Sunday, April 13, 2008

Bay Area Indies

For most tourists, San Francisco conjures up images of the Golden Gate Bridge, Fisherman's Wharf and historic trolley cars climbing steep urban hills. The tastes of sourdough bread, fresh seafood and authentic Chinese food are all promised in a visit to the city. It's a bonanza of unique museums (show me something that beats the Exploratorium), stunning neighborhoods and gorgeous views of the Bay.

I enjoy all of those attractions, but what I'm really interested in are the independent bookstores in the city and beyond. You can get amazing views and good food in just about any city in America, but finding a great bookstore is never easy. I always make an effort to derail our vacations and steer us into these stores. It's a bit like a hijacking. My wife develops a great itinerary after hours of studying travel guide books. Usually, we get about 30 minutes into her plans before I notice that we are within 3 miles of an independent bookstore and insist on a detour.

Here are some bookstore observations from our recently completed California trip:

City Lights Books

The store founded by Lawrence Ferlinghetti continues to amaze me. I'm not sure if they do anything the way a modern bookstore is supposed to do. Their signage is haphazard at best and often illegible, their books are almost universally displayed spine out instead of face out, there are books on their shelves that probably should have been returned months -- if not years -- ago, and yet shopping there is pure joy.

There's a true sense of discovery at City Lights. They carry a wide variety of university press titles in several different subjects and often prominently feature these books. In the window, there were more university titles displayed than titles from mainstream publishers. Books that I had skipped when buying for our store, I suddenly found fascinating in City Lights.

It seems like the buyers at City Lights (whom I do not know) have a real sense of the store's identity. They're not trying to find the next popular trend, or ride Oprah's wave (although I did see dozens of copies of Eat, Pray, Love squirreled away in overstock), or take advantage of sweetheart co-op deals from corporate publishers; instead they are buying books that fit the City Lights aesthetic and inviting customers to partake in it. It's a gutsy way to try and survive in today's book market, but at least from the outside, it seems to work. There were dozens of people in the store on the Monday night I visited.

The store's quirky layout, with rooms opening onto other rooms and a warren-like basement with strange, yet fitting section names like "Situations and Actions" or "Topographies," lends itself to satisfying browsing.

The greatest space of all is the poetry room. Easily the most pleasant physical area in the store, it is entirely devoted to verse. I was stuck in the room for over an hour reading stanzas, taking in odes and breathing couplets.

Gradually, I came out of my reverie and began to look for specific poets that I longed for. I searched for Richard Hugo, Lucia Perillo, Paul Guest and Paul Zimmer and somehow came up empty handed. I found a Philip Levine's What Work Is, but was turned off by the $16 price tag on an 80-page paperback. I took a deep breath. Here I was in what might be the most extensive poetry section in an independent store in the country, and I couldn't find what I wanted.

It brought to mind the problem we face every day at our store. Customers come in and ask for fairly obscure books, and when we tell them we don't have them, they are surprised by our lack of selection. We offer to special order the title for them, and they just tell us that they'll order it from Amazon. Well, I wasn't going to go to Amazon, and I really wanted a book of poems for the plane ride home.

I refocused and decided to see what City Lights was recommending. Perhaps I'd actually discover something new. They were featuring Bob Hicok's Insomnia Diary on an end cap. I picked it up and read a few of his narrative poems and was soon laughing to myself. I decided to buy the book when I read "The bald truth." Hicok is as bald as I am, so I could identify with his opening line, "My hair went on a diet of its own accord."

Those other authors will have to wait for another day. I've read them all before anyway. Thanks to City Lights, I've discovered somebody new.

Book Passage

The renovated Ferry Building is one of San Francisco's great places to grab lunch and just look at the Bay Bridge stretch out over the blue water. The independent bookseller Book Passage from the Marin County town of Corte Madera opened a small store facing out onto the bay in the Ferry Building. It's the opposite of City Lights in many ways -- good signage, faced-out titles, fairly slick marketing.

The challenge of a small store in a tourist location is to retain some identity while catering to both locals and travellers from all over the world. Book Passage manages to appeal to both audiences in a limited space without feeling cramped or schizophrenic. Their recommended section was interesting and featured an eclectic range of novels, memoirs and other nonfiction. It added a real personal touch (especially since I know one the main recommenders) to what would otherwise feel like a busy airport or train station store. I also thought that their board listing events held at both of their stores was impressive yet homey. Immediately upon returning to our store, I told our promotions manager that we should think of posting a similar board.

Once again, I thought: here's a store that really seems to know itself. Comfortable in its own skin, it isn't trying to overreach. It was hopping with customers perusing the staff picks as well as the travel titles. The staff was enthusiastic, helpful and seemed glad to be working in such a beautiful place. I found several books I wanted, mostly on the sales table, but alas I was pulled away by the relatives before I could make my final decisions.

Cody's in Berkeley

Has anyone been to Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley lately? Wow, what a disappointment. I remember going there 15 years ago (long after its true heyday) and really enjoying the energetic music vibe, radical politics and great shopping. The heart of the experience for me was Cody's Bookstore, along with the two giant record stores, Amoeba and Rasputin. Well, Cody's is gone and it's a miracle that the record stores are still there.

My wife and I wandered around for about half an hour searching for a decent place to eat lunch. Most places looked like student dives with inedible food. There was no real feeling of progressive politics, protesting or even anti-corporate sentiment on the street. Instead, we were met with overly aggressive pan-handlers, a band standing outside of Rasputin trying to hustle their own CDs and lots of fashion-challenged college kids. We didn't return at night, but it would be easy to imagine how the whole scene might turn menacing after dark.

No wonder Cody's packed up and left. It's a true shame though. On our last visit to Berkeley, we spent hours searching through their left-wing political books, extensive international fiction selection and staff-selected titles. Making matters worse is that Cody's second location on 4th street, a much more upscale neighborhood, is also shuttered now.

Now, the biggest draw of that 4th street neighborhood is the East Bay Vivarium. I have to admit that the Vivarium (that's reptile store in English) is one of the most amazing places I've visited recently. It features a plethora of snakes, lizards and turtles. Some of these animals are huge, including a monitor lizard that looked quite a bit like a komodo dragon.

After we left the Vivarium, we wandered past the just-closed Cody's location. I remember visiting a few years ago, just after it opened. It was a beautiful location with high ceilings and wooden fixtures. The staff had done a magnificent job creating tables that just made you want to buy books you didn't need. But frankly, the store didn't seem quite right to me. It was too pretty for what was really a gritty independent bookstore. Sure enough, the rent was jacked up (that's what happens to new buildings in pretty places) and Cody's was back out on the street. They are now in downtown Berkeley in a relatively tiny 7,500 square-foot store.

As I stared in the windows of the nearly empty store, a shiver went through my body. It was more than the cool breeze blowing that March day. It felt like I was looking at the future of independent bookselling in America. A few unidentifiable, forgotten author photos hung up on the far wall, empty spinner racks populated the selling floor and a silent cash register was permanently shut. A man in his late forties tried the door and was alarmed to see that it was locked shut. We told him they were closed for good.

"Well, that sucks," he said, before heading down the street to Anthropologie.

I found it hard to tear my eyes away from the windows. It was like looking at the body of a relative before the coffin is shut. It's painful to see, but more painful to turn away.


Geeks In Rome said...

Ouch! I, too, am guilty of turning to Amazon when my local bookseller doesn't have what I want... i'm such a biblio-'ho.
But it's true, the local bookshop has a richer selection of new and unheard of titles that should be tapped into.
Once I did exploit my "The Almost Corner Bookshop" guy a few days before Christmas when I was desperate for gift ideas. I just gave him the ages and genders of my intended recipients and he came up with THE BEST books to give them -- and they were definitely selections I never would have made.
Could the indies somehow capitalize better on that aspect? "Leave the browsing to us" kind of thing.
Thanks for the vicarious visit to San Fran, Arsen!

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