t download.” Michael Tucker says events play an extremely important role in getting people into the store and reaching new readers. Each location has its own event coordinator, who hosts and handles scheduling. Overall, last year Books Inc. hosted 1,200 events, which included in-store and offsite book signings, book clubs, school shopping nights, book fairs, and story times.
The stores also have more than 30 book clubs that meet in the different locations each month, with some led by staff, and others run by outside organizations that bring their book clubs to the stores.
The company maintains a close involvement with the communities it serves. It continues to develop partnerships with schools, libraries, and other organizations that support literacy, including the 826 Valencia Scholarship Program. Last year, Books Inc. had its most successful school book fairs year, programming 27 fairs in 2015.
Another area that has done well recently is B2B sales. Books Inc. took advantage of the exodus of Borders to create a department to expand B2B sales and outreach, and in 2015 attendance at B2B events across all stores increased markedly over 2014.
Because young readers continue to show their love for print books, Books Inc. makes sure that all its stores have solid children’s sections. At one of the company’s oldest locations, Laurel Village in San Francisco, children’s specialist Summer Laurie, who has been there since 2007, says, “It’s not run-of-the-mill retail; you’re part of something when you work here. When I started, I said I wanted to run a mother/daughter book club, and they made it happen. Ownership recognizes that the employees they hire have expertise and passion. Now, as a frontline bookseller, I can bring in whatever books I want to bring in. I don’t know that that’s always possible at other stores. My mother/daughter book club is still going strong.”
Calvin Crosby, executive director of the NCIBA, who worked at Books Inc. for about a decade and helped open, design, and manage several stores, says, “One of the things that doesn’t get talked about is Michael Tucker’s generosity. I remember when he paid all the volunteers for the Books by the Bay festival. He’s also very dedicated in cultivating the careers of young booksellers, including paying for them to go to regionals and workshops. His generosity goes unrecognized so often because he’s so quiet about it.” Crosby also cites Tucker’s willingness to help other store owners. “[Tucker’s] lease-negotiation skills are the best in the industry. He always has time to help someone look at the fine print and ask the questions they didn’t know they needed to ask,” Crosby says. “I don’t know if I would’ve gotten to this place without the skills they gave me. I have so much gratitude.”
As he looks ahead, Tucker cites occupancy and payroll costs—and how the industry will respond to that—as potential problems for indie stores. Despite the difficult retail climate in San Francisco, from payroll to lease rates, Tucker remains bullish. In 2015 Books Inc. moved its Berkeley store to a new location, completely remodeled its airport locations, and began construction on a store in Santa Clara for a tentative June 2016 opening date. Books Inc. will close its store on Market Street in San Francisco’s Castro neighborhood when the lease expires at the end of June. Tucker says the store was in the red eight of the last 10 years. “We regretfully could no longer justify keeping the store open,” Tucker says.
Crosby says that when thinking of Books Inc., “Tenacity is the word that comes to mind. The company has a long legacy of dedication to bookselling that has allowed them to face all those challenges. Anytime they get knocked down, they come back stronger and better.”
As Kaufman wrote in her letter nominating Books Inc. for this award, “Today, with 11 stores in markets where rent factors are high and selecting the right location is a challenge, Books Inc. stands as not only a model for retail bookselling, its history proves the value of resilience, creativity, persistence, and teamwork.”