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BIG STORY: At Hicklebee's in Willow Glen, kids still show up for what might be their first taste of live entertainment. Here, Brooklyn author Peter Brown reads to a small gang last Friday.

Reading The Future

Local bookstores bank on customer loyalty

By Molly Zapp
Photographs by Felipe Buitrago

THE INSIDE of Hicklebee's children's bookstore in San Jose exudes a supernatural coziness. Displays of thousands of hand-selected books, carefully organized by age group and interest, fill every nook. With a sizeable sales rack, kid-friendly accessories, a warm staff and even a small adults' section, Hicklebee's is the dream store of every child and parent seeking literary adventures.

But on a Thursday afternoon in April, Hicklebee's, along with its neighbor Willow Glen Books, is nearly empty.

Although it is a famously tech-loving place with a plethora of chains (bookselling and otherwise), Silicon Valley is still home to a decent selection of old-fashioned independent bookstores, some of which have been around more than 50 years.

But these local literary gems, and their accompanying cultural and authors' events, could disappear without sustained community support.

Local booksellers won't deny that these are tough times, and they're—wait for it—changing in order to survive.

In Silicon Valley and the wider national context, the past few decades have witnessed a sort of anti–independent bookselling triple-whammy.

The first blow came in the early '90s with chain bookstores that could offer deeper discounts—places like Barnes & Noble, Borders and (now nearly defunct) Crown Books. Garnering much of its steam in the early aughts, round two of the attack on independent booksellers came not from Corporate Books Next Door but from online behemoth, which is the largest book retailer in the country. Bookselling is further complicated by the third trial: the current economic reality of rising unemployment, decreased disposable income and wary consumers more concerned about making rent instead of buying that new bestseller. (Though, come to think of it, browsing the sale shelves at an independent bookstore could be a great way to spend those furlough Fridays.)

However, another shopping trend that has caught on may just keep our local literary hubs afloat: the "Shop Local" movement.

This is where independent booksellers are seeking out new ways to connect with their communities and entice people to buy the books that keep their stores open. In addition to author appearances, the bookstores are experimenting with book-buyers rewards clubs and online sales through their own websites, as well as reaching out to youth by putting on school book fairs and showcasing their erudite and well-read staffs. They are even selling on an Amazon subsidiary themselves.  

Nationwide, independent booksellers have been shutting down for many years. Recently, Cody's bookstore in Berkeley and Stacey's in San Francisco closed. Books Inc., with locations in Palo Alto, Mountain View and Burlingame, filed for bankruptcy in 1996, and Kepler's in Menlo Park closed briefly in 2005. Willow Glen Books, open since 1992, will close in June with the owner's retirement, unless a buyer steps forward.

No independent bookstores are waiting for a government rescue, either. "Independent businesses," Kepler's owner Clark Kepler says with a smile, "are bailed out last, if ever."

"We are down right now," says Cinda Meister, co-owner of BookSmart in Morgan Hill. "Customers that would come in and buy 10 books will now come in and buy one or two." Nevertheless, Meister is relying on her customers making choices that will allow her, and other local retailers, to survive.

"They know they can only spend a little bit of money," she says, "but they're going to choose where to spend that money. They're not going to spend it at a big box store—they're going to spend it local paint store, a local bookstore."


LOCAL HEROES: Cinda Meister, co-owner of BookSmart, says the shoppers of Morgan Hill continue to help keep the bookstore afloat.

Loyal Readers

Community support and loyalty is what keeps Hicklebee's open, according to co-owner Valerie Lewis. After nearly 30 years, Lewis looks back at the milestones of community support: Loyal customers helped the store move from its previous location across the street, including an ambulance driver who hauled the books on a gurney; many of those same customers lined up outside of the store six months later, the morning after the Loma Prieta earthquake, to see how they could again help.

Some community members who recently heard that a bookstore in Willow Glen was closing and thought it was Hicklebee's, not its Willow Glen Books neighbor, came forward with "an inpouring of calls and concern."

"Whenever we've called for the community to do anything, they're there," Lewis says.

Cathy Adkins opened Willow Glen Books, a general bookstore, in 1992, just a year or two before the first Barnes & Noble came to the area. Adkins says that she feels like the store lost sales to the chain-store book business, but "seemingly overcame it by being a neighborhood bookstore."

"Many customers throughout our history have expressed that explicit preference, that they are aware of their impact on this local shopping district. This local shopping district is here because people make the choice to shop here, rather than elsewhere. To the extent they make that choice, the store stays in business; to the extent they don't, it doesn't."

Adkins says she tried to make her small store distinct by hosting poetry readings and authors events, and by selling books by local authors. In the 1990s, the business grew, but then it began to slide "when Amazon found their stride," an impact she describes as "devastating."

She says that 2008 was a down year for the business, and that trend has continued. On a Thursday morning in April, the on-shift staff of two outnumbers the customers. At 60 years old, Adkins is closing the business because she wants to retire. She has had a few inquiries but no buyers; if no one comes forward by May, Willow Glen Books will close for good in June.

In her 17 years of business in Willow Glen, Adkins has seen "a pretty consistent turnover of business on Lincoln Avenue."

"If this were another year, I think there would be people more ready to take this kind of chance," Adkins says. "But I think people rightfully are being kind of cautious and careful, more in recovery mode than adventure mode."

After Books Inc. declared bankruptcy and shut down 10 of its 12 stores in 1996, Eric Petersen, manager of Books Inc. in Palo Alto, says the changes in business practices have helped Books Inc. stay open, now with 10 locations in the Bay Area.

"We've been smarter about how we spend our money and the budget," Petersen says. "[We're] really focusing on what we do best: we know about books, and people respond to that."

Perhaps no area bookseller has a story as dramatic as Kepler's, the Menlo Park landmark that continues to add chapters to its 54-year history. After feeling financial pain in the early '90s from (now closed) Crown Books in Mountain View, Kepler's, along with 20 other independent bookstores, sued the mass book retailer for violating a fair-competition law. The matter was settled out of court, and Kepler's received about $60,000, according to owner Clark Kepler.

About 11 years ago, the store felt the tide of Amazon. When the dotcom bubble burst, Kepler noticed "a dramatic drop in foot traffic from young professionals," and sales decreased every year from 2001 to 2005. In August 2005, the store closed for business, but after "quite an amazing, unbelievable occurrence of the community coming forward."

Kepler's convinced 24 families and individuals to invest in the company and renegotiated its lease; the store reopened in October 2005. "Until the recession hit, we were doing better," Kepler says.

Since its reopening, Kepler's has homed it on its community-centered image. Sections of the store are devoted to selections lovingly chosen by its well-read staff; these sections, along with the one that displays local book club selections, are strong sellers.

Nearly every night sees some type of author event or reading, which are kept going thanks to support from members of Kepler's "Literary Circle," a club whose members give $20 to $2,500 to join. Reaching across generational gaps, Kepler's goes into area schools for book fairs and donates a percentage of the proceeds to the schools. The store is also in talks with Google about selling books at Google headquarters in Mountain View.

Even chain booksellers are feeling the financial pinch. Borders, which also owns Waldenbooks, has 1,100 stores around the world. But the chain is also in debt. A year ago, Borders sought out advisers to potentially sell the company. Barnes & Noble looked into buying its rival, but the deal did not go through. In January, a new CEO was appointed to try to keep Borders afloat and hold the bankruptcy rumors at bay.

Having no national corporate master to comply with gives independent booksellers a sort of evolutionary advantage when the need to adapt arises.

"As booksellers, we need to change and respond some to the changing climate," BookSmart's Cinda Meister says. "That's one of the beauties of being an independent: you do have the option of changing pretty quickly. The chains? Not so quickly. It's a wonderful business to be in; for most of us, it's a labor of love."

Independent booksellers generally have smaller stores and fewer books that loiter on the shelves when times are tough; both factors work to smaller booksellers' advantage.

All independent bookstore folks in the valley I interviewed said that is a bigger competitor than the box stores; indeed, the online retailer is the largest seller of books. According to a study by Random House, 75 percent of book buyers most often buy their books online or from chain bookstores. Only 9 percent most often buy from independent bookstores, though 41 percent shop at them sometimes.

Hidden Costs

The gap between the 41 percent who sometimes shop locally and the 9 percent who most often buy locally is a sore spot for local retailers and shoppers alike. For people with limited financial means, the few dollars saved in the short term by buying the book at Amazon, Borders, Barnes & Noble or CostCo can mean the difference between being able to afford a book and not getting it at all.

Petersen sees customers being "more careful with their disposable income. I understand that. If you have to choose between buying a book, and buying food or putting gas in your car, you're not going to get the book," Petersen says.

Lewis describes those people who use Hicklebee's for the store's atmosphere and to browse its books but spend their money online instead.

"We do have people who come in to see what they should buy on Amazon, and that makes it really hard," she says.

In most states, online shoppers pay no sales taxes. But that buck or two saved on the initial purchase has hidden costs. Amazon uses the roads that the public pays to pave without contributing to its general funds. Amazon provides discounts and convenience but no jobs in the community, no author events and no physical place to browse books.

What Kepler's, BookSmart, Hicklebee's, Books Inc. and Willow Glen Books sell that chain and online bookstores don't offer or offer less often are author events, personalized service, cozy environments and bookshelves stocked with books customized for their communities. Whereas national retailers have centralized buying, and therefore little say as to the content of their specific stores, the book buyers at Kepler's, Hicklebee's and Willow Glen books literally have hundreds of years of combined experience in the book-buying and -selling realm. And the stores have been able to attract big names: Gloria Steinem, the late Edward Abbey, Al Franken and Jimmy Carter have all done readings with Kepler's.

Tobias Wolff, bestselling author of This Boy's Life and a creative-writing professor at Stanford, says he's been shopping at Kepler's since he was a Stanford Fellow in the mid-'70s. He has also done multiple readings at the store, and two of his children worked there while in college.

"They've been very successful in nurturing a community," Wolff says. "There's a helpful atmosphere when you come in; it's very familiar, nobody hurries you. You do have the impression that people care about books at the store. The booksellers know their books, they know what they have. They're very good about getting what you want if they don't have it."

Read and Reread

Plunking down $25 bucks for a new hardcover can seem like a lot in these save-what-you-can times, but the tune to the book-sellin' blues is sung a little thriftier in the realm of used books.

Recycle Books in San Jose has the advantage of selling cheap entertainment—many thousands of used paperbacks for as little as 3 bucks, newer fiction paperbacks for $6 or $7 and, of course, none of the shipping fees or three-day delays that come with online shopping. A very good hardcover copy of David Sedaris' latest that retails new for $25.99 sells there for just $10.

More-expensive collector books have not been selling as well, owner Eric Johnson says, but sales of cheaper paperbacks are on the upswing. Like most used bookstores, Recycle Books obtains much of its product from customers selling or trading in their used books. Johnson has noticed a few "need-based" sales—that is, people coming in to sell books they otherwise wouldn't sell in order to pay rent. Interestingly, the economics section—tucked away in a corner due to its pre-2008 mass perception as "boring"—has seen a spike in interest as well.

The increased accessibility of used books appeals even to other booksellers. Once Willow Glen Books is shut down, Adkins says she's "sure I'll become a lot more acquainted with Recycle Bookstore."

While it's easy to get caught in a time warp of classic books, even used bookstores have to keep up with the 21st century and have gone online. Though Johnson expresses a clear lack of love for the Internet giant Amazon, he's not completely out of its grasp: about 5 percent of Recycle's sales come from selling on, a formerly independent online seller of used, new and rare books, which was purchased by Amazon in December.

Literary Losses

As if chains, online retailers and the deflation of capitalism as we know it weren't enough for booksellers to worry about, there is another factor that goes into dwindling book sales: declining readership. National book-reading studies make the literary form's future look like a digital ash in a digital urn.

According to a 2007 study by the National Endowment of the Arts, nearly half of 18-to-24-year-olds read no books for pleasure, and less than one-third of 13-year-olds are daily readers, a 14 percent decline from 20 years earlier. In 2005, the average annual spending on books was about $30 per person, according to a Random House study.

Books have competition from other forms of entertainment that didn't exist 50 or even five years ago: video games, online social networks, reality TV and proliferating forms of digital crack. (And then there's the Kindle.)

Adkins says that "especially in Silicon Valley, where people are increasingly living online, not in the physical world," booksellers have no choice but to address the competition for sales and time spent that online and digital media bring.

Could society wake up from its technological daydream to crave something more tangible, something that can be passed from friend to friend, last generations on a shelf and create a common cultural thread? Lewis, Adkins and Kepler all express skepticism that the youth are actually reading less, and Kepler and Petersen report that the children's sections at their respective stores are among their top-sellers. Indeed, recent young-adult fiction series, like Harry Potter and Twlight, were so popular that adults even began to read them en masse.

Seeing children become excited about new book series brings hope to Lewis. The children's bookseller emphasizes the profound cultural impact that books can have on youth, and even sees these tough times as a potential catalyst for increasing readership.

"We go out into the community as much as ever. This is the time when people can't afford to take trips; they need books. Historically it's shown that in tough times, people tend to turn to books. You can get a lot more time out of a book than a movie. You can read a book aloud to your children and spend several days for cheaper than you can in a lot of other ways," Lewis says.

Local Indie Bookstores

Bell's Books
536 Emerson St.
Palo Alto

317 Castro St
Mountain View

Books Inc.
301 Castro St.
Mountain View

Town & Country Village
Palo Alto

80 E. Second St.
Morgan Hill

1378 Lincoln Ave.
San Jose

1010 El Camino Real
Menlo Park

Recycle Book Store
1066 The Alameda
San Jose

Recycle Book Store West
241 E. Campbell Ave.

Leigh's Favorite Books
121 S. Murphy Ave.

Linden Tree Children's Recordings and Books
170 State St.
 Los Altos

Willow Glen Books
1330 Lincoln Ave.
San Jose

If you have a favorite local independent bookseller, drop us an email

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