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You have to be a little bit nuts -- in a good way -- to own an independent bookstore

Wednesday, Aug 27 2003
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I once tried to make a list of all the independent bookstores in San Francisco, but got bogged down in the M's. There was such a variety I just couldn't keep track. From Aardvark on Church (which opened in 1978 and hosts Ace the gargantuan golden cat) to the Zen Center shop on Page (which closes for an hour each weekday evening for zazen meditation), this town is lousy with bookshops. The Northern California Independent Booksellers Association has 51 San Francisco stores on its roster; the online Yellow Pages site shows 154 (which includes chains like Barnes & Noble).

Yes, the numbers seem puny at first. Consider that we have more than 3,000 restaurants -- even with the sharp decline over the past couple of years. That's one restaurant for every 250 or so people, compared to about one bookstore per 3,600 residents. (Much as I'd like every good independent to have 3,600 regulars, I don't want to share the "New releases in paperback" shelf with all of them.)

In fact, we're ahead of the pack. According to a July survey conducted by professor Jack Miller of the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater that measured the "literacy profile" of America's 64 largest cities, San Francisco ranks No. 2 -- behind Seattle -- in ratio of booksellers to population. (New York, shockingly, is No. 59; L.A. is 60, much to its chagrin, I'm sure.) Still, we should have more.

I don't think anyone would suggest that owning a bookstore is easy -- in any city -- but maybe we in this "literate" town should think a little more about those struggles, and count our blessings. Like opening a restaurant, running a bookstore is a labor of love: not likely to bring in a lot of money, certain to take up more time than you ever imagined, and as sure as a slick out-of-towner to break your heart.


That San Francisco scores so high on the bookseller chart is especially encouraging to me this week, as I've recently learned that a friend's mom is closing her beloved indie bookstore down in Southern California. Darlene Daniel opened Pages, which specializes in children's titles, in Tarzana in 1983; she's closing it this month for personal reasons, and she hasn't yet found a buyer. Since an article about the closure ran in the Los Angeles Times two weeks ago, Daniel's gotten a few nibbles, but it's too early to tell whether any of them will be serious.

Longtime customers recently saved a San Francisco indie from a similar fate. Noe Valley's Cover to Cover was set to close in June when a group of devotees, led by law professor Peter Gabel, pitched in with some impressive community fund-raising. With a promise of an ongoing cash infusion -- and a new business plan -- the store, formerly on 24th Street, moved early this month up the block and around the corner to 1307 Castro, with many fewer books but much more hope.

It's telling that here we were able to save a favorite independent shop through customer effort. As Daniel explains, Southern California readers have had their bookstore experience defined by the chains, whereas San Franciscans have expressed their fierce spirit by embracing independents. In a sense, indie bookstores are like the city itself: often eccentric, sometimes absurd, occasionally smug, always charming.

In attempting my list, I was heartened by the sheer breadth of bookshops we have in this town. Remodeling your house? Try Builders Booksource in Ghirardelli Square or William Stout in North Beach (or its mini-offshoot in South Park). Taking a trip? Try Get Lost in the Upper Market area or Rand McNally downtown. Want to buy a title in another language? San Francisco has stores that specialize in volumes from China, the Philippines, Russia, Japan, Italy, Mexico, France, Germany, Korea, and other countries I'm sure I've missed -- not to mention the Globus Slavic Bookstore on Balboa. We've got Islamic bookstores, Christian bookstores, Jewish bookstores, Buddhist bookstores, even Jews for Jesus bookstores. One on Fell called Psychic Eye; another on Valencia called Abandoned Planet. It's impossible to know them all. Even if you're in the business, you can still be surprised: Julie Knapp, who's been working at A Clean Well Lighted Place for Books for about seven years, joined a bike tour of indie bookstores last month (organized by ACWLPFB's Julia Thomas, in conjunction with the Bicycle Coalition); the group hit 10 shops -- including one Knapp had been unaware of, Bolerium on Mission.

One thing we don't have, though, is a store devoted exclusively to children's books, like Pages in Tarzana. If you wonder what an independent kids' shop might do that a big chain with a dedicated section wouldn't, just ask Darlene Daniel. "It is a fiction," she tells me, "that superstores carry every book you could ever want." Her store focuses on singular gems -- one-off books that'd likely be missed in goliath stores -- and on relationships with readers. Daniel mentions one customer who visited after she'd announced her intention to close the shop. The woman told the story of how her son, a "reluctant reader," had come into Pages. There, Daniel spoke with him for a while, went away, and then returned with a handful of books she described in detail and left with him. The boy is now a "confirmed reader" and his mother attributes this "to his interaction with our store," Daniel says.

She isn't shutting down for financial reasons, really; as she points out, "We opened in a recession, and we've had one at the beginning of every decade since." The store weathered the Northridge earthquake of 1994, the epicenter just three miles away; the advent of computerized inventory-management systems; and Harry Potter mania. With the right buyer, it could probably continue successfully. But you have to be a little bit nuts -- and very passionate -- to own such a place.

Most folks who consider buying a bookstore do so not because they believe they can make good money -- they can't -- but because they're willing to translate their passion for books into long workdays and workweeks. They have to go in, as Daniel did, "with eyes open." She was told before she bought Pages, for example, that she could have either a salary or a return on her investment, but not both. Yet bookstores do turn over. Cover to Cover's owners, Tracy Wynne and Mark Ezarik, bought the store just 3 1/2 years ago from its original owner, who opened it 25 years ago.

San Francisco may be up there in terms of number of booksellers per capita, but we've still got holes in our shelves. And good general stores like Cover to Cover are fighting against high rents, competition from Amazon and chain superstores, a poor economy, and who knows what else to survive. If, like me, you're not quite up for buying a whole bookstore, at least buy one book from an indie store every month. Hell, pick a new shop each time -- you'll be amazed by what you find.

About The Author

Karen Zuercher

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