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Bookshops' latest sad plot twist

San Francisco, a city of readers, thought itself immune to nationwide shifts in buying habits. But once-cherished stores are folding fast.

February 07, 2007|David Streitfeld | Times Staff Writer

San Francisco — FIVE years ago, Gary Frank decided to sell his bookstore here.

The Booksmith had built a fine reputation over a quarter of a century, thanks to an impressive series of author appearances and a high-traffic location in the old hippie neighborhood of Haight-Ashbury.

Yet hardly anyone expressed interest. Frank was disappointed but not surprised.

"Maybe they saw the future," he said.

A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books, open since 1982 near City Hall, sought a buyer, couldn't find one, and closed last summer. Cody's Books shut its flagship Berkeley store after a half-century run. Black Oak Books closed one of its stores and is considering shutting the other two if a buyer can't be found. Numerous small new and secondhand stores have fallen with little fanfare.

The casualties are nationwide. Coliseum Books and Murder Ink in Manhattan shut down in recent weeks. Micawber Books in Princeton, N.J., couldn't make it. Dutton's 2-year-old outpost in Beverly Hills has closed, and the original Dutton's in Brentwood will be forced to shrink or relocate if the landlord carries through with plans to redevelop the site.

Rising rents and competition from the chains have imperiled independents for years, but San Francisco used to think it was immune. Cody's and other Bay Area stores helped spark the Beat movement, encouraged the counterculture, fueled the initial protests against the Vietnam War. In a region that sees itself as smart and civilized, bookshops were things to be cherished.

No longer, apparently. The stores that are still in business feel compelled to underline that fact.

"Rare but Not Extinct," one proclaimed in a holiday ad. Another, announcing a special sale in a leaflet, felt the need to emphasize, "We're not going out of business."

WHAT'S undermining the stores is a massive shift in buying habits brought about by the Internet. Ordering from Amazon.com, Frank said, has almost become the generic term for book buying.

Technology changes behavior, which reshapes the physical landscape. The era of repertory movie houses playing "Casablanca" and "High Noon" ended with the VCR. The telephone booth was replaced by the beeper, which was made obsolete by the cellphone. And the newspaper is under siege by the Internet's ability to recombine and distribute news without leaving ink on your hands.

"The bookstore as we know it is in dire straits," said Lewis Buzbee, a novelist who spent many years working in the local shops.

That sense of peril is doubtless one reason "The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop," Buzbee's loving memoir of his time as a clerk in the Bay Area interspersed with a history of the bookselling trade, has become a small but genuine hit. It's just gone into its fourth printing, with enthusiastic crowds flocking to the writer's appearances.

"One thing books do is offer us concrete definitions for sometimes hazy feelings," said Buzbee, 49. "My memoir gives people a venue for sharing their emotions about bookstores."

A good bookstore, he notes, is unlike any other retail space. Where else can you linger, sample the merchandise and then casually reject it if not quite right? Your local pizzeria would frown on such behavior. In a culture that worships money, bookstores are one of the few commercial institutions where cost doesn't trump all other considerations. Massive bestsellers share shelf space with the most obscure tomes.

Buzbee exalts a place where time seems to slow but hours can disappear in an instant, where browsers coexist in a companionable solitude, where a chance encounter with the exact right volume might create an explosion in your head.

"Not only could your world change, but the rest of the world could change," he told an audience at the venerable City Lights bookstore in North Beach.

It was a message that Kim Webster, an apartment concierge, heard and found eloquent. She said Buzbee captured "the essence, the nirvana feeling, the power of the written word."

But she didn't buy his $17 volume that night. Maybe later, she said, maybe from her local chain superstore. And if she missed it there, the Internet is an emporium that never closes.

THIS is the paradox of modern bookselling. Even in an entertainment-saturated age, people still buy books. But the casual reader has many other places to get bestsellers and topical books, from warehouse stores to the mall. Meanwhile, book nuts -- the ones who simply must buy several volumes a week -- are lured online. Few businesses can survive that lose customers from both ends of the spectrum.

In 1995, anyone seeking a book that was the least bit uncommon had to have a store special order it from the publisher. If it was out of print, the would-be reader needed to trudge to the local secondhand shop, which would run a classified advertisement in AB Bookman's Weekly, a magazine that circulated among book dealers. It was a hit-or-miss proposition.

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