Editorial: Berkeley’s Bookstores in Peril

By Becky O’Malley
Tuesday March 06, 2007

Last week the Planet carried a story about the Barnes and Noble store on Shattuck closing, including interviews with managers of other bookstores who expressed satisfaction at the impending departure. With all due respect, we’d like to differ with their analysis, even though one of them is a much-valued long-term Planet advertiser. 

There’s an old business school discussion about why you often see four gas stations on a single corner. It’s been generally conceded that this is a good situation for all four, because the motorist looking for gas knows just where to look. The service station existing in splendid isolation suffers from it.  

The gas station business has changed a bit, though the corners near our home and office do still have multiple stations, but in the bookstore business clustering works for everyone. Shopping on Telegraph for books and music has always been the number one entertainment for our out-of-town visitors because they can find a variety of choices in easy walking distance of one another. Downtown was starting to get a similar reputation, in part because the—dare we say it—parking lot at Barnes and Noble made a good base for out-of-towners with cars, who also checked out the offerings at Pegasus and recently Half-Price Books.  

Non-mall retail of all kinds everywhere in the country continues to suffer from America’s radically changing buying patterns, and that’s as true of bookstores as it is of any other kind of business. The phenomenon was first described in a seminal 1985 book, The Malling of America: An Inside Look at the Great Consumer Paradise, by William Severini Kowinski, and the trend continues. It has now been joined by a trend that’s even more threatening to booksellers, the easy availability of books on the Internet.  

And the publishing industry isn’t helping matters. A recent San Francisco Chronicle article about the demise of the Los Angeles Times book review section reported that “some insiders believe that book review sections are disappearing because publishing houses and chain bookstores now advertise almost exclusively in national magazines or the New York Times.” 

David Cole, publisher of News Inc., a weekly newsletter tracking the industry, was quoted saying, “If Barnes & Noble took out full-page ads every week, there would be more book review sections.”  

But Paul Bogaards, director of publicity at Alfred A. Knopf, differed with him: “Where are the ads in the sports section?” he asked the reporter. “If you put out a great newspaper or a great magazine, the readers will come. Consumers want credible reporting on books in newspapers.”  

Someone has to pay for the printing, even of “great newspapers” which have plenty of readers, and traditionally it’s been advertisers. The Planet does have a monthly book review section, and we don’t have a sports section. The Chronicle has continued its book reviews too. We do get a few small ads from bookstores and the very occasional publisher or author. (We have almost no ads from sports purveyors, but then neither does the Chronicle, despite devoting a whole section every day to sports.) In other words, both papers do pretty well by book readers, but it seems to make very little difference to book sellers, wholesale or retail. Publishers used to pay for “co-op” ads in local papers, but no more. Advertising continues to decline. 

A popular scapegoat for Berkeley business woes is “street behavior.” That’s code for rude or rowdy homeless folks, some of them even substance abusers or uncooperative mental patients, who tend to congregate in non-mall retail areas. They like retail areas because that’s where the money is: charitable shoppers with their hands already in their pockets for parking meter change.  

And now comes the news in the San Francisco Business Times that Cody’s San Francisco store is closing too. With all the Berkeley-bashing that attended the closing of its Telegraph store, will we see downtown San Francisco blamed for this one?  

One reason spare-changers are more often on city streets than in malls, conveniently overlooked by doctrinaire planners, is transit. That’s right, transit. Non-mall retail areas (Telegraph, downtown Berkeley, Union Square) are well-served by BART and buses, and disreputable street beggars tend not to have cars to drive to malls. Many don’t even have bus fare, which is why they cluster on city streets near sources of sustenance.  

Local politicians are always quick to jump on the blame-the-beggars bandwagon. Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates is sending to the City Council this very week a request for the smarmily-named “Public Commons For Everyone Initiative (PCEI)”.  

It uses ’80s style communitarian jargon to contend that the reason local retail is in trouble is because a few bad apples have landed in the midst of our otherwise lovely community. Bates’ memo proposes “creating consistent community standards for public behavior—specifically preventing behaviors such as prolonged sitting and smoking in front of businesses, yelling at people as they walk along the corridor, and/or selling or consuming drugs.”  

Lots of luck. Those standards don’t need to be created: They already exist, but are more honored in the breach than in the observance. It’s not the standards that are lacking, it’s the remedies. 

And will sanctions be uniformly enforced? Will prolonged sitting on the median in front of the Cheeseboard subject pizza-eaters to discipline? Will furtive smokers at the French Hotel be arrested? Will football fans who yell “Go Bears” of a Saturday afternoon be detained? Will Peet’s, Berkeley’s biggest drug dealer, be run out of town?  

One more time: Local street-side retail is in trouble everywhere, even in towns where they routinely run the homeless out of town on sight. Bookstores in particular are in trouble, because it’s so easy to buy books by name on the web that books have become a fungible commodity, and publishers are doing nothing to help.  

If we really value our Berkeley bookstores, and I really do, we need to come up with genuine solutions to the very real problems of those estimable institutions which let us enjoy a comfortable browse through their stock even when they suspect we might go home and make our purchases on the Internet. I suspect that almost all of the dedicated readers in Berkeley (and we have a lot of them) read the Planet, so I’d like to ask you all to make some creative suggestions for what we can do to help save our beloved remaining booksellers before it’s too late.