A bookstore becomes a stage and gallery
Struggling in the recession, Know Knew Books tries to woo customers with concerts, readings, visual art
For 22 years, Know Knew Books on Palo Alto's California Avenue has been stuffed with used books of all shapes and sizes, along with CDs, records and assorted literary merchandise. Loyal customers drop by to browse and schmooze, but in these turbulent economic times, it isn't enough.
Since almost closing last fall due to financial hardship, owner Bill Burruss is trying something new: opening his shop to visual and performing artists and authors, with hopes of revitalizing the business. He says he wants to create a welcoming space for all types of community artists.
"The idea is to add more creativity to the store itself," he said.
Burruss says he hopes his art events will draw in store newcomers, potential buyers who will remember Know Knew Books when looking for reading material.
Sculptor Tom Franco (the brother of actors James and Dave, and son of children's-book author Betsy) grew up in Palo Alto in a family of Know Knew Books fans. Burruss credits Franco (and his Berkeley-based Firehouse Collective artist group) as a partner in the store's new artistic ventures.
"Tom's only 28 but he's very mature and energetic. He really came up with the idea last fall and I saw the potential there," Burruss said.
Franco first proposed that the bookstore host an evening of poetry and music by artists from his Berkeley collective. Burruss was skeptical when he learned the artists would be playing keyboards with their feet, he recalled, laughing. But ultimately the group's performance won him over.
Franco's Firehouse Collective supplies many of the colorful paintings and sculptures now decorating the store's walls and front window, giving it more of a gallery feel. He and his mother, whose newest book he illustrated, presented their work at the store on March 6, and the store also featured a window display of Betsy Franco's work.
"Tom and Bill have worked together to bring the store to life as a place people in the community can come together in creativity," Betsy Franco said. "Bill is so supportive of local art of all kinds: actors, writers, musicians, dancers. It's great."
There are unusual ongoing events, too. Since autumn, the store has hosted break dancers every third Saturday, and numerologist Michael Bisbiglia on the second Wednesday of each month. Ann Graff reads tea leaves monthly.
"It's sort of gaining speed; there's some pretty interesting stuff," Burruss said.
Local actor Gerry Hiken has performed monologues at the store, and Burruss hopes he'll do so every other week. Hiken's next appearance is set for April 10.
A father-and-son guitar and mandolin duo, and pianist Larisa Migachyov, have also performed, and soon Burruss plans to have "Lord of the Rings" animator and Menlo Park resident Patricia Hannaway in for a talk.
Couches have been installed at the store's front, encouraging the area as a hangout, while posters advertising upcoming events grace the door and window. And audience response has been positive.
"At Bill's events, the room is full. It's really evolved beautifully," Betsy Franco said.
The Franco family plans to remain involved with the store's artistic future, she said. "We've rallied around when Bill wanted to change the atmosphere of the store. That's a great thing that's happening there; it's very hopeful."
Burruss is also putting the word out that the store is available for reading and knitting groups, as well as musicians who want to jam. He says that because he's been hit by the recession, he's not able to pay the artists coming to his store. Rather, he relies on their desire for exposure and enthusiasm for sharing their art.
"I don't have any money but I'm pretty outgoing, so I just ask, 'Do you know anybody that ...? Would you like to ...?'" the gregarious Burruss said, adding that he always puts out a receptacle for donations and tips for the artists. Some have made several hundred dollars, he said.
Since almost closing, the store has been holding huge sales, marking down merchandise by as much as 50 percent, and has added toys, games and DVDs to its stock in another attempt to stay afloat.
"The economy, it's awful. I'm a pretty good business guy but I have no control over it," Burruss said. "But the community really came behind me," when he nearly sold the store in 2009, he added.
Burress said he hopes to be able to stay in town for years to come.
"I don't like the idea of not being in the community any more," he said. "To have a college town with no record store, no music store, only two used bookstores, it's weird to me, it doesn't compute."
Info: Know Knew Books is at 415 S. California Ave. in Palo Alto. Burruss can be reached at 650-326-9355 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
The next store event will feature monologues performed by actor Gerry Hiken, on Saturday, April 10, at 8 p.m.