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
334 Gough Street
San Francisco, CA 94102
415 621 6772