With the seven-square-mile city of San Francisco as its focal point, the Bay Area is a vibrant literary environment that has long nurtured independent bookstores. Yet Bay Area independent bookstores face many challenges. In the last few years, the Bay Area has seen a rapid influx of wealth and population, causing rents to soar and many businesses with small profit margins to fold. A variety of factors, including surging real estate prices, online sales, no-fault evictions, and an increase in minimum wage contributed to the closing or relocation of many independent bookstores, including A Different Light in S.F.’s Castro district and the nation’s oldest African-American bookstore, Marcus Books on Fillmore Street.
Still, most Bay Area bookstores have survived the turmoil, and some are downright thriving. Hut Landon, executive director of the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association (NCIBA), reported that more than a dozen additional independent bookstores opened in Northern California in the past two years, including Diesel in Larkspur, Folio Books in S.F., Copperfield’s Books in San Rafael, and Napa’s Bookmine. And shops such as Orinda Books, Stinson Beach Books, and Bay Books in San Ramon successfully changed owners.
NCIBA also reports that Bay Area independent bookstores have seen sales grow in each of the last three years, and are up 2% for early 2015. S.F. proper is home to three dozen independent bookstores and no chain bookstores, Landon says. Alameda County, home to Berkeley and Oakland, boasts 25 independent bookstores and one chain bookstore. Overall, NCIBA has 150 members, the majority of whom are in the Bay Area.
One of the reasons for the positive statistics offered by NCIBA is the fact that some stores have found creative solutions to survival, opening new locations or inventing creative ways to stay in the game. Other stores have been able to survive based on a combination of location, lease, legacy, and community support. For some, it’s a shifting adaptation to the landscape and a willingness to keep up with changing consumer demands while also staying true to the mission of their business. In a recent KALW radio roundtable of independent booksellers, Green Apple Books co-owner Pete Mulvihill said that “some booksellers actually have shirts that say ‘We are not an algorithm.’ ” Mulvihill tells PW that the phrase “speaks volumes about the power of one-on-one bookselling,” adding, “People simply have a more rewarding human experience in any decent bookstore than they do in front of a screen on Amazon.”
Green Apple is located in the Inner Richmond district, but in 2014—the same year that online real estate company Zumper labeled S.F. the most expensive market in the U.S. for a one-bedroom apartment—it opened a second location in the city. Mulvihill says the decision to open the store in the Inner Sunset district was “relatively easy.” He notes, “We saw a vibrant neighborhood that had long supported bookstores but was currently without one, and importantly, we had a lease opportunity that was favorable.” In some ways, Mulvihill thinks times are less tumultuous now than they were five years ago. “The S.F. economy is booming, e-book growth has leveled off, the sales tax playing field has been corrected in California, and publishers are putting their money, or policies, where their mouths are in better supporting indies,” he says.
Mulvihill says a study conducted by M.B.A. students from the California College of the Arts in 2013 found that Green Apple owed its success to four key concepts: duty (the shop local ethos), discovery (people find books in ways they can’t online), community (interacting with people), and beauty (the store itself and the physical book as an object).
Patrick Marks is owner of the Green Arcade, which specializes in books on the environment, politics, activism, urban planning, and nature, with a focus on local authors. Marks had been a buyer and manager at Cody’s Books in Berkeley, but when Cody’s closed in 2008 (after more than 50 years in business), he leased the S.F. location to open his own store. “Some people thought that I was nuts as 2008 brought the bottom of the market and was also near bottom for the devaluation of book culture, where books were talked about as being obsolete,” Marks says.
Despite those odds, the Green Arcade has succeeded. “Here we are in a city that is ground zero for thinking that we will all be saved by technology,” Marks says, “but smart people of all types, techie or Luddite, still read books and shop in the store.” Marks credits the support of the neighborhood, particularly his relationship with Robin McRoskey Azevedo, current owner of McRoskey Mattress Company, founded in 1899 by her grandfather, which is situated directly across the street from the Green Arcade. McRoskey Azevedo lets Marks use the top floor for events. “We have been hosting smashing events, including one for John Waters where we had 300 people in this fantastic loft setting of [McRoskey Azevedo’s] store,” Marks says.
This kind of community support has been key, particularly for bookstores threatened with extinction. When Adobe Books faced a huge rent increase and subsequent eviction, the owner, well-known bohemian businessman Andrew McKinley, was prepared to shut down. It was the community and lovers of the store that rallied to save Adobe Books; they raised over $60,000 on Indiegogo, found an affordable new location, and transformed the business into the Adobe Books & Arts Cooperative.
Jeff Ray, one of the founding members of the new cooperative, used the skills and resources from his 21 years of work at S.F.’s Rainbow Grocery Cooperative to help draft bylaws. According to Ray, “it made sense to become a collectively run and owned bookstore because it would take a group to both save Adobe and keep it running.”
The group moved the store in July 2013. Together the founding members, along with volunteers from the community, built the store out, and kept the well-known art space in the back, known as the Adobe Backroom gallery, which is run as a fiscally sponsored entity, allowing them to write grants. While the store isn’t making a profit, Ray says it is doing well enough to be able to pay staff, rent, and other operating expenses.
Adobe Books manager Christine Shields and co-manager and founding board member Jon Fellman worked with local bookstores in the Mission neighborhood to form a coalition. Known as the United Booksellers of S.F., the coalition is currently in its beginning stages and includes Alley Cat Books, Modern Times Books, and Adobe Books. “It formed as a way to build strength through unity for independent Bookstores in S.F.,” Shields says. “There was talk of it being a citywide thing, but for now it is a 24th Street thing. Through this alliance we also build alliances with the rest of the neighborhood.”
Kate Rosenberger, owner of Dog-Eared Books and Alley Cat Books, says that in short the key to the survival of her stores is “adapt or die. We keep going out in the world to see what is going on. It’s important to respond to your current neighborhood’s needs.”
The communities in the Bay Area have shown consistent interest in keeping independent bookstores in their neighborhoods. Elaine Katzenberger, executive director and publisher of City Lights Books, says that the key to the store’s more than 60 years in business is that “City Lights means something to people. The bookstore became a place to be, a sort of ground zero meeting place for anyone interested in writing as a means to liberation—be it personal, social, or political.” Katzenberger says City Lights offers customers a bookstore “where they can be reassured that there are still places in this world where it’s not about the money, not about the next best shiny gadget that’ll lull them into a nice, deep consumer’s slumber. This place offers a port in a storm for creative, thinking, idealistic humans, and it always has. Perhaps it’s simplistic, but I think that’s the reason we’re still here, and thriving. We serve an actual need.”
The science fiction bookstore and cafe Borderlands found that it served a need in February, when customers responded en masse to an announcement that the store would close by the end of March after voters increased the minimum wage in S.F. last fall. That announcement prompted an overwhelming amount of media attention, and customers voiced their support for the store. “We hosted a public meeting to answer questions and talk about possible solutions,” Borderlands owner Alan Beatts says. “As a result of the enthusiasm shown at the meeting and other conversations that I had with customers and staff, I came up with the idea of a yearly sponsorship program.” The program would ask that a minimum of 300 people purchase sponsorships at the beginning of each calendar year. If that number were reached, the store would stay open for the remainder of that year.
When Beatts announced the sponsorship program idea, the response was “immediate and pretty overwhelming. We had 300 sponsors in 42 hours, and the numbers have continued to grow since then. At this point we have almost 800 sponsors for the year.” While he is unsure that it’s a long-term solution, the sponsorship program is keeping Borderlands open for the time being. Beatts says that the most ambitious plan he’s working on is to ultimately purchase a permanent space for Borderlands. “That’s going to be a very difficult process, but I think it’s crucial for our long-term stability.”
Outside of S.F.
The rest of the Bay Area has its own success stories. Michael Tucker, president of Books Inc., says the regional chain is opening three new locations in the next nine months (bringing its total number of locations to 12): in Santa Clara, in Terminal 3 of the San Francisco Airport, and in the old Black Oak Books location in Berkeley. While he acknowledges the various challenges Bay Area indie bookstores are facing, he is quick to highlight some local advantages, one being the 15 recent closures of big-box bookstores in the Bay Area. Tucker says the demise of the chains and an uptick in the economy is helping to “raise all ships.” He adds, “We really held our own during the advent of the chain. The stores that drove us out are gone—and now we’re taking them back.”
Tucker says that the Bay’s small geographical footprint helps make booksellers feel like a relatively close-knit group. “The pie here is very small,” he says. “We only open in locations where other stores have gone dark.”
According to Tucker, “The bookstore business has always been in an existential crisis.” He says, “The next thing is always just around the corner—but I don’t know another industry that has as much collegiality as we do. We really want everyone to succeed. We even give away trade secrets to each other. There was a time when we thought we were all going to die off. Look at us now.”Bay Area Spotlight 2015: All Our Coverage