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Phoenix Faces Uncertain Future
Beloved Bookstore Loses Yearly Lease
By Rosie Ruley-Atkins
In 1985, Phoenix Books owner Kate Rosenberger and her then-partner Kirby Desha discovered Noe Valley as they were searching for a location in which they could open their own bookstore.
"We arrived early [to look at a storefront]. It was one of those perfect, foggy mornings, and we were sitting on the bench in front of Holey Bagel, watching the people hanging out on the street. We couldn't believe what a great neighborhood it was!"
Within an hour, they had secured the space that now houses See Jane Run. The couple moved into a nearby studio apartment and emptied their own bookshelves to stock the store. After three years, Rosenberger bought her partner out and moved the shop to the corner of 24th and Vicksburg, where Phoenix Books is located today.
The store is a comforting throwback to bookstores of old. Absent are the disinterested staffers and enormous piles of discounted bestsellers that characterize many of the "big box" booksellers today. Rather, the store is stocked with a quirky assortment of used and new books, stacked on floor-to-ceiling wooden shelves.
A visitor can choose from among a half-dozen editions of The Grapes of Wrath, or peruse back issues of literary journals such as Zyzzyva and The Kenyon Review. The staff has an uncanny ability to put their hands on even the most obscure title. On a recent afternoon, a staffer plucked from the shelf a copy of the 1976 baseball memoir Dock Ellis in the Country of Baseball as if it were the most commonly requested book of the week. In the kids' section, eagle-eye regulars might find a used copy of the latest Lemony Snicket tucked alongside such classics as Treasure Island and The Happy Hollisters.
The eclectic and personal style of the bookstore reflects the values of its owner. A former farrier and long-distance horse racer, Rosenberger is not your typical 21st-century entrepreneur. She measures success not by the bottom line, but by the connections she makes in the community.
"When I first opened, there was a couple that came in and told me they were expecting twins," she says. "I've seen those girls through their board books to juvenile fiction to novels. Now they're getting ready for college. I can't believe that I'm lucky enough to be part of that."
Rosenberger talks about watching her young customers start their "romance with reading." She loves it when adults press their noses to the pages of a beloved tome and say, "You have to read this book!"
These days, those same customers are rallying around Rosenberger as she struggles to balance her view of the world with the realities of San Francisco real estate. Three years ago, the building that houses Phoenix Books was sold and the new landlord offered only a one-year lease, which she has renewed each succeeding year. This year, though, the landlord would only agree to a month-to-month lease, starting on March 31.
Rosenberger is very concerned about her store's future, because under such a lease, the rent can be raised frequently and the landlord can ask that the premises be vacated on short notice.
(The Voice requested an interview with the building owner, but received no response.)
In early March, Rosenberger also called the landlord, hoping to convince her to negotiate. Then she turned to her customers for help.
Enter neighborhood activist and New College law professor Peter Gabel. Gabel, who has led the effort to engage Real Food Company owner Nutraceutical Corporation in community-oriented dialogue and mediation, believes that Phoenix Books is a crucial part of the fabric of Noe Valley and that the residents of the neighborhood can and should work together to save the store.
"A neighborhood shouldn't be made up of disconnected, passive consumers," Gabel says. "People can form themselves into a political voice. When people band together, including the shopping public, we can have a very substantial, targeted influence."
Toward that end, Gabel is assisting Rosenberger in making her plight more visible to the Noe Valley community. He encouraged her to speak at a community meeting in February, an act that resulted in a petition drive to bring the level of support for the store to the landlord's attention. To date, more than 500 neighbors have signed the petition, and a good number have also offered legal and financial assistance.
Gabel believes that such moves appeal to commercial landlords' better nature.
"We're not asking that landlords not get a fair rate of return on their investments," he says. "But they shouldn't dodge the neighborhood's cultural history and ethics either. If they're a part of the community, they can have a sense of pride in what their property stands for."
With the abundance of vacant commercial space on 24th Street, why doesn't Rosenberger, who also owns Dog-Eared Books on Valencia Street and Red Hill Books in Bernal Heights, simply relocate her business?
"When this first came up, I thought it was serendipitous," Rosenberger says. "I started looking at the spaces along the street and thought I would just move. But none of the empty spaces has worked out."
The lessors for one space set up a bidding war among potential tenants, an approach that was untenable for Rosenberger. "There's something about the spirit of that approach that I'm not willing to engage in," she says.
Another landlord was offering a two-year lease for the space, with a one-year extension--too short a time frame for Rosenberger to want to pack up her books and move.
Still another seemingly suitable storefront required extensive rehabilitation, with the new tenant footing the bill.
At this point, Rosenberger is being patient and positive. "I love this location and I'm just holding out, considering all my options," she says. "Having to be patient is scary, but I can't panic. I have to do what's best for the business."
Four months pregnant with her first child, Rosenberger has a vision of her ideal future. "My baby's in a hammock in the store. I have a five-year lease with a five-year option. My landlord and I have found common ground and a resolution that works for both of us."
Though Rosenberger was one of the "Magnificent 40" who helped save Cover to Cover last year by making a large donation to that bookstore, she's been stunned and touched by the support she's received from the community.
"I feel so loved," Rosenberger says, pausing to collect her emotions. "If I felt like it didn't matter so much to the neighborhood, I might just give up, but that's not the case. There are so many readers in Noe Valley. I feel that if I closed the store, it would be an injustice to the neighborhood."
For now, people continue to peruse the sale bins outside of Phoenix. Dogs still wait in the sunshine while their humans search the stacks of books. Customers still crowd the narrow aisles of the store debating poetry and politics. Kids still discover the romance of reading. And Rosenberger and Gabel still search for that elusive point where capitalism, politics, and idealism converge to save a neighborhood institution. m
Strong Affection for Local Bookstore
Many Noe Valley residents have reacted with alarm at the prospect of losing Phoenix Books. Here are the thoughts of a few of them.
Being able to wander into a place like Phoenix Books is what made living in Noe Valley different from living in Daly City.
--Marc Sandalow, San Francisco Chronicle Washington bureau chief and former Noe Valley resident
Whenever I go to 24th Street, Phoenix is a ritual stop for me. I like getting used books, but I also like dropping in to see what's new, what's interesting. Even if I don't buy anything, I sometimes just read something that I find useful at that moment. I recently browsed through a book about spirituality in the real world and found some great practical advice about how walking down the street can be zenlike if you're paying attention, listening. It was great to get that particular message at that moment.
--Roberto Aponte, Noe Valley resident
Phoenix always seems to have the book I want, whether it's a bestseller or a used paperback. It's such a great place to browse, with that wonderful smell of old books.
--Joanna Greene, Noe Valley resident
Phoenix Books is another much loved business in the neighborhood that is being forced out. With properties selling at $100,000 above asking price, it is no surprise that an owner would want to join the ranks of continual real estate offices and fingernail salons.
--Julia Ready, Noe Valley resident and childcare provider
When Michael and I moved into our Victorian on 23rd Street in 1989, there was a huge used bookstore near 24th and Church, and Phoenix and Cover to Cover were just around the corner. When I needed to do research or find inspiration, there were many choices. Phoenix has become the last place I can walk to and browse for reading material. The books on the store's shelves embody the hybrid personality of its staff and the character of my beloved village of Noe Valley.
--Rich McCracken, Noe Valley resident and writer
Because of its large inventory and warm, knowledgeable staff-- including (from left) Sky Sithbunkerd, James Koehneke, Kerry McLaughlin, Miranda Culp, and owner Kate Rosenberger--Phoenix Books on 24th Street is a 19-year success story. But now it finds itself in the middle of a cliffhanger: Will the landlord relent and renew the lease? Or are the bookstore's days in Noe Valley numbered?
Phoenix Books, the cluttered but cozy bookstore at 24th and Vicksburg streets, is hoping for a new lease on life, literally and figuratively.
Photos by Pamela Gerard
April 2004 Noe Valley Voice