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Decline and Fall of One Store

September 03, 1986|MIKE GRANBERRY | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — Owning a small independent bookstore in the 1980s is, under the best of circumstances, a tough go. Chain operations are a threat, as are the increasingly fickle tastes of consumers.

One proprietor, who asked not to be quoted by name, said any new independent bookstore venture would require a minimum of $80,000 to $100,000. And that's not counting the fixtures--lights, tables, shelves, etc.--not to mention overhead or employees.

A noted example of a shop that closed is Plum's Books, a small, elegant little place that occupied a spot on West Lewis Street in Mission Hills. Plum's lasted roughly five years, finally dying in the summer of '85.

Melissa Bernstrom, co-owner of Plum's, now works as assistant manager of the Doubleday Book Shop in Horton Plaza. Doubleday, a chain operation, now has a competitor with today's opening of Brentano's at the plaza. Bernstrom likes the security of working for a stable operation but misses the freedom--the exhilaration--of owning her own place.

Plum's demise "came down to financial considerations," she said, "and to the fact that both of us (she and partner Jim Wiles) were really exhausted."

A small business, like a bookstore, sooner or later saps the energy of even the most driven. The thrill of being your own boss--of raising your own creation--is the trade-off. Bernstrom found it hard to attain a perfect location, hers not having enough foot traffic. Other small shops in the area also died.

Despite the hardships, losing Plum's was "a bit like losing a child," she said. "But if I ever win the lottery, I'll open up again."

She loved specializing in children's books and poetry, and in feminist literature, another area in which many say San Diego is sadly lacking. On a winter day in 1985, one reader's search for a collection called "The Writer on Her Work" culminated at Plum's. The book carries a beautiful essay by New England writer Ingrid Bengis. Of at least a dozen stores, only Plum's carried it, and it had three copies.

"I can't say I would do anything differently," Bernstrom said, with a sigh and a wistful look back.

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