The San Francisco Bookstore Survival Guide

Oct 8, 2014

 

So you want to open a bookstore? Excellent news. Here's your guide to survival:

#1: Stock what your customers want. If someone wants, Pigeon Lofts of North America, have it.

#2: Stock what your customers don’t know they want. And show it to them.

#3: Don’t just be a bookstore. Come on – you can be more than that.

That’s one  recipe, but it isn’t always so easy. San Francisco has always been a town of bookworms. In the old days, if you wanted to open a store, all you had to do was put books in the window, hang a sign, and open the doors. 

 

A secret bookstore 

“People would come in, and we’d talk books and we’d talk book people,” Joe Marchione, owner of Valhalla Books in the Mission, recounted. “It was a vibrant, exciting time.” 

And that was only 15 years ago when Joe Marchione opened his bookstore. It's kind of a miracle people even found his store. To get inside, customers have to walk through a paint shop or get buzzed in, and then go up two flights of stairs (past the construction), and follow the signs to Valhalla's jumbled collection.

“ I tell people when they come in, ‘The chances you're going to find something is very slim’” Marchione said. “But a lot of fun is in the looking.” 

The joy of browsing used to give bookstores an edge over Amazon, but these days, the invitation to browse doesn’t seem to be enough. Over the last two decades, half the country’s independent bookstores have shut their doors. There’s a booming market for new and used books online, and e-books now account for close to a third of all book sales. So, these days, Marchione has a lot of down time.

“I can sit in here for days and have maybe one or two browsers per day. There's days where nobody comes in,” Marchione said. 

The reborn bookstore 

With San Francisco rent skyrocketing, and more and more book nerds buying online, Marchione is discovering that bookstores can’t just be bookstores anymore. 

If he wants to survive, he's got to adapt. Take his former neighbor, Adobe Books. Last year, Adobes' owner announced his rent was going up 20% and he was likely to close his doors. But fans of the store stepped in to save the day. And now Adobe's new home is on 24th  Street.

Bret Lockspeiser was part of the campaign to save Adobe, begging strangers for $60,000 on an Indiegogo video. In one month, the campaign raised more than the $60,000 they asked for. But to stay alive, Lockspeiser knew Adobe would have to change. Under the old guard, Adobe was messy. It was a scavenger hunt. There were too many odd, unsellable books. Now they have to act like business people.

“Some people found this controversial, but we as a co-op thought the business could do better if the quality of books was a little higher,” Lockspeiser said. “In the old shop you'd find a lot of things that frankly weren't interesting and just taking up space.” 

Lockspeiser and his crew cleared out most of the old books and filled their smaller storefront with pop up shops selling coffee and magazines. The backroom art gallery became a separate nonprofit. They shrank staff to two and filled in the gaps with volunteers. They added new books and they carefully curated their used selection. 

“All of us had thought selling used books was going to be harder. The sales at the old Adobe had been going down year after year,” Lockspeiser said. “After our first few months, we were doing even better than expected in that category. We had to learn how to be a good used bookstore.” 

They're still not turning a profit, but hey, they are paying the bills.

The Secret of the Green Apple 

Weirdly, Green Apple Books has been expanding since it opened in San Francisco’s Richmond District in 1967. While Amazon swallowed other bookstores whole, Green Apple added a mezzanine, a second floor, and acquired its neighbor, Revolver Records. Then In August, it opened a second store.

To Kasey Shahbaz, The new store looks different. If the original store has the dank, rustic feel of an old paperback, the new store has  got the shine and sparkle of a new hardcover…

“It's new and bright,” Shahbaz said. “But the other Green Apple is like, ‘I'm in a sad cave, but I like it.’” 

If there truly is any recipe for success, Green Apple must have it. First off, like Adobe, the owner passed off his store to a new generation. Co-owner Peter Mulville still sees his store's success as a mystery.

“We have like 450 or 500 people a day who buy from us. If it's 500 people, that's great. If it's 400, we're screwed, and we're out of business,” Mulhivill said. “Who those people are and why they decided to come that day, or that week, I have no idea why.” 

Last year, students at California College of the Arts did a study on Green Apple Books to investigate their secret. The report is pages and pages long, but it what it comes down to is that they know their customers.

“It’s the idea that you see the same people in your community everyday, like, oh, my kids went to pre-school with the folks at Green Apple,” Mulhivill said. 

They know their customers, and they know what their customers want. So they’ll stock, say, the Cheese Manual. 

And it takes 2 or 3 years for us to sell through them...but it's the cheese book! We want to have it. It doesn't really pay off in money, but it pays off in what the customers think of the store,” Mulvihill said. 

Lessons on compromise 

And they don't loll about on their sofas waiting for customers to come inside. They work with other businesses, help host block parties, and you can find their books in cafes and shops nearby.

"We like to take risks and chances and sometimes they pay off and sometimes they don't," Mulhivill says. 

Back at Valhalla Books, Marchione may be lounging on the couch, reading. Now that customers are few and far between, he's got the time to. Sure, he could put the book down, get up, and save his bookstore. There are remedies. He just doesn't want to try them.

"I'm not so good at grabbing people and saying, ‘Come to my Facebook page, and look at it!’ I'm uncomfortable selling things, which is an odd thing for a retailer to say, but it's true. That's foolish, because you've got to sell people in the world. I need to learn how to sell without compromising my soul,” Marchione said. 

No one said compromise was easy.