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Independent Means

Robert Scheer

A Rose By An Other Name: Bookseller Kayla Rose shows what's hot at Herland. Rose says that without support of booksellers like herself, many voices from the fringe or those pushing unpopular ideas would not see their envelope-testing works reach the reading public.

The indies aren't getting rich selling books, but then again these lovers of the word choose their profession because of passion not profit

By Traci Hukill

A weakness for books is an endearing vice and few people are more charmed by it than Santa Cruz's independent booksellers. "Any town that can support a half dozen used bookstores is a book town," asserts Jesse Case, who, with wife Cristina, owns West Side Stories on Mission Street. The couple operated a bookstore specializing in scholarly, antique, and hard-to-find books out of the basement of their Soquel Victorian home--the historic Daubenbiss house--before relocating to the Westside and zeroing in on the general used market.

As their trek suggests, specialty bookstores face a tough job in Santa Cruz, but a surprising number flourish despite the presence of both chain stores and large independents like Bookshop Santa Cruz, Capitola BookCafe and Logos.

Herland, for example, fills a niche that co-owners Kayla Rose and Jennifer Lynn found oddly unaddressed. "There are tons of feminists and tons of lesbians in Santa Cruz, but there was no place to just go and hang out or have a cup of coffee," says Rose, explaining their decision to open Herland three years ago.

Rose attributes Herland's success both to its area of specialty--feminist and lesbian books, which garner a loyal clientele--and its services to the community. The store hosts speakers and activities in its bookshop and cafe several evenings a week. "We provide services that nobody else does," she says, and mentions books on touchy subjects like herbal abortion that conglomerate-owned stores wouldn't dare stock.

Kip Nead and Leslye Lawrence-Nead of Seeds of Change Children's Bookstore echo Rose's sentiments. "The big chains can never offer what we're trying to do because of our emphasis on events and storytelling," Nead points out. The shop hosts two storytimes a week, on Tuesday evenings and Saturday mornings, and involves itself in fairs and festivals whenever possible.

Although relative newcomers to the bookselling market, having opened Seeds of Change in November 1995, the couple already has a good sense of where their store's strength lies. "We try to make sure that our books represent everybody," says Nead. "No matter who you are, you should be able to find yourself in a book."

Dave Watson, who has run The Literary Guillotine for the past five years, answers the local demand for new and used scholarly books. "A large part of what I sell goes to students, faculty and staff at UCSC," acknowledges the UCSC graduate, who got his start in the book business working at Bookworks in Aptos. Less an activity director than a reference librarian, Watson relies on the inclinations of the well-educated people in Santa Cruz to keep his business running.

Special Places

Just how specialized Santa Cruz booksellers can afford to be is something Sam Amico of Zamzam, a store specializing in books on Islam, plans to find out when he reopens in the Santa Cruz Art Center this week.

After being in business for four months in an out-of-the-way basement in Squid Row, Amico wants to give his store a chance to gain a foothold. "I'd like to try to put this tolerant, pluralistic community to the test," Amico says. "All you get in this country [about Islam] is propaganda."

Amico knows going into business alone and specializing is not going to be easy. "I can't compete with anyone, really," he admits, speaking of price and breadth--but then again, no other bookstore in town can even touch his collection of books on Sufism and the religion and culture of Islam.

Gateways' Sandra Pastorius, who will emcee next Thursday night's celebration and reading by local authors at Kuumbwa, notes that Santa Cruz is a very literary town where people are open to all kinds of new ideas.

The independent bookstores play an important role in nourishing that part of our culture by assessing the community's intellectual needs and supplying the books, authors and ideas that keep the public engaged. "We want to provide a wide and diverse cultural base for people to draw on," she says emphatically.

Crown and Glory

No discussion of Santa Cruz independent booksellers would be complete without mention of Crown's impact on business. As one might expect, downtown booksellers feel more heat than merchants across town do, but, in general the atmosphere is one of aplomb. As it happens, the downtown independent booksellers, apart from Bookshop Santa Cruz and Logos, enjoy the shield of their specialties, winning patrons who seek depth over breadth. Others, like Bookworks and Seeds of Change, are far enough away that Crown and Costco don't particularly threaten their share of the market. The used stores, like West Side Stories, aren't affected much at all, except indirectly in the choice of books patrons sell to them.

Jesse and Cristina Case look a little perplexed and shrug when the topic of Crown arises. No, Crown hasn't hurt business, since the more new books people buy the more they generally sell back to used-book traders. But, as Jesse points out, "Ultimately, if chains were the only source in town, the quality of our book selection would eventually deteriorate."

Lee Duffus, whose Aptos Bookworks has been satisfying midcounty literary cravings for 20 years, takes a philosophical approach to the conglomerates. In his view, Aptos people just aren't going to drive to Santa Cruz to buy a book when they can find it right around the corner in a shop where, as one Bookworks patron put it, "friends meet in the company of good books."

Everyone, it seems, has a working survival strategy, but the indies aren't getting rich doing this. In fact, when asked why they had chosen this profession, nearly all the booksellers interviewed for this piece smile wryly and admit, "You do it because you love it."

"It's cliché, but most of us have a passion for books," explains Duffus with a half-apologetic grin. "I think when you're with books, you're in the world of ideas. You're on the cutting edge of what people want to say and what people want to buy."

Kip Nead, who worked for eight years as a stockbroker before starting Seeds of Change, is unequivocal about why he and his wife went into the children's book business. "Because we're children at heart!" he exclaims. "This," he says, gesturing to the shelves and the comfortable storytelling area in their shop, "is for the children. We have one rule: You can touch anything you want to."

The Literary Guillotine's Dave Watson, who by nature is more reserved than the ebullient Nead, answers the "Why a bookshop?" question simply: "Mostly because I really like it." After some prompting, he continues, "It seems to be very open-ended. I'm eclectic in my interests and not particularly focused on anything. I feel like I get new perspectives on issues across the board on a daily basis."

Stories and Voices

Several of the indy booksellers consider themselves providers of a community service. Kayla Rose waves a hand at bookshelves in Herland. "If we don't keep our stores open, these voices are going to disappear," she says. She views Herland as a safe place for women to gather and discuss ideas, and the combination bookstore/cafe serves as a de facto feminist headquarters.

Seeds of Change, like Herland, serves the community by preserving an endangered tradition--that of storytelling. "One of our guests said that the love of reading and writing starts on the storyteller's lap," says Nead. "The business part of [Seeds of Change] has to make money, but we want to provide a focal point for people to see entertainers." When professional musicians and storytellers come to Seeds of Change, the Lawrence-Neads often help coordinate guest appearances at local public schools. That way they reach a wider audience.

Cristina Case points to her own family as an impetus for the decision to sell used books. "Since we have kids, we want to be able to offer good books in good condition," she says, "and not have the stigma of used books being grungy."

Maybe it's this sense of empathy for and commitment to the community that accounts for the high degree of cooperation among Santa Cruz independent booksellers. People regularly refer customers to other bookstores, and those customers are always welcomed.

Besides effectively increasing the base from which independent booksellers operate, this show of goodwill creates a sense of cohesion among the merchants that benefits everyone. Cross-referrals save a bookshop from having to special order a book or turn a customer away empty-handed, the customer has a better chance of locating a desired book, and the literary community in general enjoys the fruits of cooperative efforts by bookstores like the July 25 Word by Word Literary Evening, whose proceeds benefit the Santa Cruz literacy program.

This sense of cooperation has always existed among the independent booksellers here, who are a genial bunch, but Crown's controversial arrival on Pacific Avenue prompted Kayla Rose to call up her fellow merchants and organize into a loosely knit group, the Santa Cruz Independent Booksellers Association. Last November, the organization hosted a series of open houses and activities. Word by Word will be its second cooperative event.

"The bookstores are coming together. That's what creates such a rich culture here," says Sandra Pastorius. By and large, the booksellers are pleased about the Independent Booksellers Association's presence and local booklovers should be, too. It just makes you feel better, like knowing the national parks are out there. You might not take advantage of them regularly, but at least it seems like someone's looking out for your interests.

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From the July 18-24, 1996 issue of Metro Santa Cruz

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