Bay area bookstores are thriving!
By Barbara Lane for Datebook
For years the death knell was clanging for the independent bookstores. First, they would be killed off by the chain stores — Borders, Barnes & Noble, et al. We all know how that turned out. Then the predator was Amazon. Then e-books.
But while there’s no doubt that Amazon has had a major effect on our book-buying habits, I’m happy to report that here in the Bay Area, the indies are thriving. And better still, a new crop of young, passionate booksellers has sprung up, ensuring that the future looks bright for those of us who love nothing better than to get lost for hours in a well-curated bookstore.
Part of this happy trend is thanks to the foresight and wisdom of what I’ll call bookstore elders. Kate Levinson and Steve Costa out at Point Reyes Books and John Evans and Allison Reid, who owned Diesel in Rockridge, handpicked their successors, making it possible for their beloved stores to both endure and change with the times.
The proud next-generation owners of Point Reyes Books, Stephen Sparks and Molly Parent, have been running the store for more than two years. The pair met while doing what could be called a residency at Green Apple, the venerable San Francisco indie. When Levinson and Costa decided it was time to sell Point Reyes, there were over 30 interested parties, and Sparks and Parent were deemed the best fit — they actually won an essay contest — for carrying on the store’s legacy.
The most important thing the former owners did to help the new owners was to create favorable terms for the purchase. Then it was up to Sparks and Parent to find investors. Happily, it wasn’t too difficult: They got financial support from Point Reyes locals who wanted to keep their beloved bookstore open and book-loving angels from outside the area.
Point Reyes Books is a hub for the West Marin community. The store reflects the glory of the natural surroundings with a strong environmental and nature section, one Sparks aspires to make “the best in the country.” Prominently displayed as one enters the store are Peter Wolleben’s “The Hidden Life of Trees,” “Horizon” by Barry Lopez, Robert Macfarlane’s “The Old Ways” and Obi Kaufmann’s “California Field Atlas.”
“People want to live their best life up here,” says Sparks, adding there’s lots of “aspirational purchasing.”
Brad Johnson came to Rockridge’s Diesel Books after earning a doctorate in philosophy at the University of Glasgow and a stint at a seminary where he seriously considered becoming a minister. The pool of highly educated people in the Bay Area made the odds of getting a teaching job slim to none, so in 2013 he answered a Craigslist ad for a bookseller at Diesel. After a time, he found being in the bookstore “scratched every itch intellectually and socially,” and he was hooked. As was the case in Point Reyes, the former owners made it relatively easy for Johnson to purchase the store as he was their hand-picked steward. He raised the necessary cash in four months with 99% of his lenders living within a mile of the store.
Johnson works hard to keep East Bay Booksellers (formerly Diesel) reflective of the greater Oakland community. His shelves are a showcase for his passion for poetry, independent presses and works in translation. In the best-seller section are books you definitely wouldn’t see in that category at any other bookstore: Carolyn Forche’s “What You Have Heard is True” and Jackie Wong’s “Carceral Capitalism” along with the usual suspects like Amor Towles and Helen Oyemi. A special section on Border Studies includes “Enrique’s Journey” by Sonia Nazario and Jessica Bruder’s “Nomadland.” Johnson is optimistic about the future of indies, but his biggest reservation has to do with the price of real estate.
Then there’s Manny’s in the heart of the Mission at 16th and Valencia. Manny Yekutiel, 29, is a force of nature. A former White House intern and Obama field organizer, he opened his eponymous bar/cafe/restaurant/civic engagement place on election night in 2018. Five hundred people came, most of them in their 20s and 30s. In its first five months, Manny’s hosted Edward Snowden (via Skype) and Mayor Pete Buttigieg; four more presidential candidates are already on the schedule. Every future debate and election will be a watching party at Manny’s.
Did I mention Manny’s is also a bookstore? Dog Eared Books, his Valencia Street neighbor, has a satellite store at Manny’s, and author evenings (largely social consciousness- and citizen action-related) are an integral part of the event schedule.
Yekutiel presides over the place like a modern-day Perle Mesta. To see him in action on an event night is like watching a small tornado: he’s pulling a draft beer, setting up the mikes, schmoozing with neighborhood regulars. He single-handedly epoxied and sequined the restrooms, which have to be seen to be believed.
Manny says he opened his place because of his fervent belief that in an era where our conversations, our connections and much of our civic discourse is happening digitally, we need to come together in person now more than ever. I’m not sure how he did it — there seems to be some pixie dust in the air — but somehow he and the other proud new bookstore owners have found a way to make that happen. Now, it’s up to us to do our part to patronize these real-life places of ideas and conversation.