By Michael Berry
After years of dwindling sales and gloomy news, some independent bookstores in Berkeley – as well as around the Bay Area and across the nation – are bouncing back and are again in a celebratory mood.
Saturday May 2 marks both the return of California Bookstore Day and the first national Independent Bookstore Day. For book lovers, the day brings opportunities to meet authors, purchase exclusive merchandise, and participate in all manner of readings, signings and literary parties.
Four hundred stores across the nation will participate this year. In California, 93 stores plan to participate, including many in Berkeley. The first National Independent Bookstore Day is sponsored in part by Penguin Random House and The American Booksellers Association.
According to Hut Landon, executive director of the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association (NCIBA), independent bookstores across the nation are doing well. During each of the past three years, indies have seen a collective growth in sales. The American Booksellers Association has reported an increase in the number of independent bookstores nationwide, with 59 new ABA members in 2014.
Landon credits the current resurgence of indies across the country to three main factors: the closing of the Borders chain (“That helped everybody else a little bit.”); the efforts by NCIBA, ABA and the eight other regional associations to educate their members in best business practices (“For anyone who thinks owning a bookstore means you get to read behind the counter all day, they’ll be in business for about six months.”); and the growing interest of shopping local.
California Bookstore Day was the brainchild of Pete Mulvihill of San Francisco’s Green Apple Books. Mulvihill had witnessed the popularity of Record Store Day and brought a similar idea to NCIBA.
The time was apparently right. Participating 2014 bookstores saw an average increase in sales from 20-60% on California Bookstore Day and a one-day collective revenue increase of more than $150,000.
“Five years ago, we couldn’t have done this event,” said Landon, “because the bookstores wouldn’t have been involved. They would have said, ‘There’s too much going on and we’re just trying to get by.’ The idea of organizing this big thing would have sounded too overwhelming.”
Sixteen exclusive books and art pieces have been created for IBD 2015. Available only at participating IBD bookstores on May 2, the items represent work donated by more than 65 authors, including cartoonist Chris Ware, New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast, essayist Roxane Gay, “Captain Underpants” creator Dav Pilkey and bestselling writers Margaret Atwood and Stephen King.
Bookstore Day plans for stores in Berkeley and Oakland offer a wide range of activities.
Pegasus Oakland and Pegasus Solano will start the party early. On April 28 at 8 p.m., the Oakland store will host the Second Annual Literary Pub Trivia, hosted by KC Bowman at Ben and Nick’s (5612 College Ave.). On May 1 at 7:30 p.m., Pegasus on Solano will present “A Special Evening of Happy Hour Stories.”
On May 2, at 7:30 p.m., Pegasus Downtown will host a special event with Mallory Ortberg, co-creator of The Toast and author of “Texts from Jane Eyre.”
Manuela Aronofsky, events coordinator for Pegasus, sees Bookstore Day as a chance to celebrate the stores’ continuing recent success. “We had a really great holiday, and [sales] have remained really good this year.”
Bookstore Day plans at Mrs. Dalloway’s on College Avenue include a Kids’ Joke-A-Thon, a hands-on pruning workshop with Ann Ralph, author of “Grow a Little Fruit Tree,” and plants for sale from Leslie Piels of Toad’s Potted Plants. The “Elmwood’s Got Talent!” show will highlight 12 contestants performing in three-minute slots. Potential participants should contact Eric Peterson at firstname.lastname@example.org with a short description of their talent.
Mrs Dalloway’s co-owner Marion Abbott said: “We’re looking forward to welcoming all our dear bookstore friends and family on what promises to be a fun-filled day.”
Music, non-alcoholic mixed drinks and 20% off all stock are on the menu at Moe’s Books for Happy Hour between 4 and 6 p.m. John Schott will perform with the Actual Trio (from the Actual Café at Alcatraz and San Pablo).
Moe’s will also use the event to promote “New Mo’ Cut: David Peoples’ lost film of Moe’s Books.” The short documentary chronicles the opening night party of the Telegraph Avenue store in 1965 and features 16mm footage discovered at the Berkeley dump. Customers can pick up a free original movie poster.
Asked about the current state of the book business, however, owner Doris Moskowitz, said: “It’s not very good. Telegraph is pretty tough. It’s a tough time for sales.”
Landon of NCIBA acknowledged that booksellers still face difficult competition on an uneven playing field.
“We’re dealing with Amazon and all the other discounters,” he said. “One of the old arguments is ‘Well, your costs go up, you raise your prices.’ Our prices are printed on the books. We can’t raise them.”
Moskowitz, however, said she is excited about Bookstore Day. “It makes us feel connected to the larger [bookselling] community.”
Christina Creveling, a managing partner of University Press Books on Bancroft Avenue, which caters to a more academic clientele, said that she isn’t planning much for May 2, beyond some decorations and perhaps some special displays. Nevertheless, she said she feel connected to her fellow local booksellers.
“The overall picture is that we’re all very collegial. The reason there are so many bookstores left in this area is because we’ve been so supportive of each other,” Creveling said. “We’re all interested in helping each other survive.”
“It’s all fun and games. It’s a big party,” said John Evans of Diesel Books in Oakland. His store plans to serve food and libations on Bookstore Day, as well as hold a scavenger hunt and a trivia contest.
“I think it’ll be interesting to see how many more people will turn out. It was very busy for us last year. I think we were up 80% for that day, 180% of our normal business.”
Although Diesel closed its Malibu store in August, sales at the Oakland store are up 10% or 11% since last September. Evans said the Larkspur store and the Brentwood store in Santa Monica stores are also doing well.
Books Inc. at Fourth Street had hoped to relocate to North Berkeley before Bookstore Day, but it proved impossible to get the permits to move into the former Black Oak Books storefront in time.
Manager Schyler Baker said: “The way the date kept changing made it impossible for us to set up any kind of author-related events for CBD. Which was what we really wanted to do.” This year, the Books Inc. on Fourth Street will feature a set of “round-robin” story posters and book-making lessons.
Baker looks forward to setting up shop on Shattuck Avenue. “Once we get over there, we’ll be excited to check out the new neighborhood. It’s a larger space, so we’ll be able to expand our children’s section and cooking section. We’re going to have a lot of author events.”
No matter what they choose to do on May 2, East Bay bookstores serve a special purpose every day they’re open.
“Every publisher you talk to will tell you independent bookstores discover new authors,” Landon said. “Doesn’t happen on Amazon or Barnes & Noble. Authors like Barbara Kingsolver and Stephen King will tell you that they might not have had writing careers if it weren’t for independent booksellers who discovered their first books, hand-sold them to their customers and told them, ‘This is someone you want to know.'”
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