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:
- Our local used bookstore Bookbuyers wondered a year ago whether 2015 would be their last year, but they’ve been reorganizing and are still around.
- In San Francisco, science fiction bookstore Borderlands Books garnered national attention when it announced in early 2015 that it would be closing in advance of the city’s minimum wage hike. (Links to some of the media coverage here.) But with the help of many of their patrons joining a sponsorship program, they stayed open.
- Also in San Francisco, Comix Experience went through something similar to Borderlands and created a graphic novel club to stay open.
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.