Photo by Sarah Deragon/Portraits to the People.
Many Bay Area natives hold a special memory of their local, neighborhood bookstore; whether it was buying a copy of Howl from City Lights, relaxing in the hammock on the back porch of Feldmans and sorting through their new stack of books, or crowding into Moe’s with all 20 other UC Berkeley comparative literature majors for poetry flash on a Thursday night. In countless ways, bookstores color our lives.
Yet these landmarks are endangered. In fact, local bookstores were endangered long before the pandemic. First, there was the rise of the chains such as Barnes and Noble, and Borders. Then there was the gradual transition from print to e-books. Along with, of course, the emergence of Amazon. So when the pandemic occurred and small, local, non-essential Bay Area businesses were forced to close, independent bookstores were placed in greater jeopardy. To help combat these dire circumstances, local writers and community members formed We Love Bookstores—a movement to raise money and support to help keep local bookstores open.
Charlie Jane Anders, a local writer and one of We Love Bookstores’ original organizers, explained the mission behind the movement.
“We thought we should do something else to help local bookstores,” she said. “Bookstores have really, really thin margins. They have high rents, they have high payroll costs and other costs, and they can’t change the price of the thing they sell. We wanted to make sure bookstores would still be around once things returned to some version of normal.”
These operational costs, alongside competing sales to online retailers, were only exacerbated by quarantine closures, forcing local bookstores—such as Berkeley’s 46-year-old University Press Books—to permanently close.
To prevent further closures and to help indie bookstores withstand Covid-19’s economic impact, We Love Bookstores hosts a series of fundraisers via Zoom, which people can register to attend on a donation basis. Alia Volz, a local author and one of the organizers behind We Love Bookstores’ events, explained the process of planning these fundraisers.
“Several of us will brainstorm to put together each event,” Volz said. “We’ll start tapping around names in an organic way from our contact list and trying to find a way to always make it inclusive, relevant, contemporary. One of the things that we’ve done from the beginning is pair authors like me, who are affected by Covid, with established, big-name authors to simultaneously boost that author who’s having a tough go at it and support indie bookstores.”
We Love Bookstores has already raised thousands of dollars hosting multiple events including a virtual poetry reading with Daveed Diggs, Robin Coste Lewis and Danez Smith that raised over $10,000 for Marcus Books in Oakland, and a panel discussion with non-binary and trans writers with funds going to Adobe Books in San Francisco. These virtual events provide funding for local bookstores, as well as opportunities for bookstores to connect with their communities during the current global and local political movements. Hosting community events that engage in the national conversation, indie bookstores serve as cultural hubs in their respective neighborhoods.
“There are parts of the Bay where there’s one indie bookstore and that’s the heart of the community,” Volz said. “It’s somewhere people can go to be part of the broader cultural conversation. Indie bookstores will find a way to develop an event series that matches the ethos of the community to what is going on the broader cultural dialogue.”
Despite the cultural significance of local bookstores, consumers increasingly rely on online booksellers, such as Amazon, due to their lower prices and favorable shipping policies. E-commerce sales have shot up by 30 percent since sheltering-in-place began, with books undergoing a 295 percent increase in sales growth—the highest increase in online sales of any product, including groceries, electronics, and health and beauty items. Furthermore, e-book sales skyrocketed by 777 percent from the first half of March 2020 to the first half of April 2020.
However, We Love Bookstores insists that the consumer experience of buying from a local bookstore is intrinsically more valuable than purchasing books online.
“Booksellers and bookstore owners, they’re doing this because they love books and they go the extra mile to help customers discover books that they might love; they get to know their customers in a really special way and you know you can just discover your new favorite author in a local bookstore,” Anders said. “A bookstore is a really magical place where you can just spend a lot of time surrounded by books and browse and discover something new that you never knew you were going to fall in love with.”
Independent bookstores typically require their staff to possess extensive literary knowledge, as famously demonstrated by New York City’s renowned bookstore, Strand, which asks job applicants to take a lengthy book quiz.
“Indie booksellers are super passionate about what they do—it’s not a job that you do if you’re not passionate about it—and are going to have a tremendous catalog in their minds of what’s coming out, what’s new,” Volz said. “Amazon’s algorithm will pretend to do that; it lacks a personal touch and lacks insight and cultural context.”
Yet, indie bookstores patrons such as Volz don’t criticize those who look to online sellers to purchase their books.
“I totally respect and acknowledge that the cheapest option is the best option for some people,” Volz said. “But every penny you give to Amazon is a penny taken out of the pocket of an indie bookstore. Then you lose your bookstore. When they close, it’s not there anymore and something has died in the community.”
Speaking as an author, Volz still sees no value in selling books through major online retailers like Amazon over indie bookstores.
“The support of the indie community can absolutely make an author,” Volz said. “When you have the indie bookselling community behind you, they are going to hand-sell your book, they are going to talk to people about your book. It’s a level of personalization and connection that you are not going to get from a website and not going to get from Barnes and Noble, either. You can’t get it from the corporate world, it’s just not there.”
At the height of Bay Area shelter-in-place restrictions, sales of Volz’s new book, Home Baked: My Mom, Marijuana, and the Stoning of San Francisco, were threatened as she had to cancel her book tour. However, Patrick Marks, the owner of Green Arcade Books, reached out to her to ask if she would like to do a book signing out of the trunk of his car.
“I got to sign my first copies of Home Baked on the trunk of a car,” Volz said. “For weeks, [Marks] was the only person in the country who had signed copies. You have this personal relationship with booksellers. Amazon can’t give you that.”
Considering the personal connections, cultural value and literary experience local bookstores offer, movements such as We Love Bookstores remain critical in helping to sustain the vibrancy and culture of Bay Area neighborhoods. We Love Bookstores recommends various ways to help them do so.
To support indie bookstores through We Love Bookstores, Bay Area locals can register and donate to upcoming events by visiting the movement’s website. They can also buy a gift card from a local bookstore and donate to the GoFundMe pages of bookstores such as Dog Eared Books and Alley Cat. Moreover, with restrictions being lifted, more bookstores are offering curbside pickup and deliveries.
“There’s almost always an indie alternative that will be good for your community and will help ensure that these cultural institutions that we rely on champion authors and bring authors to us, to our community, to help keep the culture updated, and fluid and moving,” Volz said. “In a lot of ways, indie bookstores are cultural arbiters.”