Small Press Distribution Turns 30
Barbara R ther -- 12/20/99

Small Press Distribution of Berkeley, Calif., the only exclusively literary distributor in the country, celebrated its 30th anniversary on December 4 with a day-long open house, rare book auction and freely flowing spirits.

Originally launched as Serendipity Books Distribution, the company was organized to distribute the books of five small literary presses that were part of the Bay Area small press explosion of the early 1970s. Behind it were a handful of p ts and booksellers, among them Peter Howard, whose Serendipity Bookstore was next door.

Today, the company represents 572 small presses and occupies a 6,400-sq.-ft. warehouse in west Berkeley. In the last 10 years, the company's sales have more than tripled; current net figures are more than $660,000, of which sales to online booksellers account for nearly 12%. The final touches are almost complete on a state-of-the-art EDI system and online ordering capabilities.

Though its business plans are geared toward the next century, the prevailing attitude has changed little since 1970. "We are committed to getting literature into the hands of readers and have always refused to be motivated by the bottom line," explained Heather Peeler, former executive director. "Though we are a nonprofit, we operate as a for-profit business." The budget relies on sales for 70% of operations and on grants for 20%. The difference is made up by member donations.

SPD's journey from five to 572 publishers has not been an easy one. Success has come from constantly refocusing and refining the distributor's mission. In the 1980s, SPD operated a full-time retail store and sponsored an array of public programs and readings. The company became a nonprofit organization in 1991, and though a focal point for literary life in the Bay Area, it was hard hit by reduced NEA funding.

The closing of many small independent stores in the first part of the decade also impacted sales. A decision was made to discontinue the store and the reading series and focus on distribution. Hundreds of new presses were added in the following years, and in 1997, operations moved from San Pablo Avenue to the current larger location. This year, the distributor was awarded a Lila Wallace Reader's Digest Fund grant "for their role in providing a vital link in the life of independent publishing."

The roots of many American literary writers and publishers are connected to the company. Authors such as Sherman Alexie, Paul Auster, Michael Ondaatje and Ntozake Shange all began their careers with presses distributed primarily by SPD. Dalkey Archive, Sun & Moon and the Hispanic literary press Arte Publico are among its best-selling publishers.

Booksellers such as Jan Weismiller of Prairie Lights Books in Iowa City, Iowa, appreciate being informed of new presses and authors through SPD's concise catalogue highlights. She said that many of the p try titles she sells would not be available without SPD. "I simply could not afford to order individual p try titles from so many different small presses. SPD's service makes it possible for independents, as well as chains, to have a vital contemporary p try section."