Obscure Bookstore Contains Massive Selection

Tuesday August 12, 2003

With over 450,000 books housed in a nondescript storefront on University Avenue, Serendipity Books is simultaneously one of the largest and least known bookstores in the Bay Area. 

Serendipity owner and founder Peter Howard has devoted the past 40 years of his life to maintaining his book business, which centers on out of-print and rare editions. The store does the majority of its business with university libraries and academics around the world, meaning it conducts very little of its business with walk-in customers. 

But for those who do venture into the store at 1201 University Ave., the rewards are plentiful. Every wall of the 7,500 square foot store is stacked from floor to ceiling with unique books, with additional materials on rolling library-style shelves and scattered on every flat surface in sight, including the floor. Though to an uninitiated visitor the space looks to be in a constant state of disarray, Howard claims he can locate books on any subject matter and by virtually any author. 

To this end, the store is named Serendipity because of the ostensible lack of order among the books and the special discoveries it can lead to. 

“Great and ceaseless care has been taken, almost unconsciously, to ensure that books will be found when and where one least expects them—but they will be found eventually,” reads one of the two guides to the store, entitled “How to Find Books Despite Peter Howard.” 

Howard, regarded as a skilled appraiser of antiquary printed materials, buys and sells books with customers around the world. On Sunday, for instance, he bought 8,000 books from the family of a deceased individual who Howard said had “the most incredible library I have ever seen.” Last month he bought 30,000 books from a university. 

Serendipity is also a major book supplier for several universities, including Harvard, Yale, Stanford, and UC Berkeley. Howard prides himself on his ability to “research almost any printed document of any era, in any language,” and to “evaluate and sell almost any printed item.” 

Serendipity is part of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America (ABAA), a trade organization dedicated to preserving ethics and facilitating trading between antique book stores. Howard served as the elected governor of that body from 1979-1981, and was president from 1992-1994, positions that have assisted him in making major deals because he knows most other major players in the antiquarian bookselling scene. 

The Serendipity store, which is a converted winery that still has a wine barrel hanging from the ceiling, is both a major supplier of rare books and a friendly neighborhood spot for book lovers to browse. 

Howard and his small staff serve lunch every day at 1:00 p.m. and invite any customers present at the time to join them. Many local artists, book sellers, and academics drop by throughout the day to greet Howard and chat about his recent acquisitions and sales. 

“I know all my long-time customers,” Howard said. “I can help people better if I am familiar with who they are and what they’re looking for.” 

On any given day, Howard sits and chats with friends or new acquaintances about any book, any author, any literary genre or style. One of his favorite conversation topics, though, is baseball. An ardent San Francisco Giants fan who has season tickets to Pac Bell Park, Howard’s store sports memorabilia from over 40 years of Giants history. He is rarely seen without his Giants baseball cap, and laughs that he offers price breaks if the team is playing in the playoffs at the time. 

“This is just work,” Howard said about his store. “Baseball, though, is what keeps me going.”