by Don Kazak

Our Town: Amazon.com'd

Publication Date: Wednesday Dec 16, 1998

Our Town: Amazon.com'd

The pending demise of Printers Inc. bookstore is more than a story about a retail business leaving Palo Alto. It's also a story about how the character of the community is changing, because Printers Inc. helped define that character for the last 20 years. The factors, as described by co-owners Gerry Masteller and Susan MacDonald, are multiple, including the desire of the store's landlord to charge higher rent.

Just as businesses have been driven out of town or out of business by rising rents, the character of the city has changed as increasing rents have forced out many residents who are tenants. For better or worse, and I suspect worse, greed is changing Palo Alto.

Masteller said sales are fine at the store, and Printers Inc. has a loyal customer base. But revenues aren't increasing fast enough to pay overhead costs, including rent. "We're a viable business, but not with this overhead," Masteller said.

There is another factor that affects all independent bookstores, including Printers Inc. and Kepler's in Menlo Park: the tremendous popularity of Amazon.com as an online book retailer.

"We have such a computer-literate society in the Bay Area, we're probably as susceptible (to competition from online retailers) as any place in the country," said Kepler's owner, Clark Kepler. Clark's father founded the store more than 40 years ago and, with City Lights in San Francisco and Cody's in Berkeley, helped start the venerable Bay Area tradition of independent, nonchain bookstores.

When I was at Thanksgiving dinner with friends in Los Gatos, one of the people there extolled the virtues of online retailers, even calling up a few sites on a laptop. I asked him if he shopped at Amazon.com and he said, "Of course."

I told him that as great as the online service might be, I live in a community blessed with wonderful independent bookstores, which I want to support. That keeps me from buying books online--and I buy a lot of books.

The literacy of the population here has enabled multiple local independent bookstores to thrive over the years. But the market isn't infinite. There used to be more bookstores in downtown Palo Alto, but Plowshares and Shirley Cobb are long gone.

And the online retail world is changing how we buy books, which is a vexing reality for those of us who want to support our local bookstores.

I have a good friend living in Seattle who works near downtown, in Pioneer Square. Twice a day, he walks past one of the best bookstores in the country, Elliot Bay Book Co. But my friend buys his books at Amazon.com because of its convenience and the price discounts.

"It's the straw that breaks the camel's back," Masteller said of the popularity of Amazon.com and other online book retailers. "Ultimately, it's not good for the consumer."

Now, a giant in book retailing, Barnes & Noble, is aggressively trying to compete online with Amazon.com. Barnes & Noble is also partnered up with a giant publisher and the biggest book distributor in the country.

Pretty soon, there may be just a few guys deciding what gets published and sold in bookstores in this country. That's an exaggeration, of course, but maybe not such a great one.

In March, Kepler's and 25 other bookstores across the country filed a lawsuit against Barnes & Noble and Borders, alleging that the two retail chains made secret deals with publishers to gain an edge over independent bookstores and drive them out of business.

Clark Kepler said depositions in the lawsuit will begin after the first of the year. "It's the struggle for survival of the independents," Kepler said.

At some point in the future, having a locally owned bookstore in town may be a quaint memory, like the days when you pulled into a gas station and the guy pumped the gas for you and washed your windshield. Times, and business, change. It would be silly to argue otherwise.

But Palo Alto will lose a little bit of who we are when Printers Inc. closes in March.

Don Kazak is the Weekly's senior staff writer and book editor.



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