Arts & Events

Books: Bay Area Bookstores Get Back to the Basics

By Sindya N. Bhanoo, Special to the Planet
Tuesday October 31, 2006

Sometimes, reinventing your own wheel works. Independent bookstores have long been battling the competition of chains and online retailers by mimicking tactics such as online selling and attractive websites. But increasingly, they are realizing that their ultimate trump is focusing on what has been theirs all along—a physical presence with strong community ties. 

“My salary is now fully devoted to event coordination,” said Lewis Klausner, who works at Black Oak Books in Berkeley. “We are definitely doing more events than we did two years ago.”  

Such events generate more foot traffic and build a relationship with the community.  

Other stores are forming more unlikely partnerships in an attempt to weave themselves into the neighborhood’s social fabric. 

Modern Times in San Francisco is a weekly drop off point for Eatwell Farm, a group that provides organic produce.  

“Eatwell gets a convenient location for drop off, and we get a source for our own food and the benefit of ... [their] members coming through our store,” the Modern Times website said. The store also donates books to prisoners through the Prisoners Literary Project, a venture pioneered by Bound Together Bookstore and Bay Area prison activists. 

Northern California has the nation’s second largest book buying market, according to The Northern California Independent Bookseller’s Association website.  

Hut Landon, executive director of the association, said that it has 240 member stores, a figure that has been steady over the last few years despite the business struggles bookstores have been facing. 

“We have had eight or nine stores close, but we’ve also had four or five new stores open,” he said. “The net change has been very little.” 

“A number of stores are also stocking college textbooks, selling at school fairs and at conferences,” Landon said. Modern Times, for example, orders course books for the New College of California and partners with them on events.  

Other bookstores around the country have also focused on using their physical presence as a plus.  

At Elliott Bay, Seattle’s most popular independent bookstore, staff member Tracy Taylor said the local community has always appreciated their knowledgeable staff. With 40 full-time staff members, the store is pushing its budget, but it is worth it.  

“Our payroll is a large percentage of our costs, but we believe that people who are here five days a week can be more focused and provide customers with service they want,” Taylor said. 

The Elliott Bay staff meets regularly to discuss books, and staff members update each other on books every day. “We are just trying to do more of what we have always done well,” she said.  

But despite the innovative tactics, some stores are struggling.  

Modern Times will celebrate its 35th Anniversary next month and acknowledged that this summer they were on the verge of shutting down. To remain open, they took an interest free loan from the Bay Area Worker’s Collective.  

The goal is to pay back the $20,000 they borrowed. So far, they have raised $10,000 through various fundraising efforts. On their anniversary, they will throw a party and host a fundraising dinner at the store.  

Customers can also “adopt a section of the store,” O’Sullivan said. ”Sort of like Adopt a Highway.” And, one of the store’s back rooms is rented as meeting space to the public.  

Stores have also realized the power of forming a community with each other. is a consortium of independent bookstores. The site provides independent bookstore bestseller lists, and offers free software that allows stores to sell books on their websites. 

But most successful is the Book Sense gift card. The card can be bought and used at hundreds of independent bookstores across the country. Black Oak Books, Modern Times and Cody’s Books all carry the card, as does Elliott Bay in Seattle. Sales of the card, which started in 2003, have exceeded $11 million.  

Landon also believes that more independent bookstores need to maximize what the Internet has to offer. “There is potential for a greater web presence and much more focused e-mail marketing, he said.  

Simply selling online is not enough. 

“We list and sell on Amazon,” Jon Wobber, owner of Shakespeare & Co. on Telegraph Avenue, said. Still, the tactic hasn’t moved him out of the red. 

Already this year he has had several unprofitable months. His average monthly sales amount to $20,000. Subtract $5,000 for rent, $5,000 for salaries, a few thousand to restock and pay other bills, and most months he’s left with little profit.  

Four weeks of coupon ads in The Daily Californian have failed to produce a single coupon-buying customer for Wobber. “I’ll probably try flyers next,” he said. 

Stores need to be more innovative, Landon said. “They can keep track of customer sales records, which is technologically easy now, create lists of customers for different genres and e-mail them when a new book is out,” he said. “Coupons can be e-mailed. Big stores have been doing all this for a long time.” 

Klausner said email marketing has been working at Black Oak. “We have been able to decrease the cost of advertising with the Internet,” he said. 

On the Black Oak Books website, customers can register to receive an e-mail calendar. The site also lists staff book reviews and has an online forum where customers can discuss books. 

At Modern Times in San Francisco, staff member Brenda O’Sullivan updates the store website regularly. She runs a blog, lists events, staff favorites and links to community resources. 

Powell’s Bookstore, a Portland-based independent bookstore, started their website in 1994, even before In 2005, Forbes Magazine awarded them with a “Best of the Web” award for their user-friendly site and original content, which includes personal essays by authors.  

Most recently, Powell’s has been offering a free store shipping option. Customers can order a book online from any Powell’s location in Oregon and pick it up at the downtown Portland branch, Dave Weich, Director of Marketing and Development at Powell’s said. 

The key to the book business, Weich said, is to find ways to continually innovate and change with the times. “Whether it’s through partnerships with local business … or email newsletters, there are so many ways to go about it.“ 

One thing is for sure, he said, “I don’t think a bookstore, a flat out bookstore, can survive, and even if it can, I don’t think it can thrive.”