Shortly before Laura Hillenbrand’s Seabiscuit was published in 2003, the Random House rep in Oakland, Calif., sat down with Diesel Books’ co-owner Alison Reid to take the advance order on the book. Never having heard of the legendary racehorse, Reid—a native of Glasgow, Scotland—was perplexed by the rep’s passionate pitch. “He said, 'But Seabiscuit is buried less than a hundred miles from your store!’ and I said, 'Come on, isn’t that like flogging a dead horse?’ ”
It’s with that good humor and sense of play that Reid and John Evans, her life partner whom she met while both were working at a used bookstore in Berkeley, run Diesel Books, which has expanded to three California locations in Oakland, Malibu, and Santa Monica. They opened their first store in Emeryville in 1989, but were forced to relocate to Oakland after damage from the Loma Prieta earthquake cut off access to their street. Since then Diesel (so named after a neighbor’s dog) has remained in the same space on College Avenue, and Reid and Evans waited 15 years to open the Malibu store. “We originally wanted the first store to be there,” says Evans, “but they already had a neighborhood bookstore. We always loved Malibu and drove down a few times a year to go to art museums and the theater. We’d go to BEA when it was in L.A. and camp on the beach in Malibu and hang out with the surf punks.” In 2004, Reid and Evans finally opened their 1,800-square-foot store in Malibu’s Cross Creek shopping center after the area had been without a bookstore for six years. “People are glad we’re there,” Reid says.
Diesel’s bookselling philosophy, which aims to be casual and professional at the same time, is holistic. “We wanted to create a work environment that’s mentally healthy,” says Evans, “a collaborative effort where people are paid decent wages, have a health plan and can radiate into the community. We ask each employee to bring their whole self to work.” Without the constraints of a traditional workplace pecking order, and with just a few exceptions, Diesel’s 20 employees all multitask and participate in receiving, returns, shelving, and customer service. Eventually everyone takes their turn at being manager of one of the stores. Adds Evans, “Our customers are a part of the stores, too. Whether they’re hyper-literate or trying to be literate, they can stand around together and tell the other a joke.”
Reid is the general buyer for Diesel, while Margaret Simpson in the Oakland store buys children’s books. “It’s all about the relationships,” Reid says, explaining how she works with her reps. Although she buys centrally for the three stores, Reid meets the reps at the location they prefer in Northern or Southern California. The spread of titles, and what sells, is very similar in the stores; it’s when people buy certain books that varies from location to location. “Our customers in Southern California tend to read book reviews much more than the folks in Oakland, so they’re faster to buy new titles in hardcover,” Reid says.
The Santa Monica store, located in the upscale Brentwood Country Mart, opened in 2008. At 1,500 square feet, it’s the smallest of the three locations, but quickly overtaking Malibu for second place in overall sales. Diesel, which has an extensive Web site, is a member of ABA’s IndieCommerce and is selling e-book downloads for the iPhone. “We’ll also sell the Sony Reader when it’s ready,” says Evans.
Reid and Evans have an apartment in Oakland, but consider their home base to be the single-wide trailer they share in a Malibu trailer park. She and Evans have been approached by people to open additional stores, which they reckon is a form of flattery, but for now are content to maintain the status quo. “We never thought we’d be a chain bookstore,” says Reid. “That would mean having a plan!” Evans adds, “When we opened the first store, we barely had a five-month plan.”