What Stacey’s Taught Me: A Manifesto in the Defense of Bookstores

Stacey’s is closing. Now you can even buy the fixtures of the octogenarian bookstore located at Market and Second Street. Saturday March 14, 2009 will sign the last page of a sweet turned sour love story between the bookstore and San Francisco’s Financial District.

When I went there two weeks ago to stock up on young readers and chapter books, the shelves already looked right out of the post-Soviet era: two thirds empty, one third full of random titles in unpredictable numbers.

Stacey’s falls victim to the economic crisis, sure, but didn’t we all sign its death warrant by using Amazon.com in the first place?

It’s like in that horribly bad movie with Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks called You’ve Got Mail. The movie’s corny at best but it sums things up pretty well. Small children’s neighborhood bookstore thrives. Big bookstore opens around the corner. Small bookstore slowly abandoned by formerly loyal customers and authors. Impossible love hate story between big bookstore capitalist owner and small bookstore book-lover employee. The (happy) end. Except in Stacey’s case, no white knight came to the rescue.

Amazon.com is easy to use. You don’t have to go to it, it sneaks to you inside your home on your favorite companion – your computer screen. It jumps at you – more like – if you get blasted by regular marketing emails.

Check mate dear old Stacey’s. The lunch-time author readings, the partnership with the Commonwealth Club, the gift-wrapping service on the mezzanine were not enough.

Is this the end of bookstores? Hopefully not, but it’s a sure wake-up call to traditional bookstores. Guys, you gotta shake things up if you want to survive. Sadly, bookstores cannot just be bookstores anymore.

The Corte Madera illustrious Book Passage probably gets more revenue from its conferences, workshops and writing salons than from its book sales. Good thing they’re friends with Isabel Allende too.

Other bookstores become community centers with books on the shelves. Last Saturday, I attended a small party at Red Hill Books for the second printing of Bernal Eats, a cookbook by the Bernal Heights community to fund the renovation of its library branch. I contributed two recipes and co-author Judy Shei (here on the picture) asked me if I could make one of them for the party. I obliged and brought three different jars of grapefruit marmelade.

It was sweet. There was live music by OctoMutt, kids running around, a buffet prepared by local families and a beaming employee of the Friends of the San Francisco Public Library. “We sold 250 copies of the book over the holidays and we’ll probably sell another 100 today,” she said.

Meanwhile, my husband was reading books on how to mummify your relatives to my Egypt-obsessed junior crew. Bookstores like that bring a lot more than book readings to a neighborhood.

Another great example is Cover to Cover in Noe Valley. It holds a special place in the San Francisco teen literati hall of fame: when J.K. Rowling toured the US to sell the first Harry Potter, the only stop she made on the West Coast was at Cover to Cover. There. Since then, the bookstore has organized late night pajama parties for the launch of each of the books of the series.

As Noe Valley is stroller heaven in the southern part of the city, they also have a very good selection of children’s books with – my favorite part – a small wooden house in the kids section where children love to hide and play while parents browse. Storytime every Friday. Cover to Cover also delivers free of charge to Potrero Hill, Noe Valley, the Mission and Bernal Heights. Now, are you convinced?

Now, what have I learned from Stacey’s slow funeral? Last Friday I was eavesdropping at the office in the kitchen. Two guys were talking loud. They wanted to see the movie “Watchmen” but anticipated disappointment as they so much loved reading the comic book. One guy particularly talked about his hardcover edition from his teenage years.

It made me want to read the book. That same afternoon, I logged on Amazon.com. I selected two hardcover copies (one for my husband, one for my older brother). I hit “Checkout”, selected a credit card and was about to hit “Send” when I thought about Stacey’s.

I deleted the screen, found the website of Cover to Cover, and emailed them my order. “You’ll have your books by Tuesday,” they replied that night. Fine, I could wait. No hurry.

Today I dropped by. My girls played in the little wooden house while the bookseller wrapped the books. I felt relieved. Phew! I almost used Amazon.com again. Books don’t belong in virtual reality. They need shelves, papery neighbors and above all, a good bookseller who knows his books better than a librarian. Hopefully other people will start using their bookstore not just as a place to browse through books you order later online, but as a place to buy books.

And why not, knitting or book club places too? Now, if only San Francisco saw wine bars/bookstores like in Paris La Belle Hortense, wouldn’t that beat any online experience?

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Laure Latham

Laure is an author, environmental advocate, blogger, open water swimmer and now mother. She's passionate about inspiring families to enjoy the outdoors with their children, learning to unplug and living a healthy lifestyle, giving kids life skills and exploring the world around us sharing Family Friendly, Fun Ideas for the whole family on Frog Mom.

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