Get SF Weekly Newsletters
Pin It

Bookstore Love 

When one door closes, another opens

Wednesday, May 31 2006
My first instinct when I read the news about A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books going up for sale — followed closely by the news that Cody's Books on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley closes in July during its 50th year in operation and that Limelight Books is also on the block — was to put my head on the desk and cry. Cody's was my college haven, Clean Well-Lighted has been the source of many of the volumes in my (so-called) library, and Limelight is one-of-a-kind, the city's only shop that focuses on theater and film. I doubt I have to tell anyone reading this column that these stores represent the best in book selling: varied and thoughtful selection, knowledgeable staff members, and true community commitment.

But wait: It's not all bad news. The owner of Clean Well-Lighted, Neal Sofman, will open a new bookstore in the next week or two; Bookshop West Portal will fill a clear need in that lively, up-and-coming neighborhood (which now has only a "secondhand book emporium" and a Waldenbooks). Cody's opened its first S.F. branch last year (we even gave it a Best of San Francisco award two weeks ago), in what appears to be a successful venture. Limelight, for its part, says in a press release that "the business is doing well"; owner Joel Enos (who recently renovated the Upper Market store) just wants to move on.

In a town like this the first reaction to the closing of an independent bookstore is certain to be shrill: Surely this is a disaster of epic proportions, a clear sign of the triumph of evil chains. But sad as I would be to see any of these go, I don't approach it that way. First, I don't think chain bookstores are evil. Second, I don't think they're triumphing. And third, I don't think an indie shop closing is a disaster. I can love bookstores with all my heart and still make these claims. And I've got backup.

Just before I heard the news, I read a sweet, small hardcover coming out in June called The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop, a sort of love story between its author, San Francisco's Lewis Buzbee, and book selling. Buzbee, with whom I worked at Chronicle Books more than a decade ago (his business card read "sales rep/snappy dresser"), is not among the shrill. Talking to him about Yellow-Lighted and about the climate for bookstores in the city gave me hope. His is a title you should read if you think book selling has ever been easy, if you think there was some Golden Age during which opening a bookstore was a lucrative proposition, if you just want to be reminded why we continue to peer at the glass window display, open the door, and wander into the stacks, our hearts filled with anticipation.

Lewis Buzbee's Inner Sunset apartment is not the home of a scary book freak. It's got lots of volumes in it, sure — a wall of bookcases in the living room, shelves stuffed full in each bedroom — but it's not as if you have to navigate a winding path through towering stacks just to reach the fridge. It is, rather, the home of an artist. The walls are covered with artwork new, old, kitchy, classic, and uncategorizable (the moose crossing sign comes to mind). Every perch holds some memento, photo, toy, or doodad; Buzbee calls it "tchotchke heaven." While his wife, Julie Bruck (a poet), and their 8-year-old daughter have desks that face the back garden, his own workspace is in a corner of the living room at the front of the house, with a view of May Lee's Chinese Cuisine across the street.

Buzbee, a fortysomething writer (he previously published a novel, Fliegelman's Desire), editor, and teacher with twinkly eyes, a warm un-sales-y manner, and a bracelet of plastic beads on his wrist (made by his daughter four years ago), is actually releasing two books at about the same time. A collection of stories, After the Gold Rush, is just out, but I'm here to talk about The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop, the book Buzbee has "always wanted to write," the book anyone who loves bookstores should read. Graywolf's jacket calls Yellow-Lighted "a memoir," but Buzbee resists the idea. "It was never about me," he says. "How freakin' boring would that be?" Instead he calls it "a history, an appreciation, a defense" of bookstores. The chapters alternate between Buzbee's past — he started at the Upstart Crow in San Jose (my own beloved childhood store, now a brewpub), moved to Printers Inc. in Palo Alto (also shuttered), and then into repping — and a fascinating, detailed account of how book selling has come to be what it is, with detours to Alexandria, Classical Rome, and sixth-century China, among other places. It's an intimate book about what he calls (aptly) the "erotic space of reading."

Yellow-Lighted also includes a chapter about Buzbee's favorite bookstores in S.F. and around the world, and it holds some surprises. Of course he loves the shop he can walk to, the Booksmith in the Haight, along with City Lights in North Beach and Kinokuniya Books in Japantown; but he also admits to a fondness for the Stonestown Borders, which he visits with his daughter. "For the true lover of bookstores," he writes, "there is no sense of right or wrong, cool or uncool. ... Although ... [I] strongly believe [independent bookstores] are an undervalued cultural institution, I cannot bring myself to draw a prohibition against chain stores." As he explains, "I am fatally attracted to all bookstores." I couldn't agree more; I will always support the many indies around me, but I can't resist a visit to the Borders one block from work. It's not evil. It's just big.

In fact, Buzbee's just back from Book Expo America, the largest book-related convention in the country, at which he promoted Yellow-Lighted and met with buyers from all sorts of stores, including brand-new ventures and chains. "They're just booksellers," he says, "doing what they love." He doesn't believe in the "war" between independent bookshops and chains, that indies are dying because chains exist. (Hell, my neighborhood shop, Red Hill Books on Cortland Avenue, just expanded to more than twice its previous size.) Nor does he think and its ilk mean the end of bookstores. "If we can survive the Middle Ages," he explains, "we can survive the Internet."

The closing of an independent bookstore is always sad, Buzbee says, but "that's the way of the world." Bookshops, like other businesses, have life spans: That Cody's in Berkeley lasted 50 years is an impressive accomplishment; that City Lights is still around after 53 could just be luck.

The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop isn't preaching to the converted, Buzbee says, because it's not preaching. He doesn't have an ax to grind or an agenda to pursue. "This is where I eventually draw the line," he writes, "not between chains and independents, but between bookstores and the absence of them." We'll miss the place, the physical presence of beloved shops that shut down, because selling books is not like selling shoes. Still, we shouldn't forget the past. As Buzbee writes, "[I]t's important to remember the long history of the bookstore and its adaptability, the slow evolution of its form, and the quiet resistance it has shown to being replaced."

Now if you'll excuse me, I need to go shopping. I've got my eye on a little hardcover, and I can picture it in the big window, amid all the other titles, luring me in.

About The Author

Karen Zuercher


Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

Popular Stories

  1. Most Popular Stories
  2. Stories You Missed
  1. Most Popular


  • clipping at Brava Theater Sept. 11
    Sub Pop recording artists 'clipping.' brought their brand of noise-driven experimental hip hop to the closing night of 2016's San Francisco Electronic Music Fest this past Sunday. The packed Brava Theater hosted an initially seated crowd that ended the night jumping and dancing against the front of the stage. The trio performed a set focused on their recently released Sci-Fi Horror concept album, 'Splendor & Misery', then delved into their dancier and more aggressive back catalogue, and recent single 'Wriggle'. Opening performances included local experimental electronic duo 'Tujurikkuja' and computer music artist 'Madalyn Merkey.'"