Adobe Books is going out of business, and there's not much anyone can do about it. On one side of the shop's iconic windows, an artist has set up an installation piece of books stripped of their jackets. The hard, white covers look like ghosts. In the other window display, someone has hung a few “Everything must go” signs like some small-time mattress shop on Geary Street that has gone bust. Inside, owner Andrew McKinley still works behind a cluttered desk hawking his remaining stock at a discount. He belongs to the old-breed, book-hunters who snoop out titles at auctions, library sales, and thrift stores. Even though the store is closing, he can't stop buying books. “It's in my blood,” he says.
Over the last few years a slew of bookstores have closed down in San Francisco, including mega chain Borders, and smaller indie shops Stacey's Bookstore and A Different Light. Each time one goes down, it propagates a rash of articles about how Amazon, e-books, and a decline in readers spell certain death for brick-and-mortar booksellers.
Adobe Books will be gone by end of the summer. The closing of this beloved neighborhood shop serves as a cautionary tale for the city's remaining independent bookstores. But it's not all doom-and-gloom. A collection of entrepreneurial bookstore owners have discovered ways to weather the apocalypse, and some are even thriving in spite of it.
Andrew claims his biggest mistake was not buying the building that Adobe's in. Now it's too late. The gentrified Mission neighborhood has out-priced him. His new landlord hiked the rent by 20 percent, and Andrew says “unless there is an angel out there who will fly down and save us,” he will close the shop at the end of August. A collective of old employees, dedicated patrons, and concerned individuals has been trying to answer that prayer, but Andrew doubts they will find the capital to save the business. He estimates the building would cost three million dollars to buy, a prohibitive sum for any bookseller who hasn't won the lottery or sold a start-up. Andrew thinks he could scrape by, if he really “shook things up” in the store, but after 24 years in business, he says he just doesn't have the energy to do it.
“We owe our existence to a sympathetic landlord,” says book buyer and collective member Joey Paxman. “If our rent went way up we'd be no more.” Bound Together specializes in literature of the far left, offering pamphlets, histories, and radical classics alongside publications from small and independent publishers like PM Press, AK Press, and Last Gasp. “A lot of this stuff you can't find on the Internet,” Joey explains, “and that's what keeps us afloat.” While the store might not have the cultural cachet of a place like Lawrence Ferlinghetti's City Lights in North Beach, it does attract tourists. At the height of the summer the store brings in about $400 a day, but during the winter, it’s lucky to do even half that. The business stays alive by maintaining a tiny overhead: cheap rent, sparse utilities bills, and an all-volunteer staff.
Alan Beatts claims that Borderlands Books is the largest science fiction specialty bookstore in the world, but it only earned that title because everyone bigger went out of business. Alan predicts that “one store in 10 will survive, and they will survive by making themselves a social venue or making themselves a general interest bookstore.” He plans to move in that direction by adding a mystery section to complement his sci-fi, fantasy, and horror selections. Meanwhile, he has opened a café next door to provide another revenue stream and a larger event space for author signings and readings, an essential part of his business. As he says, “It's still going to be a while before people are buying lattes on Amazon.”
Ever since it opened 45 years ago, Green Apple Books has been an enterprising operation. It has expanded from a few hundred square feet to several thousand, and carries used and new books, 1,800 magazine titles, CDs, movies, and vinyl. Co-owner Kevin Hunsanger says the shop has continued to grow like “the Winchester mystery house of bookstores,” and that the unique, folksy aesthetic has helped establish a strong local brand. He claims that the store has become the number one destination in the Bay Area for booksellers, a luxury that keeps the shelves filled with quality used books. Now they are taking their brand beyond the walls of their rambling shop by offering books at cafés around the city as well as e-books that customers can purchase through the store.
Maria Mendoza and her husband Ron Blum started Kayo Books with their own growing collection of vintage paperbacks, and the store continues to have the hushed feel of a collector's private stash. They set up shop at a gritty, low-rent location on the upper lip of the Tenderloin. “It's a bit of a no-man's land here, but it works for us,” says Maria. But while the hard-to-find dime store paperbacks, pocket-sized thrillers, and lurid detective novels draw in collectors from afar, Maria says the niche has also pigeonholed the store and prevented growth. She says many customers come in just to sleuth around, researching prices before heading online to buy. To compete, the couple now does more than half of their business on the web. As Maria says, “The more you feed the monster, the more you get in return.”
Celia Sack has taken the opposite approach to Borderlands Books: She's found an ultra-specific niche and turned her side-street store into a destination spot. Omnivore Books sells cookbooks in all shapes and sizes, but you won’t find any Rachael Ray or Paula Dean titles on her shelves. Celia carries only vintage, unique, and new cookbooks that she would use herself. Like Green Apple, she has taken her brand beyond the physical location of the store. She selects books for Williams-Sonoma stores around the country, each with a handwritten note from Omnivore Books. Back in her small shop she hosts three or four events a week, bringing in authors, celebrity chefs, and local businesses. “I am offering advice and expertise and free talks, and that is what keeps people coming back to me and being loyal.”
In defiance of the dismal predictions for the future of bookstores, Kate Rosenberger opened her fourth shop in the city last year, Alley Cat Books. She also runs Red Hill Books, Phoenix Books, and Dog Eared Books. Her secret has been creating unique, identifiable spaces. “Bookstores are alive,” she says, “they are living organisms.” When she enters a store, Kate claims she can tell when it opened just by the books and the décor. That's the problem with most small operations she says – owners just don't have the time to get out and discover new books. Kate avoids that pitfall by hiring an innovative staff that finds great books to sell.
When Patrick Marks opened the Green Arcade he set out to create a mental space as much as a physical one. The title of the store alludes to the green movement – a loose theme that unifies many of the books on sale – as well as Walter Benjamin's Arcades Project, the German writer's ambitious, sprawling, and unfinished collection of literary criticism. Patrick's own one-man, sprawling operation has led to partnerships with local organizations like 18 Reasons as well as the independent publisher PM Press. To the question of what bookstores need in order to survive, he replies, “Enough people living in an analog world,” and “Cool events with groovy, cool people.”
Eric Whittington has always had jazz musicians play in his bookshop, Bird & Beckett Books, but he never felt he could pay them enough without putting too much of a financial drain on the store. In 2007 he found the solution, a 501c3. The Bird & Beckett Cultural Legacy Project can accept donations, which Eric uses to pay the musicians. The music makes the bookstore a more interesting place and helps sales, but Eric says the whole venture isn't really about making money, it's about propagating culture and giving “the musicians a place to do their thing.” Thankfully, his landlord agrees. “I have a good landlord who is interested in doing something for the community and that's why he is renting to a bookstore. That's a huge thing in a city that is so incredibly market-driven.”
These are just some of the great bookstores in the city. Stop by your neighborhood store, check out an event, and grab a book.
Got an idea about how independent bookstores can make it these days? Let us know! Or tell us about a great bookseller in your neighborhood.