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Tuesday, June 28, 2011

S.F. Readers Get a Good Report from Independent Bookstores

Posted By on Tue, Jun 28, 2011 at 9:30 AM

National publications were wagging their fingers last week at readers who take advantage of local independent bookstores. Gawker decried the "ungrateful bastards" who use stores as browsing libraries before heading home to order the books online at lower prices. Meanwhile, the New York Times reported that independent bookstores are being forced to charge for author readings and signings. SF Weekly set out to see whether our local bookstores have been suffering the same fate. Are San Franciscans cold-hearted ingrates just out to get the cheapest prices? Or do we still have a heart for our independent bookstores?

Neal Sofman, owner of Bookshop West Portal, gives San Franciscans a thumbs up. "There are definitely people who do that [use the bookstore as a place to browse], but there are also a fair number of people who are concerned about losing independent bookstores," he says.

Hut Landon, executive director of the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association, also gave the majority of San Francisco readers a good report. "One of the reasons why the independent bookstores have remained strong and alive in S.F. is that there are a lot of readers out there who respond to the message of what there is to value in bookstores," says Landon. "Independents offer expertise, they employ people locally, they give back to the economy in a way that out-of-state online retailers simply can't. Readers in the city understand that if you don't support independents, then either you'll have empty storefronts or you have Gap and Starbucks on every corner."

Sofman points his finger instead at California legislators for not making laws that would require online retailers pay sales taxes, which is what gives web merchants like Amazon a 10 percent price advantage. In fact, such a bill just recently reached Gov. Jerry Brown's desk. However, as it was originally part of the budget packet he vetoed, legislators may need to pass the bill again before it can receive his blessing.

While Sofman gives most S.F. readers a good grade, he says some readers just add insult to injury by bringing web-bought books to West Portal's free author readings. "People take advantage of you, coming to your event and bringing books from other places," he says. "If you did that in somebody's home, it would be rude. It's like buying your own bottle of wine and trying to take it to a restaurant for free."

But Sofman won't start charging for readings yet. "I try not to, because I don't expect my customers to buy a book every time," he says. Instead, he arranges priority seating at West Portal readings, where he reserves seats for customers who have bought the author's book from his store.

Sofman hopes that S.F. readers will continue to support their neighborhood bookstores. He cautions that if independent bookstores go down, so will readers' options. "If you just like James Patterson and only James Patterson, then you're fine. But if you want to read the next Ann Patchett or Geraldine Brooks ... then you'll be in trouble." Adds Landon, "We're not showrooms for Amazon. If that's how you treat the bookstores, then they won't be there anymore."

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Caroline Chen

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