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Avenue Books Falls Victim To Tough Economy

Friday January 09, 2004

With the announcement Monday that Avenue Books would soon close its doors forever, a visitor to Elmwood’s only bookstore discovers an atmosphere that feels like a wake. 

On Wednesday afternoon, former employees and longtime customers shuffled to the back office to pay their respects to owner Brian Rood, while Bob Dylan’s “Percy’s Song” wailed on the stereo. 

“It’s like being at your own funeral,” Rood said.  

After 12 years of “just squeaking by,” the last two marked by sagging sales and mounting debts, Rood decided to call it quits this week, just three months after the store celebrated its twentieth anniversary and two months after another Berkeley independent book store, Shambhala, went out of business. 

But the last chapter of Avenue’s saga might not yet be written. Elmwood neighbors, famous for their efforts to preserve troubled independent shops, are considering ways to save the bookstore. 

To succeed, they will have to find a way to buck trends in the local book market where small independent sellers are being squeezed out of business by corporate giants like and the big chains. 

“The book business in the Bay Area has been terrible for the past two years,” said Andy Ross, owner of Cody’s Books. “There are just too many people selling too few books. We’re big enough that we can return our books instead of paying bills, but the smaller stores like Avenue don’t have much to fall back on.” 

The statistics aren’t pretty for Berkeley book merchants. Twelve-month figures ending in August show Berkeley sales of miscellaneous retail, mainly books, down 5.6 percent. 

Hut Landon of the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association said that nationally the market share for independent sellers plummeted from 33 percent in 1990 to 16 percent in 2002, though locally, independents have fared better.  

Northern California independent book sellers tallied 21 percent of the market in 2002, he said, and the number of local shops have held reasonably steady over the past decade. 

Still, in the past year, Barnes and Noble has installed megastores in Emeryville and El Cerrito, tightening its grip on Berkeley independent sellers already struggling with a slumping economy. 

“After 9/11 we had a month with no sales,” Rood said. “Then for a while we’d see people come in to buy the New York Times and wouldn’t see any of them again for the rest of the day.” 

Rood said booksellers used to think of themselves as “depression-proof,” but rapidly increasing book costs—caused in part by soaring paper prices—have pushed new hardcovers above $25 and paperbacks above $15, beyond the reach of many consumers’ budgets. 

None of this deters Elmwood residents Jerry Karabel and his wife Kristin Luker, who hope to keep the store afloat. 

The two UC Berkeley professors have discussed a bailout in which neighbors would pledge to buy books to help Rood escape his debts while a UC Berkeley Haas Business School professor would draft a new business plan to help the store turn a profit. 

Rood didn’t rule out neighborhood intervention, but remained skeptical that it could work.  

“If there was some kind of groundswell of economic support, it would be hard to turn it down. I don’t want to take someone else’s money unless I can assure future success,” he said. “And right now the future of independent booksellers is really bleak.” 

Elmwood neighbors and merchants have banded together in the past to save local shops. In 2001 when Ozzie’s Soda Fountain was set to close, Burl Willis helped find a new owner for the famous stand. Several years earlier, Willis and others organized merchants to purchase and restore the burnt out Elmwood Theater. 

Willis is out of town, but Karabel is hoping he will return to lead a campaign to save the shop before Rood closes his doors in two to three weeks. 

But John Moriarty, owner of Fourteen Karats, and head of the Elmwood Merchants Association, thought any effort to salvage the store was misguided. “What is the point of infusing money into a store if it can’t meet its bottom line?” he said. “If people want to rally together, they’d buy a fucking book.” 

Some people wonder if a book store that catered to a niche clientele might be more successful in Elmwood. Landon said specialties stores comprised the majority of new book shops in the Bay Area and Alexandra Pitcher of Black Oak Books said her shop would be in trouble without it niche markets. 

Rood’s landlord, Zoning Adjustment Board Chairman Laurie Capitelli—whose wife opened the store 20 years ago—said he was “very sorry” to hear of the store’s demise and would be open to any plans to keep Rood at the site. 

Rood, for now, is contemplating returning to his previous line of work—construction. The former carpenter and contractor entered the book business after his girlfriend grew tired of him complaining about the building trades. 

“I started working here Saturday evenings to see if I liked it,” he said. “It’s a shame. The book business suits me a lot better.”