Bookstore's controller buys corporation; plans renovations and revitalization amid community support.

In a strange swap of positions, the former owners of California's Printers Ink are going to work for Matthew Duran, the store's controller for the past 15 years. Duran purchased both the Palo Alto and Mountain View sites last month from owners Gerry Masteller and Susan MacDonald, a move that came as a relief to residents who had raised an outcry when rumors of a chain takeover emerged.

"I've always wanted to buy the stores," said Duran. "I've been talking to Susan and Gerry about it for years. Now the timing is right. They're ready to get out, and I have the money to come in." (MacDonald, a p t, will stay on as consultant, and Masteller will remain as buyer for at least two years.)

Duran's parents helped with the purchase (a five-figure bargain, according to the new owner), as did six other backers who provided loans. When Duran put in a bid for the Palo Alto store, which was scheduled to close in March, the owners sold him the whole corporation, and he decided to keep both stores open.

Masteller and MacDonald built the original store in Palo Alto into a local landmark during their tenure of 20 years. The two stores combined now employ 80 employees, stock more than 100,000 titles and boast one of the Bay Area's premier reading series. Still, Duran plans to revamp the whole operation -- while maintaining its literary focus and community spirit. "The store needs changes," he remarked.

In order to meet the competition of online booksellers, Duran is redoing the Web site and hiring two new employees to manage it. By mid-May, he plans to provide free delivery of books to local shoppers. In addition, he is personally conducting interviews with customers and is planning to circulate a survey in the near future. "We've got to meet their needs, and improve our customer service," Duran told PW.

Because he believes shoppers today want both the convenience of the chains and the service of independents, Duran intends to provide both, by giving them, as he puts it, the "old and the new book world."

Both sites will be remodeled this summer. The Palo Alto store will shrink in size from its current 10,000 to 6000 square feet. Only the administrative offices will be lost, and the savings in rent will allow Duran to increase the stock and improve services.

The reading series that brings together world-famous and local authors will increase from four events per week to seven per week. To facilitate the expanded program, Duran is hiring an events coordinator. "We're keeping the same philosophical house, but we're going to improve it," Duran explained.

While the store wasn't losing money, sales were plummeting, and services had been cut to the bone. MacDonald and Masteller, like many owners of independents, were worried about the future. When their lease came to a close this year, their rent rose dramatically.

Duran negotiated a new five-year lease with a five-year option. Even Palo Alto mayor Gary Fazzino entered the fray to help in the negotiations. Rick Stultz from the property's board of directors was a strong advocate and argued on behalf of keeping Printers Ink as a community landmark.

Independents take note: the public support was a critical factor for both owners and the investors. "The outcry for the independents helped make this all possible," noted Duran.

The escrow hasn't yet closed, but the papers are signed-and throughout the Bay Area, book-lovers are applauding.