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Vallejo Welcomes New Bookstore?
Barbara R ther -- 4/24/00

With the San Francisco Bay Area's current growth spurt, the once obscure town of Vallejo in the North Bay has become a desirable residence for thousands of new commuters. Changing demographics was one reason why the city fathers of Vallejo decided they needed a bookstore in town. For more than a year, they ran ads in the local paper and in the NCIBA newsletter as well as other community venues. In August 1999, when Jerry Thompson opened a full-service bookstore, Black Spring Books, in the heart of downtown, the wish of the city fathers came true. Or did it?

"I've been greeted with a resounding silence," explained the humorous Thompson. "I don't think its because I'm a gay African-American man but, gee, you never know." Thompson assumes the city had something more like a Barnes & Noble in mind, rather than the alternative cultural center that he has created.

Thompson, who thinks of himself first and foremost as a bookseller, spent more than eight years at Alexander Books in San Francisco, where he was also responsible for all events organization. He lived in Vallejo for several years before a friend showed him an empty retail space downtown, available for lease at less than a quarter of the price of space elsewhere in the Bay Area. It was time, he thought, to strike out on his own. With some financial support from family and friends, and with a quick renovation, Thompson opened at 503 Georgia Street. The area is currently being considered by major retailers, and rumors of a Gap opening there soon have fueled optimism about a full renaissance a year or two away. Thompson is confident that the relatively moderate sales volume he now enjoys will only increase as neighborhood traffic grows.

The 5,000 titles in his 1,000-sq.-ft. store reflect a commitment to selling to everyone in the community, without compromising his own interests. "This is a gay and lesbian neighborhood, and my store serves that audience," said Thompson. "On the other hand, the children's and young reader's section is rich enough to attract the attention of local middle-school teachers who commonly ask for class bookstore tours. Many of these children have never been to a bookstore before." Large Filipino and Latino sections also reflect the area's diversity. Sports and pop-culture books are also among his bestsellers.

Teenagers are often attracted to the store by the eclectic jazz, hip-hop and world music that they hear coming out of its doors, and Thompson welcomes them. Events such as readings, monthly jazz jam sessions and author appearances have been critical in bringing customers into the store.

Thompson is currently seeking community partnerships for a project called Post-Card Vallejo, a photography project designed to get teenagers to examine their town through photographs, which the store will print as postcards and sell. On the other end of the spectrum, he has founded the Lost Tribe Collective, a forum for African-American men to discuss family, work and "getting along." The collective holds monthly meetings at the store. Events and other store news can be accessed at the Black Springs link on Thompson's community events Web site, www.sistercircle.com.

"I know the city knows I'm here, because they came in asking for a gift certificate for a downtown festival," he said with a laugh. But Thompson is still waiting for the welcome party.
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