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Bookstore Roulette

I occasionally read about how bookstores are doing better these days, presumably through a combination of Borders closing (perhaps opening a chunk of the market for independent bookstores), the supposed leveling-off of eBooks, and people looking for a more personal touch than they can get at Amazon, or even Barnes & Noble. But small businesses are a high-variance proposition, and perhaps few other places more so than here in the Bay Area, with its skyrocketing rents. So, as someone who visits a lot of bookstores in the area, I’ve been watching how rough it is out there.

There have been some encouraging stories:

But there have been some sad stories, which I wanted to record since most of them fell below the radar other than a few small local reports.

In Half Moon Bay, the Bay Book Company (their web site is still up as I write this) was a very nice new book store with great presentation and a fine selection, too. I saw John Scalzi read there back in 2007, and bought a number of books from them over the years. They closed last summer, I understand due to a rent increase. We swung by to pick up a few things at their closing sale.

Also in Half Moon Bay, Ocean Books (Facebook, Yelp) was a small used book store, of the sort where you go to find something to read while lying on the beach. We visit downtown HMB fairly often and we almost always stopped in, but we didn’t often find much to buy, which is perhaps the curse of the seaside town small bookstore, at least as far as people who aren’t going to lie on the beach are concerned. I wonder if they also felt pressure from the nearby and much larger Ink Spell Books.

Lee’s Comics is (I think) the oldest comic book store in the Bay Area, and they announced earlier this month that they’d be closing their San Mateo location, though their Mountain View location will stay open. This news got national attention in the comics press. While there are a bunch of comic book stores in Silicon Valley and San Francisco, there’s only one other comics shop I can find between Mountain View and SF (Coastside Comics in Pacifica, which is one of the few in the area I haven’t visited).

Lastly, and perhaps the one I’m saddest about, is Know Knew Books (Facebook, Yelp). When I moved to the Bay Area in 1999 this was the first used bookstore I visited, and it was great! A huge science fiction selection, not quite as big as Bookbuyers, but generally a more selective stock. I bought a hardcover copy of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods – autographed! – there. At the time it was located on California Ave in Palo Alto.

But over time the store seemed to go downhill. They tried reconfiguring the Palo Alto location, and seemed to have a really long going-out-of-business sale. But then, surprisingly, they suddenly moved to downtown Los Altos, opening in a new location, bright, perhaps a little sparsely stocked, and branching out a bit into jewelry and other knick-knacks, but still fun to browse. The last time I visited they’d gotten a couple of bookstore kittens who were getting acclimated to the attention, but the store seemed to be looking up.

They abruptly closed late last spring, which I only learned about when walking up to the vacant storefront. It sounds like there was some behind-the-scenes acrimony between the two owners, but it appears the details have been kept private. You can read a little public grousing by customers in comments on this article, and what appears to be one side of the story in this GoFundMe page. I guess I don’t really want to know the story of what really happened, I’m just sorry the move didn’t work out.

I’ve seen other great bookstores close in my life (hell, Harvard Square in Cambridge, MA alone is littered with storefronts I remember fondly visiting when I was in high school and college), and like I said, small businesses are a high-variance experience, and when you patronize a lot of them, then a lot of them are going to come and go over the years.

But it still sucks, and I think the next five years are going to be at least as rough as the last five.

Update 4/18/2016: In just the 2 months since I posted this, Bookbuyers announced they can no longer afford their space in downtown Mountain View on Castro Street and are moving. At first they’d hoped to find another place in Mountain View, but now they’re looking further afield, and will be leaving Mountain View. Their last day open was yesterday (we stopped by and Debbi bought a bag of books).

I can only recall one bookstore moving other than by choice which managed to survive (Lee’s Comics in Palo Alto lost their lease 15 years ago and relocated to their current Mountain View location), so unfortunately I am not optimistic about Bookbuyers’ chances. And if they move somewhere far away like Morgan Hill (as they apparently were exploring), then it’s likely we will rarely-if-ever go there (I think we get down to that end of the valley to shop about once very 3-5 years).

It’s a big blow to Castro Street, which is flooded with restaurants and has very little retail. I’m very bummed.

Arbitron

Back in February of 2014 Debbi and I were selected to join Arbitron ratings (who have since acquired by their competitor Nielsen and are now named Nielsen Audio).

I imagine back in the day that people in this program would need to note which programs they watched and when on paper and then mail them in. (I think I’ve heard of this, and no doubt someone who participated back in those days could explain in detail.) Today it’s different: You get a little device (“meter”) to carry with you which is connected to the cellular network, and it would listen programs you watch or listen to for a signal which identifies the program, and report back to its home base. All we had to do was charge it each night, and notify Arbitron if we were going on an extended trip away from home. Well, and not tell that we were in the program on social media while we were in it. (I doubt we told very many people at all, in fact.)

In return, beyond being counted directly, we also received a small check every month for our troubles. Coincidentally, we also signed up for Graze around the same time, and I noted that the checks we got from Arbitron would just about cover the cost of the Graze boxes. Convenient!

Debbi watches a lot of television in the background, especially police procedurals, while I tend to throw on sports. We also had some regular shows we watched. While I doubt I can remember it all, here’s a rundown of what we watched while we carried our meters:

  • I listen to public radio, and Debbi listens to country.
  • NCIS and NCIS: New Orleans. Probably also some NCIS: Los Angeles, though we have run out of gas on that show.
  • Doctor Who, of course.
  • The Big Bang Theory.
  • We started watching Elementary during that time. (Did I mention police procedurals?)
  • Ascension
  • Baseball and football.
  • And a random assortment of films which aired on cable.

Last September Arbitron contacted us that we had been randomly selected to leave the program – a little early, since we’d been told at the start that it would be at most a 2-year term. Apparently we’d been among the most diligent participants in the program. It was kind of weird for a couple of weeks to no longer be carrying our meters with us everywhere.

Anyway, it was a neat little perk for a while, easy to do, and maybe helping keep some programs we enjoy on the air. I rather wish we’d gotten a TiVo while we were in the program in order to support a few other shows, such as Person of Interest, which I’d been interested in but which aired at an inconvenient time slot to watch live. But, so it goes.