David Inman walks into the Other Change of Hobbit, a science-fiction bookstore in Berkeley, with only a vague idea of what he's looking for. "I think the cover was blue and it had a spaceship kind of flying off," Inman tells the man behind the counter, who happens to be the store's owner, David Nee.
"Do you remember the author's name at all?" Nee asks. "Around when it was published?"
"I think it was a Russian author," Inman says.
Nee pauses for a moment, as if sifting through files in his head. After a few more questions, the two determine that the author is not in fact Russian, the book came out in the 1980s, and that it is not in stock. Inman still walks out with a stack of books, though, based on Nee's recommendations.
These kinds of questions are common at all three of the Bay Area's science-fiction bookstores. At least once every hour, people walk into Borderlands Books on Valencia Street in San Francisco, or into The Other Change of Hobbit and Dark Carnival in Berkeley, hoping to find a text they remember from their past. The store clerks are often able to reunite them, or at least find a similarly interesting book.
"I'm in this for the joy of someone coming back and saying, 'I really loved that book that you recommended. What else can you get me?'" Nee says.
Despite seeing only 50 to 100 customers per day, all three locations are holding their own at a time when most science-fiction bookstores across the country have shuttered their doors, according to the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association. All specialty bookstores have suffered from the influx of chain stores and online competition from sites such as Amazon. But with its three sci-fi bookstores, the Bay Area quite possibly boasts the country's highest concentration of stores devoted to futuristic literature.
At one point during a recent visit, Borderlands owner Alan Beatts and a couple of friends went around in a circle trying to think of stores in other cities that are still open. There are no surviving stores in Los Angeles or Washington D.C.; Minneapolis has two; and one store remains in both Austin and in San Diego, they recall. Science Fiction, Mysteries and More in New York City closed because of landlord problems, Beatts says.
Beatts and his Bay Area counterparts believe that no specialty sci-fi bookstores will fill the void when they eventually close. "I feel like how the village blacksmith must have felt when he saw the Model T Ford coming down the street," he says.
Beatts opened Borderlands 10 years ago, making it one of the last sci-fi bookstores to open in the country, he says. (He started the store mainly with his personal collection; the rest of the stock came from another store that was closing.)
So why have sci-fi bookstores been able to stay open in the Bay Area while they close everywhere else?
Bay Area readers shop more often at independently owned bookstores, says Hut Landon, executive director of the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association. "They understand the effect bringing Wal-Mart into a community will have, and they don't want that," he said. "People want to support the types of stores that support the community they live in."
Both The Other Change of Hobbit and Dark Carnival owners have seen an increase in sales since Barnes and Noble closed in downtown Berkeley last year.
All three specialty stores have a dedicated clientele: The owners estimate that three-quarters of their first-time customers later return with their friends. "I'm so glad this store exists," Borderlands customer Avani Wildani says. "I buy a lot of books here to keep it going, and because I've had so many good conversations here and met so many people."
Rina Weisman has been coming to Borderlands since it opened. Now close friends with Beatts, she runs free science-fiction movie nights and helps organize readings. She even met her husband, Jacob, at a store event. When they frequent Borderlands now, she and Jacob pet the store's mascot, Ripley the hairless cat, as they discuss upcoming publications with Beatts.
"It was like finding a bookstore with everything I ever wanted to read in it," she says. "And I kept going back because it became more than just a bookstore; it turned into a conversation. We even registered for our wedding here."
Despite his loyal base of customers, Jack Rems, owner of Dark Carnival, is pessimistic. Surrounded by tarot decks, dolls from horror stories, and oversized books, Rems almost hides in his nook by the register. Dark Carnival is about to explode from books — they overflow from the shelves into piles on the floor that might topple at any moment. A mound of stuffed animals and murder mystery paperbacks obstructs the one chair in the bookstore.
"It's just not a viable business model," Rems says. "I'm mainly here from inertia. ... There's no way I could ever move this stuff again."