Palo Alto Weekly

News - October 2, 2009

Know Knew Books could be in its final chapter

Victim of the economy, last used bookstore on California Avenue is struggling

by Sue Dremann

The sign spells out Know Knew Books' bleak economic state in big red letters, amid the window display of books, action figurines and Halloween decorations: "Liquidation."

The 21-year-old California Avenue used bookstore, the last one left in the shopping district, is struggling to hang on, a victim of the economic downturn, according to owner Bill Burruss.

The 25 percent-off book sale could be the last gasp for the neighborhood fixture if things don't turn around — and fast, he said.

"It's not the Internet; it's not the community. It's flat out the economy," he said on Wednesday afternoon, surrounded by piles of paperbacks and boxes of books on every subject from UFOs to fine art.

It might seem counterintuitive that a used bookstore wouldn't do well in a recession but lay-offs don't tell the whole story, he said.

"You take the 12.2-percent unemployment rate, but that doesn't give you a reading of how many people were laid off from working at IBM and are now working a minimum-wage job," he said, figuring the downturn is worse than the official numbers.

Once known for its science fiction (an entire wall of the store is dedicated to the genre) and paperback collectibles, Know Knew Books saw that market dry up with the advent of the Internet, Burruss said.

But the death knell began ringing around Christmas 2008, when sales began to tumble. Road work along California Avenue also drove customers away.

"And it never came back," he said.

Now, he estimates business is down 50 to 60 percent.

"It's still a good business, but it's not a sole source of income anymore," he said.

Burruss hopes someone will want to buy the bookstore for supplemental income — or for the love of books and community camaraderie, he said.

"I'll definitely miss the place if I have to go. The community's been awesome," he said.

On a recent afternoon, people drifted into the store, browsing for books and stopping to talk with manager Emily Stains about the space-time continuum, a mathematical model in physics that describes different kinds of dimensions.

It's the type of discussion one might find going on any day of the week in the labyrinthine store.

Stains confirmed the bookstore could close. A man shook his head.

"I grew up here. I hate this city now; I hate it. All of the cool stuff is going away," he said.

Things have also gotten worse since 63 mature trees lining the street were cut down the week of Sept. 14, according to Stains.

"Nowadays things are so rocky for everybody. It doesn't take much to push you over the edge," she said.

Burruss agreed. He estimates he's lost another 10 percent of business since the trees came down.

"I'm trying to farm out books; I'm taking books to other stores and trying to do bulk sales. I see (the recession) going on for at least another year, unless somebody comes to the aid of the wretched," he said, with a slight chuckle.

But Burruss isn't completely resigned. He said he hopes he can keep the business going and is open to creative solutions, if anyone can help out.

He held a successful poetry reading and hopes to host a professional break-dancer. He will team up with Accent Arts, another California Avenue store, for a children's art day, if the store lasts until November, he said.

An older couple, accompanied by their daughter, entered the store looking for VHS tapes and a used VCR. That's one thing the store doesn't have, he said.

"You have kind eyes," the girl remarked to Burruss, who is 64 years old with a full head of silver hair and trim goatee.

That kindness is sometimes his bane, friends said. Burruss is known for giving away books to teachers or dropping down to bargain-basement rates.

On Wednesday, a man approached the cash register to purchase a science-fiction book for his son but the man had no cash, only a credit card. Burruss isn't taking credit cards at this time.

"We'll have to come back," the man said.

"I'll tell you what," Burruss said, sweeping the book off the counter. "You take the book, and you can pay me the $3 the next time you come to the store."

Ben Fisher, another client, reflected on the relationship he has built with Burruss.

"He's part of the reason why people keep coming back. I would lose a good friend. I come in all of the time. I have a business of my own and use reference materials I find here. He can expand my knowledge," Fisher said.

Burruss said he will miss the people and the books — and the sheer joy of treasure hunting — if the store goes under.

"It's like Christmas," Burruss said, picking up an autographed copy of a book on Surrealist artist Salvador Dali's jewelry. He found it at an auction after winning a bid to purchase three shelves of books for $110.

But something greater will be lost than a few rare finds if Know Knew Books closes its doors, he said.

"I think the community will lose something. They can't go into Barnes and Noble and find the selection they (can find) here," he said.

Staff Writer Sue Dremann can be e-mailed at sdremann@paweekly.com.

Comments

Posted by Andrew, a resident of another community
on Oct 18, 2009 at 2:24 pm

Come on people! Go to Know Knew Books; it's the best place to buy a gift for anyone. Everything there is unique and fascinating. There's something for people of any age or interest.


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