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03.11.09

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Phaedra

Photograph by Curtis Cartier
The Fab Four: Left to right, Capitola Book Café owners Janet Leimeister, Melinda Powers, Wendy Mayer-Lochtefeld and Richard Lange have reconceptualized the bookstore as a venue, with a club membership that offers extra perks.

Buy Here Now

Santa Cruz's indie booksellers get hip to the new 'buy local' ethos.

By Molly Zapp


On top of near-perfect weather, a clearly unfair plenitude of natural beauty and one of the best farmers markets in the country, Santa Cruz denizens are blessed with another local resource: a small-town gold mine of a literary scene, one that has enticed authors like David Sedaris, Barbara Kingsolver, Salman Rushdie, Isabel Allende and Jonathan Franzen to regularly speak and perform readings here.

Fostered by local bookstores like Bookshop Santa Cruz and Capitola Book Café, these author events and the larger local book-reading culture are part of what makes Santa Cruz Santa Cruz. People who don't even read enough to finish 2,300-word features in the local alt-weekly can, at the very least, look at this community, point to their nose-always-stuck-in-a-book neighbors, and feel good about the place in spite of the high cost of living here.

Janet Leimeister, co-owner of Capitola Book Café, says that Santa Cruz has more independent bookstores per capita than New York City and most other places in the world. But these local literary gems, and their accompanying cultural and authors' events (and the free bathrooms downtown), could disappear without sustained community support.

Local booksellers won't deny that these are tough book peddling times, and they're adapting in order to survive. The past few decades have been a sort of anti-independent bookselling triple-whammy. Though Santa Cruz was shielded more than other communities from the onslaught of chains in the '80s and '90s, the 2000 opening of Borders, just down the street from Bookshop Santa Cruz, Logos and Literary Guillotine, was a heavy blow. Round two of the attack on independent booksellers came from online behemoth Amazon.com, now the largest book retailer in the country. And now there's the current economic reality that has people feeling broke, paranoid about potential job loss and generally more concerned about making rent than buying new bestsellers.

But another shopping trend that's catching on may just keep our local literary hubs afloat: Buy Local. Independent booksellers are searching out new, community-oriented ways to connect with locals and entice them to buy the books that keep their stores open. On top of the in-store author's events, the bookstores are experimenting with book buyers' rewards clubs, offering book sales on their websites, reaching out to youth by joining MySpace and Facebook, holding outdoor readings and even--gasp!--selling on Amazon themselves.

Nationwide, independent booksellers having been shutting down for decades. Recently, Cody's bookstore in Berkeley closed and Kepler's in Menlo Park nearly met the same fate. Stacey's in San Francisco shuts its doors later this month. Melinda Powers, a co-owner of Capitola Book Café, says she's confident that the Buy Local movement will enable the bookstore to stay open.

"People are more aware now that their money has power," Powers says.

Small Is Beautiful
Bookshop Santa Cruz owner Casey Coonerty Protti says that Bookshop has survived more than economic recession in its 44-year history.

"When people talk about the economy, all we can say is we've been through worse," Protti says. "If we can come out through the earthquake, we can make it through this."

After the Loma Prieta earthquake devastated Bookshop in 1989, 400 community members came out to rescue the fallen books. Loyal patrons donated their own used books in good condition for Bookshop to then sell and supported the store for the three years it was housed in a tent. When Bookshop moved to its current location in 1992, Santa Cruz denizens again came out to walk the books from the tent to the new building. Protti says Bookshop customers have shown "an incredible amount of loyalty."

Still, the pressure from Borders down the street and decreases in consumer retail spending have changed the way Bookshop runs.

"Ever since Borders came in [in 2000], we've had to make changes," Protti says. The daughter of store founders Neal and Candy Coonerty says she tries to make staff more cross-functional by teaching them how to work both stocking and on the floor. To better compete with Amazon, Bookshop now offers online shopping.

Neal Coonerty, now District 3 county supervisor, describes the support-your-fellow-locals relationship between Bookshop and Santa Cruz denizens as a "two-way street."

"We feel like you should be aware of where you shop and how it affects the community, and also the shop should be close to the community and know what it really needs," Coonerty says.

Bookshop is also not above selling kitsch to keep the store afloat. Remember those Bush Countdown clocks and the preceding Obama Hope clocks? Neal Coonerty came up with those ideas, and the left-leaning locale--along with Bush-loathing tourists--bought 60,000 of those plastic political statements, which brought in both capital and visibility to the bookstore. "[The clocks] did the bookshop a world of good; really, it probably financially helped us through a tough couple of years," says Coonerty.

That the clocks sold so well shows that Bookshop knows its community. Along with the book and product selection, the author events, too, are customized for the community's taste: political and LGBT writers, the occasional cookbook event and local authors are what Santa Cruz folks seem to like, so that's who Bookshop brings in.

Though they can't sell books at a loss like Amazon does, they do have a free Frequent Buyers Club, where members get back 5 percent of their total purchases after buying 20 books. The club also will send out monthly discounts--20 percent off any political book one month, 20 percent off any hardcover--all small but significant perks for those who choose to buy locally instead of from the competition online or down the street.

Traci Fishburn, co-owner of Bookworks Aptos, says that although she has financial concerns like most other retailers, the bantam size of her South County store offers a surprising advantage in this economy.

"It's an interesting thing as these big giants are falling," Fishburn says. "It's become quite, quite a trend to shop local." She adds, "We're small; it doesn't take as much to keep us open as it does for a 20,000-foot store."

All local booksellers say that Amazon.com is a bigger competitor than Borders (which is in trouble; in January, a new CEO was appointed to try to keep the bankruptcy rumors at bay). Indeed, the online retailer is the largest seller of books. According to a study by Random House, 75 percent of book buyers most often buy their books online or from chain bookstores. Only 9 percent most often buy from independent bookstores, though 41 percent shop at them sometimes.

Amazon Clear-Cut
The gap between the 41 percent who sometimes shop locally and the 9 percent who most often buy locally is a sore spot for local retailers and shoppers alike. For people with limited financial means, the few dollars saved in the short term by buying the book at Amazon, Borders or Costco can mean the difference between being able to afford a book and not getting it at all. Leimeister describes people who profess their adoration for the atmosphere at Capitola Books, but then buy online anyway.

Author of The Corrections and part-time Santa Cruz resident Jonathan Franzen has done readings at both Capitola Book Café and Bookshop and places high esteem on the value of supporting independent booksellers.

"The thought of not being able to browse at Bookshop, or browse and have a cup of coffee at Capitola Book Cafe, is a sad one," Franzen says. "The community becomes poorer when places like that shut down, and no one is being done any favors by an Amazon order."

Richard Lange, co-owner of Capitola Book Café, notes that in most states, folks who buy online pay no sales taxes. But that buck or two saved on the initial purchase has hidden costs. Amazon uses the roads the public pays to pave without contributing to its general funds, or providing communities it ships to with local jobs.

Protti is equally critical of the online retailer.

"Even compared to a chain, they have no jobs in the community, they don't provide any sales tax to the community that they're in, they don't bring in any author events, they don't provide a place for a community," Protti says. "If you're talking about something that really is in contrast to what an independent bookstore creates in terms of community, Amazon is it. [Consumers are] not contributing anything to the sustainability of their local economy by shopping on Amazon."

The relationship between the Literary Guillotine and Amazon looks like the couple that clearly has co-dependency issues but too many strings attached to do anything but stay together. Amazon siphons a part of its sales, but the Internet behemoth often can't get the more academic and obscure titles the Literary Guillotine specializes in any faster or cheaper, so customers often still choose the Guillotine. Moreover, the Guillotine earns about 10 percent of its sales by selling through Amazon.

"As much damage as they do to us, they also help us a lot," owner David Watson says. Over the next year, Watson hopes to put more of his store's stock online and increase those sales.

The Personal Touch
What Bookshop, Capitola Book Café, Bookworks Aptos, Literary Guillotine and Logos sell that neither Borders nor Amazon can are authors' events, personalized service, cozy environments and bookshelves stocked with books handpicked for the Santa Cruz community. Whereas national retailers have centralized buying, and therefore little say as to the content of their specific stores, the book buyers at local bookstores hand-choose which books to sell, tailoring the selection to local tastes.

Wendy Mayer-Lochtefeld, a co-owner of Capitola Books Café, knows that the uniqueness of the authors' events is part of what helps foster a vibrant literary community in Santa Cruz. Since the store has a cafe, CBC is striving to change its image from a simple store to a venue where patrons can where patrons can, say, sip a cappuccino and discuss the finer points of the latest Marxist feminist hardback analysis of post-colonial Caribbean nations. To entice folks who already shop there, they've started up a Friend of Capitola Book Café club, a membership rewards club with varying levels. For a mere $25 per year, the basic membership offers 10 percent off all books, 12 free cups of coffee at the cafe (which also serves lunch) and members-only email specials. Among other benefits, the higher levels of membership offer bibliophiles the chance to sit extra-close at the author events.

"This is what Amazon can't do," says Mayer-Lochtefeld. "We had to change to a venue, a destination--a place to discuss books with each other. We want to get the public to see us as a different place, and that takes time," she continues.

Sometimes, the books and authors chosen for the Santa Cruz community go on to become international bestsellers. Barbara Kingsolver read at Bookshop in the early '80s. Now that the author has spent quality time on the New York Times bestsellers list, she still makes appearances there. Khaled Hosseini, author of The Kite Runner, came to Capitola Book Café before his book made it big.

Though they don't have in-store readings, Logos and the Literary Guillotine have their own specific offerings.

Logos has the advantage of selling cheap entertainment--used paperbacks for as little as three bucks, quality records for a few bucks more--and of course, none of the shipping fees or three-day delays that come with online shopping. According to owner John Livingston, "Used book sales are the best it's ever been in the past few years." He adds, "We did have a very good January, and were flat in February, so we're kind of bucking the trend. It might be the fact that we're a very good value," he says.

At the Literary Guillotine, the local smart folks help the local book folks, and vice-versa. Unique to the Guillotine is that it also runs its own small publishing press, New Pacific Press. Most of the titles it has published are generated by faculty at UCSC, and all the titles are in the social sciences or cultural studies fields. New Pacific, which is distributed nationally by Random House, publishes a book or two per year. Though the apartment-size store is too small to hold events, the Guillotine has off-site book releases in conjunction with the university.

The Need to Read
As if chains, online retailers and a badly stumbling economy weren't enough for booksellers to worry about, there is another factor that goes into dwindling book sales: declining readership. According to a 2007 study by the National Endowment of the Arts, nearly half of 18- to 24-year-olds read no books for pleasure. In 2005, the average annual spending on books was about $30 per person.

"So many times in the history of the book has the demise of the book been predicted," O'Connell says. "This of course is another one of those times."

Books have competition from other forms of entertainment that didn't exist 50 or even 10 years ago: video games, online social networks, reality TV and other forms of digital crack. (And then there's the Kindle.) But will society wake up from its technological daydream to crave something more tangible, something that can be passed from friend to friend?

"People still want to read a good book," Lange says. "Period. And that will never go away. Even kids who have a million other distractions around the house will fall in love with a good book. ... Call me a fool, but the prognosis for video games is short, and the prognosis for books is good," Lange says.

Though not as optimistic as his friend Lange, Franzen acknowledges that ultimately, consumers must decide for themselves if they will spend their time and money in ways that will support--or impede--Santa Cruz's literary community.

"You can't wag your fingers at people and say, 'You must read more, because it's good for you,'" says Franzen. "But if you do read, buy locally."


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