The San Francisco area has long had the reputation of supporting some of the best independent bookstores in the country, but it appears that those stores are suffering the same fate that their cousins are facing everywhere else. We all recognize the culprits: Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, Borders, eBay and the countless other websites on which books are bought and sold. Sure, I know who the "bad guys" are supposed to be. But I spend a lot of money with most of those "bad guys," in particular with Barnes & Noble because of their brilliant scheme of sponsoring their own credit card that takes the place of their old membership card, offers an additional 5% discount when used at one of their stores and which gives bonus points in the form of $25 gift cards to the store for expenditures charged elsewhere to their card. How can any book lover resist a combination like that?
But, all that said, it still breaks my heart to realize that so many little bookstores continue to disappear on a monthly basis. The Contra Costa Times reminded me of the sad news again today, in fact.
Five years ago, Gary Frank decided to sell his bookstore....
The Booksmith had built a fine reputation during a quarter of a century, thanks to an impressive series of author appearances and a high-traffic location in the old hippie neighborhood of Haight-Ashbury.
Yet hardly anyone expressed interest. Frank was disappointed but not surprised.
"Maybe they saw the future," he said.
A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books, open since 1982 near City Hall, sought a buyer, couldn't find one and closed last summer. Cody's Books shut its flagship Berkeley store after a half-century run. Black Oak Books closed one of its stores and is considering shutting the other two if a buyer can't be found. Numerous small new and secondhand stores have fallen with little fanfare.
A good bookstore, he notes, is unlike any other retail space. Where else can you linger, sample the merchandise and then casually reject it if not quite right? Your local pizzeria would frown on such behavior. In a culture that worships money, bookstores are one of the few commercial institutions where cost doesn't trump all other considerations. Massive bestsellers share shelf space with the most obscure tomes.
But some refuse to give up. Such is the case with Praveen Madan who has recently purchased Booksmith and intends to give it a complete makeover so that it will survive to serve its community for years to come.
Madan, 41, calls bookstore owners "reluctant capitalists," saying they're suffering because they haven't innovated. His plan: "Create the store for the 21st century. If you do it well, you'll give customers a reason to come back. But you can't do it by making them feel guilty."
He's full of plans for improving the Booksmith's Web site, tying the store more firmly to the Haight-Ashbury community, doing more events -- making it both inescapable and irresistible for those who live in the neighborhood.
Frank, who owns the Booksmith building, is helping the new team by offering a below-market rent. He couldn't think offhand of a store anywhere in the country that has successfully reinvented itself and moved to a secure financial footing, but that doesn't mean it's impossible.
"Someone needs to take bookstores to another level," Frank said. "Because this level sure isn't working."