How To Make A Bookstore Fail: An open letter to San Francisco and everone who loves bookstores

How to Make a Bookstore Fail:
An open letter to San Francisco and people who love bookstores.

Many people think if you have a bookstore in this day and age, you are destined for failure. It’s not always easy, but my experience owning Bibliohead Bookstore proves it can be at least modestly profitable. My little used bookstore has posted gross increases of at least 7 percent for the last several years. Compared to other bookstores our size, we have very high sales per square foot. This past June was one of our strongest months ever. I can afford to take a vacation once in a great while. Do I have a new car? No. Eat in fancy restaurants? Shop at Whole Paycheck? Do I own my home? No, No and No. Yet somehow I, like so many of us, manage to live in San Francisco. What I do own is a beautiful overstuffed bookstore many people love in the exploding neighborhood of Hayes Valley.

In 2004 after working for almost 20 years in other bookstores, I borrowed $20,000 from a colleague, and friends helped me open my store. It was a joyous bookstore-raising. We built the shelves, and filled them. My stock was spotty at first, but things began to click and soon the inventory became voluptuous. We flourished despite the onslaught of Amazon, and e-books. Our goal is to represent the reading passions of a wide range of readers with all the beautiful and oddball books you can’t replicate with virtual reading. We sell dollar specials and thousand dollar literary treasures with lots in between.

This worked pretty well even in lean times, and I have paid my rent every month, as of this writing 119 times. Yet today I am faced with difficulties that may be insurmountable.

We may fail without having ever been a failure.

In May the building owner let me know his plans for soft story retrofitting were taking an unexpected turn. He did not think I could meet his requirements for a new lease after mine expires at the end of August. They include paying for our own renovations to the retail space (separate from the retrofitting) and paying double the rent, after vacating the premises for at least 4 months while the project is completed. I was told in no uncertain terms the ownership preferred a high end boutique. If you know Hayes Valley, you know that’s what they’ve got a lot of.

In reality they were done with me and Bibliohead, even though I developed a plan to meet the owner’s requirements. I figured if I was going to pay a lot more money, why not try to stay in the location that made my name and helped cement my success, especially as it became evident finding a new storefront was not going to be easy?

The answer was still “no.”

For months I have focused on spaces available by the end of August. This timing tends to be more profitable: get your business started, work out the kinks, and soon the holiday season gives you a boost.

But I have had no luck, and am running out of time.

Because many properties are currently subject to soft story retrofitting, they are vacant and in limbo. The ones that have been finished are more expensive. Even sleepy storefronts with no walk-by traffic are going for heretofore unheard of sums of money. Competition is fierce for spaces that are available. I have looked at bombed-out looking beauty parlors strewn with debris. I have looked at new construction whose build out costs are high and in locations that are iffy. My agent has been hollered at by a landlord who only rents to people who own their home. I have been beat out in bidding wars.

The ownership’s original plans for January construction would allow me to stay through Christmas as a backup plan. But now I have been told that their plans for retrofitting and other building upgrades have gone haywire in the meantime. As of this writing, the best they can do is let me stay through September, as contractors need earlier access than originally planned.

This is how you make a bookstore fail.

The city requires, rightly, this retrofit work to be done. I lived through the 1989 earthquake while working at Green Apple Books and organized search parties to account for everyone. But my entire future is in the balance as there are no mechanisms to protect me. I have no legal standing, unless you count an obvious moral standing. There are no laws that protect me or other business owners who will be affected by the retrofitting process in this way. There are no protections from rent spiraling out of control. There are no protections from overdoing the boutique concept in a neighborhood booming with new residents and workers where you can’t buy basic everyday goods. There is certainly no commercial rent control, thanks to Proposition 13. (Thanks, Dianne Feinstein for trying.) There is no protection for this lifelong bookseller who may have to kiss it all good-bye.

I do not intend in this writing to bang the drum against landlords. Right now I need to find a landlord that will recognize me as the good tenant that I am. Certainly someone out there has a storefront with excellent walk-by that knows bookstores enrich the city. Some say bookstores increase property values. Yes, there’s a limit to what I can afford, but allow me as an entrepreneur to meet the challenges in front of me the way I met them ten years ago.

Allow me to be the creative problem solver that has been successful and brought joy, entertainment, and insight to others.

It has been heartbreaking to tell new customers who come in excited to find a new bookstore what is happening. It is heartbreaking to tell loyal customers that I may move or disappear. It is heartbreaking to tell those that work for me I still haven’t found a solution yet. Inevitably the conversation turns to how San Francisco has changed and how aggravating the notion is of yet another boutique replacing Bibliohead. It is heartbreaking contemplating my future. Sell the stock that I nurtured for pennies on the dollar? Go online and talk to myself all day in a warehouse, with the same result? Watch the store disappear that I built with my own hands? Get a job at Best Buy? It could happen.

We all know the city has changed.

But does everything that celebrates San Francisco’s culture and history have to disappear before we notice what is missing? What will happen to real estate prices then? Look around. There’s hardly anything Mom and Pop left. Favorite stores, many of which celebrate the creative culture and history of San Francisco, are closing. Soon you will have to be rich to live here, rich to work here, rich do to do business here. And things will get boring very quickly.

My bookstore has not failed.

San Francisco is failing my bookstore. San Francisco is failing me and other residents who fell in love with this great city. When will San Francisco do right by us, by honoring the diversity and spirit that has made it a special place to live?

Please, if you are that landlord or know one, contact me. If you have other ideas, let us know. I want Bibliohead to stay in San Francisco, my home of almost 30 years.

Please do something today to help preserve San Francisco for all of us.

Let’s start a conversation about what that something can be.

Thank you for all your support in this difficult time, and for our ten years. Thank you to all who contributed to our Indiegogo campaign. I hope that we will have great news to report soon. We hope to see you soon and please do keep on shopping.

Melissa Richmond, owner
Bibliohead Bookstore
334 Gough Street
San Francisco, CA 94102
bibliohead@sbcglobal.net
415 621 6772

Happy Birthday United States!

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Well, unfortunately we are out of the World Cup so there’s slightly less reason to shout USA USA USA! this July 4th. But having no good reason for shouting never stopped us before. USA! USA! USA! Also, it’s America’s birthday! USA!

Happy July 4th! Before you drink and play with explosives come on by the store for some great deals. We will be open the normal hours: 11-9. And remember, small stores like Bibliohead are not just places to buy stuff, they are forums for discussion and debate. A good, cozy independent bookstore always gives encourages critique and celebration. We at Bibliohead have always conceived of the store as part of the vibrant public sphere that is so necessary to a functioning democracy. Help us continue with that tradition. Visit here for more information on how you can help this July 4th.

Meetings with Remarkable Books: Madame Blavatsky

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Well, such a series would be sorely lacking if we didn’t have an appearance from Madame Helena Blavatsky. The world-traveling polymath of the occult, Madame Blavatsky has had a huge influence on spiritualism. She was central to the burgeoning interest in spiritualism and the occult beginning in the nineteenth century.  After traveling the world, with classic stops in places like Tibet, Egypt and Greece she began setting up various organizations. Most notably, in 1875 Blavatsky founded the Theosophical Society in New York City with Henry Steel Olcott and William Judge. Soon after she completed some of her most famous work, including The Secret Doctrine and Isis Unveiled both pictured below.

 

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She also ended up with American citizenship, so feel free to celebrate her this weekend. Also look at those beautiful volumes above. They’re also red white and blue! Who knew that a Russian spiritualist could make one feel so patriotic?

Pride Parade Reads

Come up to Hayes Valley for a breather from all the action at Civic Center. We have lot’s of great books, including these two recent lambda award winners.

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And don’t forget to check out our fundraising campaign! https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/help-save-bibliohead-bookstore

Watt and more

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Beckett wrote Watt during WWII, while working in Paris for the French resistance until his group was betrayed to the Gestapo and he went into hiding in Roussillon. Somehow, such a suspenseful existence didn’t really seem to make its way into this, Beckett’s last novel length work written in English. Instead, the story of Watt, a strange, strange man and servant to the reclusive Mr. Knott is filled with some of Beckett’s funniest writing. We get permutations obsessively played out, the most straight faced slapstick ever written, and a brilliant, and I mean brilliant send up of Beckett’s old academic life at Trinity College, Dublin in a strange, extended scene.

 

If one is new to reading Beckett’s prose, I think this might be the best place to start. His earlier work, while wonderful, tends toward an absurdity of erudition. Still under the spell of Joyce, books like Murphy and More Pricks than Kicks are fantastic but they are still the work of a writer who, while incredibly intelligent and witty, is maybe a little unsure about the whole writing thing. He seeks to impress a little too much. Which is not say that I don’t recommend those books heartily, just maybe not to start with. My humble opinion places the trilogy, Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnameable, at the apex of Beckett’s oeuvre and near the apex of western literature. There is really nothing like those three books. However, they are a commitment, and while they ease one into the rapid breathless prose of The Unnameable, it might be a little much for some. So, Watt. It has all the best bits of Beckett, and we have a gorgeous copy.

photo 4Watt was written, as mentioned during the Second World War, but it was not published until after Beckett’s  amazingly productive period  after the war. He wrote some his most famous works, including Waiting for Godot, Endgame, the above mentioned trilogy. With the success of Godot and co. making publishing much easier for Beckett, this novel appeared only to be somewhat over-shadowed by the postwar work written in French. It is a brilliant work, though.

We have a great collection of Beckett’s works at Bibliohead, including the reason behind this post. Watt. We also have a cheap, pocket edition of the above mentioned trilogy and more. Come check it out!

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Hey John Lennon Fans!

Hey John Lennon fans, are you fan enough to make it through, A Spaniard in the Works ? lennon1

 

Originally published in 1965, this book contains all the silly language play and absurdity that one would expect from one of the great progenitors of psychedelia. It also has adorable drawings.

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One might have also expected, after reading a page of this book, that it is  somehow impossible outside of the sixties, that on January 1st, 1970, a book like this would just evaporate or turn to ashes. Some, after reading a page, may wish that it had indeed remained in that storied decade. And yet…here we have it, gracing the shelves of Bibliohead. Others have contended that this is a work of timeless value. As such it was reprinted in the 90′s. This, however is a fifth printing, a little rough around the edges but still in pretty decent condition and straight out of the 1960s.

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If this isn’t enough for you, we also currently have a first edition, sans dust jacket, of Lennon’s Skywriting  By Word of Mouth.

Meetings with Remarkable Books: The Chakras

 

And here we have yet another in our installment:

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In his classic 1927 monograph THE CHAKRAS, C.W. Leadbeater (long-time associate of the Theosophical Society and founding bishop of the Liberal Catholic Church) collects and updates a series of earlier articles elaborating and synthesizing various eastern doctrines associated with the nadis and chakras. The author claims that his work is among the first published in the English language on the topic. Bibliohead Bookstore is proud to offer for sale a choice first edition of this pioneering work on yoga, replete with several color plates depicting the various energy centers. Published 1927 by the Theosophical Press, Chicago, cloth. Below are two of our favorite chakras.

 

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The Root Chakra

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The Spleen Chakra

Meetings with Remarkable Books: A Treatise on Cosmic Fire

Up next in our metaphysical series: A TREATISE ON COSMIC FIRE

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photo 2A TREATISE ON COSMIC FIRE by Alice A. Bailey is an expansive exploration of speculative physics, psychology and cosmology in a theosophical key (no less than 13 hundred pages!). In fact, the Anglo-American author dedicated the work to her revered teacher Helena Blavatsky, who (in)famously co-founded the Theosophical Society in 1875.  First published in 1925, the work purports to have been dictated to the author telepathically from the mind of an ancient master of esoteric lore referred to as “The Tibetan.” Our well preserved copy is a second edition published in 1930,  by Lucis, New York. Highly collectable for lovers of magic, esotericism and metaphysics.

Meetings with Remarkable Books: The Science of Mind

We recently acquired a fantastic load of hard-to-find metaphysical books. We will be featuring some of them over the next few weeks, or until some lucky seeker comes in and buys them up. We are calling this series, Meetings with Remarkable Books, in homage to that mustachioed mystic, G.I. Gurdjieff. First up: The Science of Mind.

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THE SCIENCE OF MIND was written in 1926 by American author Ernest Shurtleff Holmes, well known as founder of the Religious Science movement. The present volume, heavily influenced by the writings of Thomas Troward (whose titles may also be found at Bibliohead) is a foundational text of the movement, a didactic work of practical spiritual instruction, indicating “the technique by which the seeker after truth may obtain freedom from the oppression of a mechanistic civilization.” Seekers-after-truth, BE WARY! Ours is a beautifully maintained copy from 1928 is from the third printing by McBride, New York.