Monday, June 02, 2008

Paperback Dreams and Local Bookstores

Left to Right: Alex Beckstead, the director of Paperback Dreams, Leslie Berkler of Cody's Books, Clark Kepler of Kepler's Books, and Andy Ross of Cody's Books.

BEA is one big blur of conversation, interspersed with long walks carrying extremely heavy bags bulging with books.

Of course there are lots of wonderful moments. I enjoyed meeting the book bloggers Ron Hogan from Galley Cat and Carolyn Kellog from Pinky’s Paperhaus and hearing The Elegant Variation’s Mark Sarvas talk. I hung out with Kemble Scott, the author of the best-selling novel Soma and the editor of one of my

I was also delighted to finally meet Daniel Olivas, who is both Jewish and Latino. Although he is an attorney, he is a prolific fiction writer and book reviewer and just edited a wonderful collection of southern California stories called Latinos in Lotusland. His booth was next to the booth of Angel City Press, which publishes delightful local histories of Los Angeles. I have used their books in my research, particularly Kevin Roderick’s Wilshire Boulevard, a book chock full of pictures and musings about the famous boulevard. I was intrigued to hear about a biography of the Los Angeles pioneer Benjamin Wilson by Nat B. Read.

Of course, I was elated to discover the true identity of Miss Snark, who pines for her blog a year after it folded (mums the word.) The gin hadn't made her love George Clooney any less.

But there was only one moment I cried at BEA. (and it wasn’t when I rubbed my aching feet.)

I attended a screening of Paperback Dreams, a documentary by Alex Beckstead, on the recent struggles of Cody’s Books in Berkeley and Kepler’s Books in Menlo Park. Andy Ross and Lesley Berkler, the former owners of Cody’s were there, as was Clark Kepler, the owner of Kepler's.

The screening turned into a time for those who own independent bookstores and those who love them to talk about their strengths and challenges. The film will be shown on public television stations in November and Beckstead is hoping store owners will show it to their customers and use it as a way to strike up dialogue about the future of independents.

The film is quite good as it traces the history of these two iconic West Coast bookstores. It also establishes the importance of independents in the struggle for free speech. I had forgotten that the chain bookstores pulled Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses after Iran declared a fatwah against the writer. Andy Ross of Cody’s kept the book on the store’s shelves even after someone threw a Molotov cocktail inside the store. The Grateful Dead often played at Kepler's in the 1960s, where they stole ashtrays and played the same songs over and over.

The film also shows Kepler’s engaging in a direct dialogue with its customers to make the store more appealing. In response to customer requests to make the story more light and airy, Clark Kepler lowered the height of many of the bookshelves. He also reorganized the various sections and started to carry more non-book items. Kepler’s now is also a major sponsor of events in the community.

Both stores are still around, but the struggles continue. Ross and Berkler sold their store to Hiroshi Kagawa, a Japanese bookstore owner and distributor; Ross now operates a literary agency. Kepler is still involved with his store, but sees very slim profit margins.

The new owner of the Booksmith on Haight Street in San Francisco, Praveen Madan, attended the screening and talked optimistically about the future of independents, Madan has seen sales go up by double digits in the past year. Before he acquired the store, sales had dropped the previous five years.

Madan believes that a bookstore has to work extra hard to build a relationship with its customers and that survival depends on that special relationship. In the last few months he has taped all the author events at his store and put them on You Tube. He hopes that his videos build brand awareness and make people think Booksmith is a cool place to hang out. The push to put things on the Internet is also an acknowledgement that customers don’t always have the time to come in for a store reading, even though they want to hear what authors have to say, said Madan.

Paperback Dreams ends on a melancholy note, although Beckstead, the director, said he tried to make the ending upbeat. While many communities say they want their independent bookstores to remain viable, many people still look for the bargain, buying books at Costco and Barnes and Noble.

(One thing that makes BEA so interesting is the juxtaposition of different parts of the publishing industry. After seeing this film and telling myself I should never buy a book at Costco, I met the women from the company BTMS, or Baker & Taylor Marketing Services, which holds the contract to do all the book buying for Costco and Sam’s Clubs. They were great, and I really enjoyed talking to them at the Harlequin Party.)

1 comment:

Daniel Olivas said...

And so nice to meet you, finalmente! BEA was crazy but a blast. Can't wait for your book, Frances.