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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, July 04, 2001

by Don Kazak

Saving a bookstore Saving a bookstore (July 04, 2001)

When Printers Inc. in Palo Alto shut down about a month ago, it felt like a connection with an earlier time had been severed.

Older stores close all the time. Recently, it seems like it happens all the time as commercial rents shoot up in Palo Alto and surrounding cities.

In the space of a couple of years, I lost my longtime auto mechanic and garage and am about to lose the replacement. Nothing better break on the Jeep.

But losing Printers Inc. hurt.

When it opened in the mid-1970s, it was a different kind of bookstore. It was a place where it was comfortable to browse without being bothered and to sit and read. And, in time, to get a cup of coffee.

It began to fill a social function, not just a commercial one.

Today, that's the pattern that even the big chain bookstores follow.

And the combination of the chains like Borders and Barnes & Noble and the rise of Amazon.com has made it especially tough on the smaller independent stores.

Future Fantasy, a neat little store on El Camino Real in south Palo Alto, closed Saturday after years of catering to sci fi and mystery fans.

Clark Kepler of Kepler's in Menlo Park said he'll watch closely to see if his store picks up new science fiction or mystery fans.

Kepler said the people in his store are always listening to what their customers are telling them.

The shard of good news in all this is that downtown Mountain View didn't lose a favorite social gathering spot. Only now it isn't called Printers Inc., it's called Books Inc.

Books Inc., with 11 stores in Northern California, may not be a small, independent seller, but it's not a national chain, either. And it is part of the Northern California Booksellers Association, made up of independents.

There's been a Books Inc. at Stanford Shopping Center since 1957.

In the new world of the national chains and Amazon, Books Inc. is an interesting story in itself.

The company filed for bankruptcy in 1995, closing many of its stores, and now has scratched its way back.

Michael Tucker, the Books Inc. president, said the key to success is similar to what Clark Kepler said: Know your customers.

The company has three San Francisco stores, some of them only a mile or two apart, but the inventories at the three stores are drastically different, he said.

Tucker said he decided to do a partial buy-out of Printers Inc, including the stock, because the Castro Street location is a great one. He's also kept on the Printers Inc. people who were working there.

Gerry Masteller, former co-owner of Printers Inc., has an interesting theory about the decline of the publishing and book selling business. While we used to rely on books for information, now the first choice may be to go online. That, he said, is what has profoundly changed our world.

There is an argument that with Amazon, it isn't as important anymore to have bookstores uniquely tailored to their neighborhoods and communities, because it's all available online.

But if that is so, why is Books Inc. expanding and opening new srtores, and why is Kepler's such a continuing success?

There's a social function to the stores not available online. They are comfortable to hang-out at, the store clerks are friendly and knowledgeable. Even the Amazon reader reviews don't have the same feel as talking to someone who is, well, a professional.

But we are captivated by books and ideas. And the more, the better.

I was visiting family and friends in Chicago back in April, and one afternoon several of us went to a matinee.

We were early, and there was a bookstore right near the movie theater in the suburban mall.

I suggested heading over there to kill a little time.

When we walked into the store, Michelle, 8, my youngest grand-niece, was off like a shot, making a beeline for the children's section downstairs (it was a big Barnes & Noble).

She took off her coat, sat on a chair, and started picking out books to look at.

That's a good thing, in any bookstore.

But when she gets older, I hope she'll still have the kind of choices we have today through stores like Kepler's and Books Inc.

Don Kazak is the Weekly's senior staff writer. E-mail him at dkazak@paweekly.com


 

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