Features & Columns

Nomadic Recycle Bookstore Reaches Unlikely 50th Anniversary

With 3,800 square feet of used books on shelves, floors, carts and boxes, the place always seems to provide a diverse literary experience
Recycle Bookstore has had several homes, but the one constant has always been the vast, eclectic selection of used books.

Golden anniversaries have been in the news these days, so allow me to shout from the mountaintop—or at least a street corner—about Recycle Bookstore on The Alameda. With 3,800 square feet of used books on shelves, floors, carts and boxes, the place always seems to provide a diverse literary experience.

For the last 19 years, proprietor Eric Johnson has owned and operated the store, but when Joan and Pat Hayes first started the original business in 1967, they probably had no idea it would still exist 50 years later.

Initially opening on South First Street, Recycle then moved to a location on San Fernando, where it became known for a distinguished and legendary basement. Old-timers still talk about that basement. Following the San Fernando location, the store eventually settled on Santa Clara Street for about 20 years, in the building now occupied by 2nd Story Bakeshop and Hibiscus Studio. By 1998, the store had begun to stagnate. The stock wasn't rotating like it used to and Joan Hayes began looking for a new buyer. Johnson took over the business in October of that year, but he couldn't hammer out a reasonable lease with the new landlord, so he found a new location on The Alameda, where the store sits to this day. Both Hayes and the city of San Jose backed the loan enabling Johnson to make it work.

"The city took a chance on me," Johnson says. "I don't know why, but they did. They really wanted to keep the bookstore in San Jose."

For me personally, I spent years patronizing the Santa Clara Street location, beginning in my teens, when I'd take the bus downtown to hit up Twice Read Books, Recycle and the comic shops and record stores that dotted the gritty landscape. Recycle's Santa Clara Street location was an amazing store. You'd see college students, professors, punks, drunks, scholars and everyone between. Like any great used bookstore, browsing became an adventurous expedition akin to enlightenment. One didn't need a destination, a goal, or anything to achieve. The path, the browsing, the journey itself was the destination. By the time Johnson came along and relocated the store, I was just happy the place wasn't closing.

Ever since then, Johnson says, the job has required regularly clearing out parts of entire sections and divesting specific subsections that no longer sell. He always pays attention to what customers are looking for and then adapts. By listening to what readers are asking about, by focusing on what customers are actually buying, the store remains fresh. Recycle's online presence is also substantial, increasing from 15 percent of the business many years ago to about 35 percent nowadays.

The results are noticeable. If one prowls around the store on a regular or even semi-regular basis, parts of the stock always seem to evolve, almost like an organism ejecting unnecessary ingredients and rejuvenating itself to survive. There could be a slew of antiquarian travel books showing up one month, or there might be an entire cart of sheet music lurking in the corner. Piles and piles of recently acquired European history books might sit on the floor for several weeks, while an enlarged Buddhism section could appear a few months later.

"It keeps the store a vibrant, moving, dynamic place where people are always going to see something different," Johnson says. "And that's always going to be the draw. Because once you start to get static, you're not going to last very long."

Being a used bookstore with a low overhead, Recycle was never supposed to function as a full-blown cultural hub like Kepler's, Printers Inc., or City Lights. It's a more simple business model that attracts everyone from the upper crust to the dirges of local literati.

"What I'm probably most proud of is the fact that we really don't even think about demographics," Johnson says. "I see all of San Jose come into this store. You get the suits coming in, you get the young kids, the hipsters, old people, all ethnicities. When I think of representing San Jose, I'm really happy that everybody is comfortable in that store, no matter what your demographic is. And that's pretty darn cool."

Recycle Bookstore
1066 The Alameda, San Jose.