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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Friday, April 20, 2001

Time running out for Printers Inc. Time running out for Printers Inc. (April 20, 2001)

Two stores may close by end of month

by Jaime Bloss

The bookshelves are sparsely filled, many of them nearly empty. The phones have been turned off. Although customers still fill the upstairs cafÈ and browse through the slim stacks for reading material during lunchtime, the future appears grim for Printers Inc.

If the owner cannot find a buyer or an investor soon, the independent bookstore -- which has been a staple on California Avenue in Palo Alto for more than two decades and in downtown Mountain View for 15 years -- will permanently close its doors April 30.

But there may still be hope. Aaron Brown, general manager of the Palo Alto and Mountain View stores, said he has a lead for a buyer interested in the Mountain View location, but did not want to discuss any details prematurely.

At this point there are no leads for the Palo Alto location, he said.

If it attracts an investor, Printers Inc. would probably stay in business, operating as it has since 1986 in Mountain View and since 1978 in Palo Alto. However, a buyer could bring in an entirely different company or business altogether.

Brown said his first priority is to try to find a new investor and save Printers Inc. The store could double the inventory it currently has in stock in four days if a new investor were found. If that can't happen, he would like another bookstore to take over the location.

Printers Inc. has encountered increasing difficulties over the past year. Its problems began approximately five years ago with the company's failure to react to changes in the book retail industry, said Brown.

"Changes needed to be made and they weren't," Brown said. "The previous owners weren't up for the fight and they sold it."

Matthew Duran, the current owner and the former controller for the company, bought the business two years ago from Gerry Mastellar and Susan MacDonald.

Since August 2000, the company has tried "to pull out of the tailspin," Brown said. The stores reduced their inventory by 25 percent in order to pay their debts to vendors. "That didn't go over well with the customers," he said, adding that some books had languished on the shelves for three years.

Adding to the company's problems, Crown Books filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy after the holidays. Under the bankruptcy agreement, "their past debts are reduced to between 20 cents to 25 cents on every dollar they owe (to vendors)," Brown explained. In turn, the vendors, publishers, and distributors requested that Printers Inc. pay its own past debts immediately.

Although Duran and Brown would not disclose the amount of the company's debts, Brown hinted at the amount of money owed, saying it was less than what most people pay for a house in the Bay Area. "What do they go for? Over a million dollars?" he asked, implying it was less than that amount.

Because the company has not been able to pay its debts, it has not received inventory shipments for 45 days, Brown said.

One of Printers Inc.'s most appealing qualities -- its wide selection -- may also be one of its chief weaknesses. "People want to see (a big selection), but they don't want to buy it," Brown said. "It's one of the reasons we're not making money."

Another mistake the company made was keeping a large staff, he said. "We continued to keep people on the payroll as though we were one of the biggest players in town. . . but our operation wasn't that large anymore," Brown explained.

The money that went toward payroll could have been used to pay off debts, he added.

The staff has been cut considerably over the past eight months. In August 2000 approximately 80 employees worked for the company; Brown estimated that the number is now down to 40.

Brown and Duran described the stores as a focal point in the area -- a local "hang out" spot, a place to socialize, even a place to meet potential dates.

"Obviously they don't want our books," Brown jokingly said of the customers. "They're here because of that (social) dynamic."

Lars Olsen, who has been a Printers Inc. customer for eight years, said it would be "a great pity" to see the store close.

"I like the atmosphere and the cafÈ. It's a great place to browse for magazines; I buy my foreign newspapers here," Olsen said. "It's refreshingly different from chain stores. I hope they stay in business."

Brown said the company will find out next week if the buyer is interested.

Mountain View's Printers Inc. was the first project funded with seed money by the revitalization district to attract more people to the downtown area, said Ellis Berns, the city's economic development manager. The company received a loan of $150,000 in 1985, which it paid back in full, Berns said.

"Printers Inc. is something that draws people to the downtown," said Mountain View City Councilwoman Rosemary Stasek. "It's what people think of when they think of downtown Mountain View. It's something more than just another bookstore or just another coffee shop downtown." <@$p>

Jaime Bloss writes for the Mountain View Voice, the Weekly's sister newspaper in Mountian View.


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