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Snuggle up with A Good 'Indie' Bookstore
By Maire Farrington
If you saw the movie You've Got Mail, you know that these are challenging times for independent bookstores. In the fictional tale, Meg Ryan plays the owner of a small book shop that is forced to shut down after a glitzy, corporate-owned bookstore moves in across the street.
Such scenarios have unfortunately become all too real in today's book business. Now, the "indie" bookstores are competing with the one-click shopping available on web sites like Amazon.com, and with the substantial discounts (and coffee coupons) offered by chains such as Barnes & Noble and Borders Books.
Obviously, the small booksellers must work harder than ever to keep their customer base. But somehow, some way, Noe Valley's three independent bookstores have thrived in recent years. Two have even expanded into larger storefronts on 24th Street.
So what's the secret of their success?
In the eyes of Kate Rosenberger -- who opened Phoenix Books & Records 14 years ago, just a few doors down from its current location at 3850 24th St. (near Vicksburg) -- it's finding the right niche.
"We're predominantly selling secondhand books," Rosenberger explains. "Amazon.com and the big chain stores are really just for new books. Even though Amazon.com will do searches for secondhand books, it's very different than walking into your neighborhood used bookstore and poking around."
Small bookstores would also be wise to diversify. In addition to used books and a smaller selection of new books, Rosenberger sells audiotapes and CDs.
And she knows her customers' tastes. When Rosenberger opened Phoenix in 1985, she lived on Jersey Street, within walking distance of the store. "Noe Valley was one of the old hippie hangouts then. Now it's more like the Marina," she says. "We definitely used to sell more counterculture. We still do, but it's almost like it's a different generation that we're selling to. I've seen kids grow up, go to college, and come back. It's like, 'Wow, I remember you when you were 6!'"
Rosenberger, who launched a second store, Dog Eared Books, on Valencia Street in 1992, gets her share of tourists at both places, but says Noe Valley residents remain her "bread and butter, absolutely. There are a lot of well-read people here. We sell a lot of history. We sell a fair amount of nonfiction. And then also a lot of mysteries and science fiction, thought-provoking material. We don't sell a whole bunch of fluff."
She thinks Noe Valley's three top book shops all have distinct personalities. "The big picture in Noe Valley is that each bookstore has really tried to provide the neighborhood with the best they could for the neighborhood. We all have our own ideas about what that means."
That's certainly the case with the oldtimer on the block, The San Francisco Mystery Bookstore, which opened 23 years ago on the corner of 24th and Diamond streets.
Like Rosenberger, Mystery Bookstore owner Bruce Taylor has felt the encroachment of the Internet and the big chain stores on the book business. "Absolutely, there's no way around it," says Taylor. But relocating his store three years ago to 4175 24th St. -- between Castro and Diamond -- has proved to be a shrewd move. "The new store is much bigger, and it allows me to display more books," says Taylor, whose old shop barely had enough room for a person to turn around in. "It's allowed us to expand not only our hours, but the breadth of the books we can offer."
However, the main clue to the store's longevity is his love of whodunits. "I specialize in one specific area -- crime fiction," Taylor says. "And I work very hard at offering the best selection of inexpensive mystery and detective fiction on the planet."
He and his staff all know their P.D. James from their James Lee Burke, and keep a running tally of writers, characters, and plots at the store. "I sell on opinions, on selection and knowledgeability," Taylor says. "You can come in here and say, 'I don't remember the name or the author of the book but it's set in Detroit,' and you'd have a reasonable expectation of somebody being able to figure out what book you're talking about."
Secondhand books comprise about half of the store's inventory. "What I've come to realize is that for whatever reason -- economically or philosophically -- there are some book buyers who won't buy a new book, paperback or hardback," notes Taylor.
He also maintains a web site (http://members.aol.com//sfmybooks/ signings.htm) and an e-mail list, to alert customers to book signings at the shop. The authors' visits are an enticement for mystery buffs all over the Bay Area. Taylor has hosted such luminaries as Tony Hillerman, Sue Grafton, and Walter Mosley. "I had James Ellroy here two weekends ago, and it's the biggest crowd I've ever had. Yes, signings are a good thing -- they bring people into the store."
Lots more book signings, writing classes, storytelling, crafts for kids, comfy chairs, and even dog training in the backyard patio (yes, dog training) are some of the things that owner Nicky Salan is offering at her new, more spacious Cover to Cover Booksellers at 3812 24th St., next to the laundromat at Church and 24th.
And the shop, which until February occupied the same spot on 24th Street for 16 years (near Sanchez), will continue to please its devoted following by lending its own brand of personal service.
Still, Salan -- who opened the original Cover to Cover on Clement Street in 1976 -- acknowledges the harsh realities that most small bookstores face today.
"Most of America's books, up until about 12 or 15 years ago, were sold in independent bookstores," Salan says. "We used to have a little better than 50 percent of the market. Now we have 17 percent. Over 2,000 bookstores have gone out of business in the last 10 years."
However, some shops -- particularly those in Northern California, she says -- have managed to hang on because "we're an aggressive and feisty bunch. You've got to be quicker, leaner, meaner, and faster. What I think independent bookstores do better than anybody is they hire people who can't live without books, and who love talking to people about books and who read books. They're also incredibly wonderful to their customers."
It's not unusual for Salan or her staff to bring books to the hospital, "because some customer was not well and really needed to read a certain book. Or people pull up in cars, and you run out the door and hand them their wrapped book. This is the kind of stuff that chain bookstores can't do."
Salan has a strong passion for children's books, and that's reflected in the large selection at Cover to Cover. "We're actually known throughout the city for our children's books."
Plus, the store sells reams of literary fiction and nonfiction. Customers devour everything from Salman Rushdie to Anne Lamott. Notes Salan, "Noe Valley is the most intelligent community. People are really thoughtful, careful readers around here. And they have been wonderful to us."
On Cover to Cover's moving day, over 250 people showed up, "with their dogs and their kids at 9 o'clock in the morning on a Saturday to help us. It was just amazing," Salan says. A human "book brigade" was formed, and books were passed hand to hand down 24th Street.
Salan is also grateful to her new landlord, Bassem Sirhed. "He came and got us, literally," she says. Sirhed walked into the store last December, introduced himself, and explained that he had just built a new space specifically for a bookstore and wanted Cover to Cover to occupy it. "He turned down some big outfits," Salan recalls. "And he gave us a finished building -- carpeted, painted, done. All we had to do was put in the bookcases."
The new store sports a mezzanine, which provides a cozy nook for the Mother-Daughter Book Discussion Club, among other groups and classes. An outdoor patio has been outfitted with benches and potted plants.
Salan says the store now sponsors appearances by nationally known and local authors at a rate of two to three a month. "We've had lots of neighborhood people who have written books," she points out.
Seven-year staffer Susan Talbott, who helps coordinates Cover to Cover's schedule of events, adds that the shop will host a summer crafts and activities program for kids. Drop by or call to sign up, or get the scoop at Cover to Cover's web site, www.covertocoversf.com. The store will also put you on the mailing list for its newsletter, published three times a year.
And customers who can't make it down to 24th Street will soon be able to purchase from Cover to Cover online, via a program called Book Sense, launched by the American Booksellers Association. "The independent bookstores are working to build a database of close to two million titles," says Salan, "so when Book Sense is in place [sometime this summer], every independent bookstore in America will be able to do the same thing Amazon.com can do."
Salan says owning an independent bookstore will never be a huge money-maker. "But there's quite a lot of 'psychic income' in this business. You get wonderful feedback in your head instead of in your pocket."