Battle of the bookstores
New documentary follows the struggles of small California booksellers
The bell tolls for independent bookstores.
In May, the Telegraph Avenue location of Cody's Books in Berkeley -- as integral to the street as the beads and pipe vendors lining the sidewalk -- closed. San Francisco's A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books went dark in July.
In 1996, there were 22 independent bookstores operating in Palo Alto, Menlo Park, and Mountain View, according to the phone book. A decade later, there are only 11.
So "Indies Under Fire: The Battle for the American Bookstore" feels particularly timely. It's a new documentary produced and directed by Jacob Bricca, a former Palo Altan who grew up between the bookshelves at Printers Inc., the California Avenue institution that closed in 2001. He now lives in Connecticut and balances his filmmaking with teaching at Wesleyan University.
Fittingly, the hour-long video will be screened on Sept. 30, as part of an event celebrating the "rebirth" of Kepler's Books in Menlo Park, a year after that shop's temporary closure. The event, held in Menlo Park, will also include a panel discussion with Kepler's owner Clark Kepler and others in the industry.
Bricca started working on his documentary in December 1998, when news hit that Printers Inc. would close down in three months. He was a film editor in Los Angeles at the time. He ended up with a documentary that also chronicles the struggles of independent bookstores in Santa Cruz and Capitola.
"I was just one of many who were shocked and saddened at the news that Printers Inc. was closing. People felt a certain ownership of the place, like it belonged to them," Bricca said in an interview with the Weekly.
Bricca learned that the '90s had brought one wave after another of competition to independent bookstores. Big discount chain Crown Books had challenged and failed, but the successor chains, Borders and Barnes & Noble, had better recipes.
In addition, such big-box stores as Target and Costco carved a market selling deeply discounted best sellers. Then came Amazon. Subsequently, more than half of the independent bookstores in the U.S. shut down between 1993 and 2003, according to Bricca's movie.
Gerry Masteller, former co-owner of Printers Inc., also mentioned another powerful challenge in an interview.
"It's about the struggle for people's discretionary time," he said. "I sense we're losing readers. We're looking at a younger generation that is as familiar with working on a computer and playing on the Internet as they are with books."
"Indies Under Fire" recounts how Printers Inc. got started as an exhilarating venture by five Kepler's employees in 1978. The staff members had their niches: co-owner Susan MacDonald, for instance, was the children's book buyer, while Masteller enjoyed art books.
But in the late '90s, as Masteller told the Weekly, the large pharmacy chain Rite Aid decided that California Avenue was the perfect location for a new store and that they were willing to pay a hefty rent to move in. The Printers Inc. lease was about to be renegotiated, and Masteller and MacDonald, the two remaining owners, knew they couldn't match the Rite Aid offer.
As it turned out, Rite Aid changed its mind about California Avenue. However, Masteller and MacDonald decided they'd had enough.
"We saw that we'd be working harder and harder for less return and certainly in riskier circumstances," Masteller said. "The rent situation triggered a long look at the future of the book business."
As shown in "Indies Under Fire," a young buyer -- the store's accountant, Matthew Duran -- stepped forward. But the new chapter was the final one. Two years later amidst crippling debt and many bare shelves, the store closed for good.
Duran was not available for the postmortem interviews in the documentary, but MacDonald and Masteller claim in the film that he didn't accept any help to keep the store going, either from them or from loyal patrons.
Meanwhile, other local indies work to keep the doors open. With growing debts and a dramatic rent increase, Clark Kepler closed his store last Aug. 31. But a successful campaign -- including 23 local investors paying off the debts and a board of directors being established -- allowed the store to reopen in October.
Kepler's also hired a marketing officer, Anne Banta, and did some reorganizing that included having the newspapers lose their prime location to a potpourri of loosely related merchandise such as bath salts, fair-trade crafts and coffee mugs.
"On the business side, the margins are so tight on the books," Banta said in an interview, noting that finding an appropriate mix of other merchandise can "make or break a bookstore nowadays."
Recent surveys of Kepler's customers show that more than half also buy books from competitors Amazon and Borders. Borders is also a focus of "Indies Under Fire," which explores the chain's formula for success.
In the movie, Borders executive Joe Tosney tells Bricca: "If you think we're some kind of big bad predatory animal coming in...if you think having a beautiful, well-staffed, well-stocked bookstore is a bad thing, I'm sorry. That's what we do."
The camera also follows struggles to keep Borders out of Capitola and Santa Cruz. In one uncomfortably tense segment, the developer faces down a hostile audience at a Capitola city council meeting. He compares a council that would erect barriers to Borders' entry to a coach who favors weak athletes.
There's no question that if bookselling were a sport, indies would be the underdogs. Masteller told the Weekly that he wasn't sure a Printers Inc.-style operation is doable at this point. He believes success for an independent is more likely if the store specializes in one genre and is in a vacation area where people have plenty of leisure time.
Meanwhile, Clark Kepler said he feels exhilarated with the rebirth of Kepler's. "I've had my near-death experience and now everything is a bonus."
Will Kepler's and its ilk survive? Ultimately it depends on whether a new generation weaned on Internet, video games, and YouTube will find more appeal in a locally owned bookstore than a Borders.
Indeed, it depends on whether the next generation finds enough time for reading books at all.
What: Screening of the documentary "Indies Under Fire: The Battle for the American Bookstore," followed by a panel discussion with film producer Jonathan Crosby; Kepler's Books owner Clark Kepler; former Printers Inc. co-owner Susan MacDonald; Cody's Books owner Andy Ross; and Hut Landon, president of the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association
Where: Menlo Park Presbyterian Church's community meeting room, 700 Santa Cruz Ave., Menlo Park
When: Sept. 30, 7:30 p.m.
Info: Go to www.indiesunderfire.com.