Telegraph Avenue Shops Battle Big Box Retailers, Internet

By PATRICK GALVIN Special to the Planet
Tuesday August 12, 2003

The scene of some of the most heated political confrontations of the 1960s, today’s Telegraph Avenue is once again a battleground—in which independent book and music retailers are facing off against “Big Box” and Internet stores. 

Telegraph Avenue’s 11 bookstores face daunting challenges. Large booksellers are making greater inroads in the East Bay. Barnes & Noble opened two book superstores in El Cerrito and Emeryville last year and Internet booksellers also continue to capture an ever-larger share of the marketplace. In the first quarter of 2003, Amazon.com achieved net sales of $1.08 billion compared with $847 million in the first quarter of 2002, an increase of 28 percent. 

“Unlike book superstores and Internet dealers, our buyers and clerks know what Berkeley and East Bay readers want,” said Doris Moskowitz, owner of Moe’s Books on Telegraph. “We have one of the largest selections of used books in the Bay Area, and we constantly rotate our stock. People come here from all over the world to find unusual used and new titles that they would never see at the large chains. They talk with our staff to find out what’s worth reading,” 

Andy Ross, president of Cody’s Books on Telegraph Avenue and Fourth Street in Berkeley, says Telegraph’s independent book and music stores do more than sell goods to shoppers. “We support the local economy because we pay local taxes, buy supplies from neighboring stores, bank at local banks, and employ the services of local workers. We chair committees, sit on non-profit boards, sponsor little league teams, and support PTAs,” he said. 

“When it comes to choosing local stores over their Internet competitors, people should think about the social balance sheet. Since 1998, Cody’s has hosted 1,300 author readings and community events. Last year, we brought in almost $1,000,000 in sales and property taxes that support schools, social services, and public agencies,” said Ross. 

“We also paid out over four million dollars in wages and benefits, most of which were recycled into the local economy. In contrast, since its inception, Amazon.com has offered no culturally enriching activities nor paid any taxes or wages that benefit the East Bay,” Ross said. 

To compete, Telegraph Avenue booksellers have developed niche specialties. Shakespeare & Company offers an eclectic range of used, out-of-print, and rare books. Shambala specializes in books that present creative and alternative ways of transforming the individual, the society, and the planet—many of which are published by its sister company, Shambala Publishing. Cartesian Bookstore specializes in used philosophy and theology books, while University Press Books offers a large collection of scholarly books for thinkers, writers, and academics. 

Used and new textbooks are available at Ned’s, Cal Student Store, and Campus Textbook Exchange. Amana Christian Bookstore stocks religious tracts. And, true to its name, Revolution Books specializes in revolutionary and radical politics.  

Telegraph’s Music retailers face challenges not only from the big box giants but from new technologies as well. Just four months ago, Apple Computers launched iTunes, enabling computer-savvy consumers to download virtually any song for just 99 cents. For the price of a CD, a consumer can now assemble a custom collection of favorite hits that can easily be stored on a computer hard drive or downloaded to a portable player. That’s in addition to countless other systems, many of the them illegal, for music fans to obtain their tunes online at no expense. 

Marc Weinstein, co-owner of Amoeba Music on Telegraph and two other locations in San Francisco and Hollywood, believes that iTunes and other forms of music downloading actually help his business. “Through the Internet, people now have access to music and bands that they’ve never heard. When they find something new, many people come to us to buy the original since the sound quality is better on a CD and we go deep into the musicians we carry.” 

Weinstein opened his first retail store on Telegraph in 1990 when huge chains were swallowing up smaller ones and independent stores. Weinstein and his partners saw the need to offer music other than what the major labels wanted people to hear and to create a wide selection of new and used music in one location.  

“Every style of music imaginable is well-represented at Amoeba. There is truly a feeling of unity and cultural diversity at the store. I have friends all over the world who come to the Bay Area to perform. Amoeba Music is usually on their list of places to visit because of their unique vast collection,” said Randy Porter, education director of the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra  

Rasputin Music, which began on Telegraph Avenue in 1971, has found retail success with a strategy similar to that of Amoeba: wide selection and knowledgeable staff. There are now Rasputin Music stores in Berkeley, Campbell, Newark, Pleasant Hill, San Lorenzo, San Francisco, and Vallejo. 

“Telegraph Avenue’s independent book and music stores have discovered that highlighting diversity and contributing to local culture are not revolutionary acts but essential for achieving success in today’s retail marketplace that the big players dominate,” said Roland Peterson, executive director of Berkeley’s Telegraph Avenue Business Improvement District. 


Patrick Galvin works with the Telegraph Business Improvement District (TBID) to help get their message out to the community.