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The Key to the City

Neal Coonerty
Robert Scheer

Big Bear and Grin It: Neal Coonerty, lovable owner of Bookshop Santa Cruz, sits among the new releases, enjoying the results of his hard work as a veteran Santa Cruz bookseller.

Thirty years of 'marinating the imagination' at Bookshop Santa Cruz has made the cultural institution downtown's heart and soul

By Christina Waters

A CULTURAL CLUBHOUSE, a laboratory of dreams--sooner or later, everybody ends up at Bookshop Santa Cruz, or starts out there, sipping cappuccino and contemplating the day's mood, gathering and quickening just outside Georgiana's window. In these aisles we argue with heroes, roam foreign boulevards, concoct schemes, fall in love, jump-start the future.

In the early '70s, we'd get elevated and then head down to Bookshop Santa Cruz for the evening, thumbing through new science fiction, lolling on the waterbed, petting Walt the yellow cat who was fat enough to cover the collective Brontë sisters. Now, I often use it as a reference library, where I can look up a date or check on some weird biography for a piece I'm writing. My new best friend Frank, an East Coast devotée of cafe culture, found this place the first week he was in town and, like so many others, has made it an extension of his office.

Often there's no real purpose, no actual reason, for my being in Bookshop Santa Cruz. I plunge in through the doors and begin to swim through a sensory soup of words, images, ideas--the possible, the familiar, the unknown. I just find myself there some days, wandering, daydreaming over some art book, fantasizing over maps of Brittany, sifting through Italian architecture magazines. I like to run my fingers over the book covers as I browse. Others do, too.

I'm never sure exactly why I've come, and when I leave, I feel as though I've been in a trance--abducted for an hour and taken off far away. We come for some connection, some recharging of imagination's cells.

And we never walk away empty.

In the children's area, where reading out loud is cheerfully tolerated, sits the rocking horse, the store's beloved talisman personally salvaged from the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake wreckage by anxious owner Neal Coonerty, who probably pondered his own sanity as he agonized over his share of our collective loss. Not long after that, Jim Houston--writer, teacher, bohemian heartthrob--was one of the guys up on the back of a truck singing (and giving Placido Domingo no sleepless nights) with the Hot Damn String Band while friends and neighbors stood in line donating books to help Bookshop SC begin again in those damn tents. While the whole community squinted and pretended that those squatter affairs were "pavilions," Coonerty and his astonishing staff just hung in there, probably as much for us, the walking wounded, as for themselves.

Survival Tactics

A BIG BEAR OF A MAN with an easy grin and a sleepy left eye, Neal Coonerty looks spiffy in his new corduroy pants. His 50th birthday and the bookshop's 30th have coincided. Two weeks ago, he was in Ireland--where he and wife Candy first met while studying Yeats--celebrating his 25th wedding anniversary. He's in high spirits. So I ask him what was the worst thing--the earthquake or Crown Books?

"Oh, the earthquake. Definitely. Getting through the earthquake was hard," he admits, reciting a litany of ensuing difficulties involving the retail-unfriendly tents, a lawsuit with Ron Lau, from whom the Coonertys purchased Bookshop Santa Cruz in 1973, and the mountains of debt. "But I loved being a bookseller in this town, and I was going to fight for it."

John Livingston, founder of Logos Books--another longstanding independent landmark--gives Coonerty much of the credit for stalling overeager city engineers who, after the October '89 quake, were seriously giving shop owners along downtown's Pacific Garden Mall "only 15 minutes to get everything out before they demolished our buildings and all the inventory inside."

According to Livingston, "Neal was really instrumental in holding off the city while we got our own engineers and were able to make the structures safe enough to retrieve our books." The collection of used and rare books and records Livingston had built up over 20 years was uninsured. "We would have had to start from scratch. We would have been ruined."

Coonerty credits his core management team--people like Lori Fukuda, Gä Lombard, Mary Ann Bowers, Tatsat O'Connell, and
Judith Milton, all of whom have been with him close to 20 years--as well as the public, with his post-quake survival. "People felt that this--donating books, helping make the tent a success--was something they could do to respond to the situation. It was a way of taking back some control over our lives. We were literally saved by our community."

"What really impressed me was the way Neal and his people survived the earthquake," recalls James Houston. "They refused to be defeated. And that said a lot about his commitment not only to the town, but to a bookstore as a needed cultural presence."

Mandy Baily
Robert Scheer

Aisle Be Seeing You: Mandy Baily of Santa Cruz takes a break from the world and hides amid the stacks of Bookshop SC's extensive nutrition section.

Multi-Level Users

OTHER WORDSMITHS agree. "It's the closest thing we have to a literary center," says Roz Spafford, UCSC writing instructor and San Francisco Chronicle contributor. Spafford is typical in many ways of the multilevel user of Bookshop Santa Cruz, consulting it for lost quotes, using its volumes for teaching inspiration and, most recently, utilizing its well-stocked services as her own child's garden of dreams.

"Will--he's four and a half--got obsessed by the Gold Rush," Spafford chuckles, amazed at her young son's latest passion. "I've always been struck by how much more the staff are like librarians than sales people. Actually," she says, reconsidering, "they're like clergy who consider the whole philosophical context of your request. Well, they took very seriously the question of what there was on the American West for a preschooler." When Will got into death, Gä Lombard, who buys for the bookshop's celebrated children's books section, impressed Spafford by "running down the various literary approaches to death for children. I think she's actually read every single one of those children's books," the longtime Santa Cruz writer says. And Lombard has.

Trips to Bookshop SC form twice-weekly adventures for young Will and his parents. "He likes to scare himself looking at the covers of the Goosebumps books--they're really for 10-year-olds," Spafford notes with pride, "with these grisly monster covers. Then he'll pick out something, and we'll sit and read for an hour."

While her son gets excited about being downtown around other kids and the vivacious sense of place the bookshop creates, Spafford has her own needs. Currently working on a novel, Spafford cites Coonerty's personal grooming of local authors, arranging time-consuming readings and signings, as some of the nurturing extras that make Bookshop Santa Cruz a cultural force.

"And when I'm desperate for a poem or something for my class, or my soul," Spafford adds, "I usually head there rather than the library. It feels like a place where you'll be warmly received. It's a home."

Many patrons feel so much at home that they stay for hours, all day, day after day, openly reading books that they may or may not buy. Visitors also feel at home. "Where do I take out-of-towners?" muses Spafford. "It would be Bookshop Santa Cruz and the ocean--those are the two landmarks."

Audrey Brennan
Robert Scheer

Burning Curiosity: Audrey Brennan, 4, tells a story to her father, Dan, in one of the plush chairs of the Bookshop Santa Cruz children's section.

Soul Appealing

NEAL COONERTY'S retail roller coaster didn't end with the joyful reopening of the bookshop in 1993, when hundreds of grateful patrons literally carried books--in symbolic devotion to their resurrected sanctuary--from the tents into the airy new space in the St. George Hotel. While the reopening marked the return of the bookstore to the very spot where it had begun 30 years ago, the long shadow of Crown Books was just over the horizon.

When the Super Crown store did butt into Bookshop Santa Cruz's downtown turf, Coonerty responded by offering discounts on bestsellers, instituting a frequent reader's program, and turning on an educational PR campaign to let the community know that independent booksellers were dying all over the country, swallowed whole by huge mega-chains whose discounts no small store could match. He appealed to our souls.

The collapse of independent bookstores all over the country is truly horrifying," novelist Houston warns. "People in our business are watching the struggle here--and Neal is fighting the good fight."

Maybe Isabel Allende would do a reading at Crown, but one doubts that Stephen King would put on a special signing benefit--like the one he did for Neal and Friends of the Library. Would Carlos Castenada show up at a discount depot and ramble about his spiritual quests long after closing time? They, too, sense that a bookstore is much more than a "pile 'em high and watch 'em fly" cash cow.

Coonerty agrees that the idea of encouraging free browsing at his bookstore was, well, different. "And it worked," he grins. "People might not buy the book they were reading. But later, like during the holidays, they'd come back and buy several copies as gifts." Coonerty's background as a young bookseller on Harvard Square shaped his attitude, though his innovations--the alliance with next-door cafes, the cozy couches and chairs, readings by local authors--were studied and copied by other independent booksellers who used Bookshop SC and a handful of other Bay Area sanctuaries as a barometer of the business.

"Candy and I were trying to create a contemporary American place," Coonerty recalls. "A bookstore really has to reflect a community. When we started it was the Whole Earth catalog era--and our shelves reflected those interests. We've changed, as our community's interests have changed."

Coonerty pauses, then adds, "I think you can read a community by looking at the books."

The Long Run

COMPOSER JON Scoville relishes his historic role as Bookshop Santa Cruz's first employee. A Connecticut expatriate soaking up California vibes while working at a local cannery, Scoville was hired by a former sales rep for MacMillan named Ron Lau, who had plans to open a bookstore. "On opening day, Nov. 7, 1966," Scoville remembers, "we did $96 worth of business. We were ecstatic."

Scoville and Bookshop Santa Cruz were a laid-back, outfit. "I'd close for dinner on Sundays, go eat, and then come back and we'd be open for a few more hours," he says. "It was like a big family."

That fall, Scoville's sweetheart--a tall, dark-haired dancer named Tandy Beal--joined him working in the bookshop, and the dance company that emerged from their partnership would eventually run the adjoining coffeehouse with the Coonertys and other arts movers.

Scoville is that rare resident who can remember the days before there was a Bookshop SC. But as Jim Houston says, "To a lot of people who've only been here for ten years or so, the bookshop has always been here. It represents a strong commitment to cultural continuity."

Bookshop Santa Cruz's prototype was the Hip Pocket bookstore, where seminal figures like Ken Kesey and Neal Cassady hung. The beatnik gave way to the hippie, the Hip Pocket dissolving and Bookshop Santa Cruz rising to take its place. "In 1966, it was the literary headquarters," Houston says.

Neal Coonerty has seen changes in three decades. Silver has all but taken over his dark hair. His son--the baby Candy was expecting when they bought the bookstore--is now in graduate school at the London School of Economics. Computer books, rather than macramé guides, are the fastest- growing section in his store. But some things have stayed the same. "Video and computers aren't going to replace books," Coonerty says with all the confidence of the man who was mayor of Santa Cruz just a few years ago. "The book is going to live. It's still a cheap, portable way of communicating."

Coonerty gives Ron and Sharon Lau--pioneers of Bookshop SC--credit for creating the unique atmosphere, but he gives the citizens of Santa Cruz credit for its longevity. "You can only have a bookstore as interesting as the community allows," he grins, admitting that there will probably be a 40th anniversary down the road. He's still having too much fun to consider retirement.

"There's an emotional connection with this place--we all seem to have it," says Scoville. "Tandy and I come here to dream. We come and just spend an evening--looking at books, marinating ourselves in the ideas and images." For the Beal & Co. collaborator, "Bookshop Santa Cruz has that fertile capacity to plant creative seeds--and to grow them."

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From the November 7-13, 1996 issue of Metro Santa Cruz

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