The survival and revival of Sacramento’s independent bookstores
The three words on the sign in the store window in Davis were just three normal, everyday words. But they instantly struck the mind like thunder and pierced the heart like an ice pick: “BOOKSTORE FOR SALE.” What?! Bogey’s Books for sale? This could not be. The prospect of the loss of this warm, ever-present glow in the heart of the heart of downtown Davis was simply too much. If Bogey’s was for sale, then most likely this was the end of Bogey’s as we knew it, and possibly the end of any bookstore there at all.
One need not ever have been to Bogey’s to understand this, or even be a lover of books. Simply imagine the summer’s ice-cream truck that suddenly stopped coming around, or the utterly empathic elementary-school teacher moving away, or the Lassie who never came home. In other words, imagine total, irretrievable, inconsolable loss.
Only then can one even begin to approximate the significance of the potential loss of Bogey’s. While the sign merely read, “Bookstore for Sale,” what it meant was the end of a world.
Or was it? Certainly the closure of independent bookstores throughout the nation during the past decade has become standard. Cody’s Books on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley was gone. Word had recently surfaced that Berkeley’s Black Oak Books was up on the auction block—or the chopping block.
It seemed the “invisible hand” of corporate mega-bookstores and the Internet were about to perform more of their bloody handiwork in the Sacramento region. A panicked survey was needed to diagnose exactly how dire a condition our communities’ independent bookstores were in.
Sacramento and bookstores have a special relationship, different from that found in other cities. That’s because Sacramento emerged as a metropolitan area in the midst of a massive agricultural center. In the past, people who farmed tended not to have a great deal of time to read. The main thing they needed to read was the weather.
But, as Sacramento grew as a city, that changed. Native daughter Joan Didion captured part of that change in her premiere novel, Run River, published in 1963:
“She had asked Knight, last week when he was driving to Berkeley, to pick up some new books in one of the paperback bookstores along Telegraph Avenue. The books could no doubt be found, Knight had informed her, right downtown in Sacramento. She did not seem to realize that there were now paperback bookstores in Sacramento. She and his father would never seem to get it through their heads that things were changing in Sacramento, that Aerojet General and Douglas Aircraft and even the State College were bringing in a whole new class of people, people who had lived back East, people who read things.”
Though nearly a half-century has passed since that scene was written, bookstores in this region still serve as islands and oases of cultural connection, social gathering, political exchange, respite from the valley’s flatness and the heat.
At least that’s partly what Mark Nemmers had in mind when he opened a bookstore in Davis. By all indicators, Nemmers had realized his dream. For a year in the late 1980s, he drove up and down the West Coast, from Seattle to Santa Monica, looking for just the right location. A friend recommended that he check out Davis.“I drove in one Saturday,” says Nemmers. “There was a farmer’s market downtown and an old guy playing a hurdy-gurdy. I knew this was the place where I wanted to open a store.” Bogey’s Books opened its doors in March of 1990.
“I was mostly capitalized with heart and confidence,” Nemmers recalls. “I didn’t have a lot of money when I started. But you get to a point where you just close your eyes, take a deep breath and make the leap and sign the lease and do it.”
Bogey’s was in the black from week one. “I earned the first month’s rent within a few days, and it was a success from that point forward, well into the 1990s.”
Stopping into Bogey’s, it’s not hard to see why. Though the shelves and tables are crammed with books, they are artfully arranged and displayed, with covers and titles that draw your interest to subjects that you’d never imagine caring about. A visit to Bogey’s opens up worlds you never knew existed, at prices that seem ridiculously affordable.
But in early 1997, word came that a Borders bookstore was landing just two blocks from Bogey’s. Borders is a book chain which last year had over 1,000 “superstores” and more than $4 billion in sales. “For a long time we were able to avoid the issue of the big-box chain bookstores because of the size of Davis,” says Nemmers. “The chains had not yet decided to home in on the smaller university cities, but were focused on the larger markets.”
Downtown Davis merchants rallied to block Borders’ arrival. There was no question in their minds that Borders would radically alter the small-town commercial landscape and community ethos of Davis.
“We called the mayor at the time, Lois Wolk (now a state Assembly member), and asked for a meeting,” remembers John Hamilton, co-owner of another Davis bookstore, the Next Chapter. “So we met with her and she said she hadn’t heard about this and would check into it. But it was already decided.”
A yearlong effort to turn back Borders, including petitions, lawsuits and alternative development options, found little support at the City Council.
“The city was working with the university, and they were dancing to the university’s tune,” says Nemmers. “It was university property that they wanted to sell for a strip mall with Borders as the anchor. The university was hungry for the money offered by a strip-mall developer, and they worked very closely with the city manager—who, just by coincidence, now works for the university.
“So, it was a done deal. It had the Chamber of Commerce behind it. It had the Davis Enterprise newspaper behind it. All pro-growth and pro-sprawl.”
The owners of the Next Chapter bookstore went to a meeting with the developer to try to negotiate using a different store as a mall anchor. “He said, ‘This isn’t going to hurt you. I’m going to lift all boats in the harbor,’” recalls Hamilton.
Borders opened in 1998. The impact on Bogey’s was immediate. The first weekend saw a 20 percent drop in business, becoming a 35 percent dive over time before rebounding a bit. Nemmers says Bogey’s permanently lost around 25 percent of their business, and never again saw the store’s previous 4 percent to 5 percent annual growth rate.
“Obviously, I remember that when the Davis store opened,” Ann Binkley, the public relations representative for Borders, told SN&R, “a lot of people were not happy. But within a year or two, they were fine,” she claims. “We co-exist with independents all over the country.”
That’s not only disputed by Bogey’s, but by the city’s other independent booksellers.
The Next Chapter bookstore didn’t bother to wait until Borders’ arrival. They moved to Woodland.
The owner of the Avid Reader, another Davis bookstore, is convinced that they survived only because the Next Chapter moved. “I think if they had stayed, we would have both gone under,” says Avid’s owner Alzada Knickerbocker. Even so, Knickerbocker said, “Our bookstore lost 30 percent just like that.” Last year, she had to close a companion children’s bookstore. “So the pressure is still on tremendously,” she says. “The erosion continues.”
The year after Borders opened in Davis, Time Magazine named Jeff Bezos as 1999’s Man of the Year. Bezos is the founder of Amazon.com. This signaled to Nemmers that “the second hammer blow” to independent bookstores had arrived: the Internet. “I would say we lost another 10 to 15 percent of our business” due to the Internet, says Nemmers. “And we were protected much more than the new book bookstores, which are much more limited in the stock they carry.”
Unlike many other used booksellers, Nemmers himself has not gone up with his business on the Internet. “I’m not a computer-oriented person,” he says. “Buying and selling on the Internet, to me, is soulless. I know there are people who embrace it and its benefits, which are many. But I’m just too much of a people person. I like interacting with customers.”
Even independent bookstores that have succeeded on the Internet have experienced a kind of loss. Barry Cassidy has been selling rare books in Sacramento since he was a teenager, and has had his own shop since 1975.
When Cassidy graduated from college he opened Barry Cassidy Rare Books, a shop that remains open in Midtown on S Street. Located in a house that you would never identify as a store, entering it is like stepping back in time. The walls are filled with old books and older paintings, and an antiquarian section with books printed before 1800, including the first book ever published in English about California.
These are items not carried by any of the big box bookstore chains, which haven’t affected him at all. But the Internet has completely transformed his business. “I sell books all over the world now,” he says. “Just last week, I sent packages to the Netherlands, Germany, Italy and Australia—to people who had seen my listings on the Internet and bought something.”
But there’s a mournfulness to Cassidy’s description of his business today because, whatever the gain, something’s been lost. “There used to be a steady flow of people who collected little subjects, odd authors, major authors, that used to come in here,” he says. His voice getting lower and softer, he says, “Now we don’t do that much anymore.
“There were people who used to come to me with requests to put together odd collections of books. Let’s say they wanted a collection about sundials. They don’t come to me anymore. They can just punch ‘sundial’ into the search of any of the listing services.”
The loss in human contact has extended to his relations with other rare book dealers. “I used to see dealers all the time. They were buying from me and I was buying from them. You had a specialty and they had a specialty and you referred items and customers to each other. That also doesn’t happen much anymore.”
While Cassidy says that the Internet has resulted in a wash in terms of his income, other less specialized used booksellers have found Internet sales helping to supplement their revenue. “We can sell books on the Internet that we couldn’t sell in the store,” says Peter Keat, owner of Time Tested Books, a Midtown Sacramento store since 1982. “So, it complements the operation and it gives us an opportunity to know what the valuable books are and to price books that otherwise we would be guessing at.”
But the Internet has had other effects that challenge the typical used bookstore’s bottom line. There are now thousands of online booksellers who do it as a part-time occupation. These sellers take items picked up for pennies at yard and library sales and place them online for sale at a dollar. The result is driving down prices that many used booksellers can get for books inside their stores.
Keat says that the online book world also has made book scouting for undervalued items much more difficult. With the Internet, it’s become easy for all sellers to quickly check the value of books. “It’s now harder to find those sleepers and unknown treasures,” says Keat, though he continues to scout.
Only 10 percent to 20 percent of Keat’s stock is for sale online. The reasons are that it takes time to do the data entry, and he only wants to invest that time into books that are “either more likely to sell, or of which there are fewer titles on the Internet.”
Sacramento’s oldest bookstore, Beers Books, which first opened its doors in 1936, carries used and new books, but is not online. Beers’ owner, Jim Naify, says that, “The price point of things that are worth putting online is around $50. Most of our books are for quite a bit less than that.”
Inquiries to Amazon about their impact on the book business received a limited response. They would not disclose their numbers for book sales nor any trends in those sales. Nor would they reveal how many used bookstores have their Internet sales linked through them. “But I can say,” e-mailed back Amazon.com public-relations representative Sean Sundwall, “that this has been a wildly successful feature of our site that allows for even greater selection. We have not experienced any significant problems with this.”
In 2006, after nearly a decade of being massacred by the one-two punch of the big-box retailers and the Internet, it seems that independent bookstores began to make something of a comeback. “Last year, we had 95 new independent bookstores opening across the nation,” says Hut Landon, executive director of the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association. That’s not a huge number, Landon admits, but there were no openings of new independents during the past few years.
Landon says that this is partly the result of the chain influence stabilizing. At this point, the chains even may be contracting. Two weeks ago, according to the New York Times, Borders announced that it was closing almost half of its Waldenbooks chain, and selling off or franchising all of its 73 overseas superstores. Its 2006 fourth-quarter results were a loss of $73.6 million, compared to a profit of $119 million during the same quarter a year ago.
Some of the forces impacting Borders and other bookstore chains may be coming from another sector of the big-box stores. Costco, Wal-Mart and Target now all carry books, with many at a significant discount. Keat estimates that a Wal-Mart or Costco purchase of 100,000 copies of a bestseller for their stores may get them a deep 65 percent or even 80 percent wholesale discount.” Even if these stores don’t profit much from books, they’re used as “loss leaders” to lure customers in to buy other items.
A store like Costco has become such a major force as a bookseller that a writer for a major metropolitan daily newspaper recently received a call from a subscriber saying that she had read a book review in the paper, but couldn’t find a copy of the book at Costco and so didn’t know where to look for it.
With the big-box stores beginning to devour each other, and independents finding ways to accommodate the Internet, the landscape for independent bookstores has indeed begun to stabilize. But there is another factor that is now rocking the independent book world: The rental cost of commercial space is skyrocketing. “The best thing you can do these days to guarantee your bookstore’s business future is to own the building,” says NCBIA’s director Landon.
Naify, the owner of Beers Books for 22 of its 71-year history in Sacramento, knows exactly what Landon is talking about. He bought a building at 905 S Street and brought the store there. The offices in the other portion of the building essentially underwrite the bookstore’s rent.
“The bookstore definitely doesn’t pencil out on its own,” Naify says. “The other tenants in the building pay about 75 percent more rent than the bookstore does. So, I’ve scheduled it in such a way that we make the whole building break even. For me, it’s not even an investment. It’s more like a hobby business.”
In Naify’s view, the rise in commercial rental costs has nothing to do with greedy landlords, but the rise in the cost of materials that go into construction. “If your building is 10 years old, it costs only a third of what a new building costs. The result is a rapid rise in the cost of retail space.
“I think with few exceptions,” he concludes, “apart from owning your building, there’s just not enough traffic, not enough of a margin, for independent bookstores to make it work.”
Keat also has been in a position to protect, and even expand, his bookstore by owning the building in which it’s resided since 1983. That has made all the difference in his ability to survive.
“The cost of rents is driving second-hand bookstores out of business,” he says. “No question about it. One of the reasons I can afford to stay here is because I own the building. If I had to pay the going rent for this space these days, given where Midtown is going, it would be real hard to afford the full price.”
Recently, Keat has relocated his store from one wing of the building to another, investing more than a quarter of a million dollars in upgrading the store with new shelving, new lighting and a new spaciousness. His store formerly resembled a dim warehouse in which it was difficult to see all the titles. “The new store is the difference between night and day,” says his longtime assistant manager, Scott Soriano. “Literally.”
The owners of the Next Chapter do not own their building. After leaving Davis, they relocated to Woodland in a space that used to be a rice mill, and then moved onto Main Street in what’s known as “The Old Cranston Building,” which for a century housed a hardware store. Their current store is a wide open space, with a coffee bar, and a second-story balcony with more books and chairs and tables wrapping around the interior of the bookstore.
But times have been hard for the Next Chapter, and not just because of rent. Though attracting a local group of customers deeply attached to the store (“It’s part of me,” says one customer, Clare Childers), business has not built up to the point where they have been able to pay off previous debt. Late last year, they began looking for buyers. When no viable one turned up, they announced that they would begin liquidating their store on February 19.
Then something happened that sounds like it came from a novel. On February 18, a customer walked in, spoke with them about their difficulties and said that he had the funds to buy them out of their dissolution. The owners wanted to believe it was true, but at first couldn’t. A couple of weeks passed, and then the funds came through. “The investment he made in us,” says co-owner Vicky Panzich, “is a real gift. It got our major debtors off our back immediately. We still owe money. But we can breathe again.”
If the region’s used and independent bookstores are finding ways to underwrite their continued existence through the owners’ and the customers’ commitment, another large statement about the viability of the independent bookseller is happening at a legendary book location. Stan Forbes, owner of the Avid Reader bookstore at 10th and L streets in Sacramento, and Alzada Knickerbocker, owner of the Davis Avid Reader, have partnered up to open a new bookstore at the old Tower Books site at Broadway and 16th Street. To be called the Avid Reader at The Tower, the store is scheduled to open within a few days, with an official grand opening scheduled a few weeks hence.
Forbes and Knickerbocker are overflowing with optimism about their chances.
“Frankly, I don’t think there’s a great deal of risk,” says Forbes. “I think the potential is enormous, and I think it wasn’t even tapped by the previous Tower Books. Midtown, Land Park, Curtis Park are intensely neighborhood-oriented. I think the Tower bookstore fell behind the neighborhoods’ times.”
Even so, Knickerbocker says that the former Tower Books “did well right up to the end, even in the last year when the bankruptcy was happening. So, that’s an indicator. And we’ve got nothing but positive feedback from Land Park people. They just can’t wait.”
Plans for the Avid Reader at The Tower include an expanded children’s section, areas for community meetings, and book clubs and author events. “It’s our vision that the store will be a community center,” says Forbes. “That’s really the identity of the independent bookstore.”
Providing some synergy, Russ Solomon, the founder and former owner of Tower Records, is opening a new record store at the old Tower Records location next to the new book shop. And on the other side, where the old Tower Video store resided, Records, the vinyl record store that has sat on the K Street mall for many years, is coming in. A new independent cultural mecca is in the making.
There are Still other forces affecting the fate of the independent bookstores.
The electronic book is an emerging factor, though one currently at the edge of the horizon. Beers’ owner Naify recently became president of the board of trustees of the University of California Press, a position that has entailed a lot of discussion about digital media, and even digitizing the entire UC Press catalog.
“I still believe that books will be around for quite a long time,” says Naify. “Printed media are comfortable for a lot of people. Even young people who are comfortable with computers like to hold books sometimes,” he asserts, even if others have their doubts.
He foresees the books that will most immediately go into electronic media are the bestsellers that are sold in mall bookstores. That’s a direct factor of the economics of the e-book. “I was talking to a friend of mine, the president of the Huntington Library in Pasadena. He asked me what I thought the costs were to digitize a page. I took a guess of $1.50. I was off by 10,000 percent. One hundred and fifty dollars is the cost of digitizing a page. That works fine for a Harry Potter book. But if you look on our shelves at Beers, most of these books will never, under any circumstances, be digitized and put into electronic media.”
The relation between computers and books is also an X-factor influencing the condition of independent booksellers in some unknown quantity. Some bookstore owners believe that alternative media, and especially computers, are causing upcoming generations to read less. Others, like Time Tested’s Soriano, claim that they’re just reading different books, Chuck Palahniuk instead of Henry James.
But talking with the managers at UC Davis’ bookstore makes one wonder whether there isn’t a bigger wave of change coming. They casually refer to “natives” and “immigrants,” meaning those who were born into the computer age being native to the technology, while the rest are immigrants to the technology. This conceptualization is that computers are the mother country and the fatherland. Printed books are a foreign shore. Those in sixth grade today and younger are the natives.
For now, though, it is the individual owners of Sacramento’s independent bookstores and the customers and communities supporting them who are deciding whether their establishments will survive and thrive. Even Bogey’s Nemmers is optimistic that a potential buyer who is now seeking financing will be able to salvage Bogey’s. “He’s come up with some wonderful ideas, though I don’t want to tip his hand by discussing them.”
But for owners like Keat, who has found an economic formula that will let his bookstore grow despite the market, it’s not even a question. “I’m committed to the book business,” he affirms. “I enjoy it. I think in the long run there will be a renaissance of second-hand stores. And it’s an important cultural element. These days there’s less a sense of the commons and more segmenting. So, when people talk about community, they talk about ‘the Tylenol community.’
“I think people are starting to yearn for something more, and re-kindle community. This bookstore is one part of helping to make that happen.”
Rachel and Richard Hansen, the owners of another popular used bookstore in Midtown, the Book Collector on 24th Street, believe that community is central to the future of independent shops. They’ve sponsored a regular series of poetry readings there, and even hold anti-war meetings in the store. “If we were into having a small business that was highly profitable, we wouldn’t have started a used bookstore,” says Richard. “The reality for us is that this is a passion that we have, and we sponsor events that speak to our personal and political passions.”
The Hansens emphasize how much the community nature of independent bookselling extends to the world of the booksellers themselves helping each other. “Used bookstores in Sacramento are very supportive of one another,” says Rachel. “We refer customers back and forth, and we wholeheartedly encourage people to shop at the other stores in this area, and they have always done the same for us.”
Memory of an instance of strong support from another bookseller brings tears to Richard’s eyes. In the late 1990s, their bookstore was robbed while Rachel was alone in the store. The loss was a serious blow to their finances. Unasked, the employees at Beers Books took up a collection and sent them cash to tide them over. “I don’t think you see that kind of thing in a lot of other businesses,” says Richard.
Whether it’s holding community events, serving as a community message board or building a community of locally owned businesses, the survival of many independent bookstores today seems to depend upon finding ways around the strict dictates of the market, grounding themselves in the communities for which they exist. For some bookstore owners, this has meant owning their buildings. For others, it has meant carrying uncomfortable levels of debt or taking a second job. And, for some, it means reaching out for community investment.
More than one Sacramento-area bookstore owner has asserted that the stakes are not just for a sense of community, but also for something that the books themselves represent, and which many of them believe is now threatened by government and by narrow corporate goals: the free and open exchange of ideas.
For Beers’ owner Naify, a philosophy Ph.D. who’s taught at area colleges and universities for many years, his commitment to the bookstore is driven these days by concerns in this area. “I think that this is a kind of critical time for ideas to be preserved and aired in as wide a range as possible. Some people today are opening your e-mails, looking at your bank account, checking your postal records and your credit card. I recommend to everybody that you e-mail yourself a copy of the U.S. Constitution in hopes that somebody will open it and read it.
“One of the reasons for keeping the store going is making sure that a variety of ideas is out there and accessible to people, that there are books other than those chosen by corporate culture. There is an important literature out there that’s in danger of dying as collateral damage in the corporate wars. Keeping our bookstore going, for me, is something of a mission, that ideas appear and are available to people. We don’t need corporate economic censorship of our ideas. We need a whole range of ideas that engage people.”