So many of you already know that a few months ago, the only nationwide “chain” retailer of books located in Oakland, and the largest bookstore in our city limits, closed up shop. The Barnes & Noble at Jack London Square closed on January 31st due to declining sales… part of the company’s plan to close underperforming stores around the country.
This can be viewed in a number of ways… Certainly disappointing to many Jack London residents who no longer have this resource within walking distance, and disappointing from a financial perspective in that revenue is being taken away from our city. This store was a powerful magnet for shoppers in an area largely plagued by poor development.
But current plans are already underway to re-develop Jack London Square the way it should have been done from the get-go, and some view the closing as a real opportunity to bring other goods & services to the area that are more desperately needed. For example, despite large complexes of residential condos in the area, there is no local grocery store. (Jack London Square Growing Pains by Lisa Cartolano) There are rumors that Trader Joe’s, which has already expanded Oakland operations, adding two new stores on College and Lakeshore Avenues in the last year, may set up shop here too.
But I digress… what I want to talk about are the bookstores.
In an article discussing the closure of the Jack London Barnes & Noble, a local columnist asks:
“What does it say about a major metropolis with more than 400,000 residents when our only major bookstore pulls up stakes and leaves?
Oakland can’t support even one of the big two chain bookstores? No Barnes or Borders? What’s up with that?
Do we not read and buy books?
What if you want to buy a book that’s not in one of the independent bookstores and you don’t have the leisure of waiting for the item to arrive in the mail from Amazon? Maybe you wanted to pick up a last-minute birthday gift and get it wrapped on the fly. Now, you have to schlep to Emeryville and deal with the parking hassles.” (Drummond: Mourning the death of an old friend)
I disagree with her. Perhaps this store failed because it was in a poor location to begin with… Jack London has never been magnet for shopping the way that Bay Street has become… there simply were few other retailers there. Or perhaps Oakland residents prefer to shop locally, keeping their dollars not only in their city, but in their neighborhood no less. The shop down the street has more character & charm than the chain store, but can still turn your book order around in a day if they don’t have what you need in stock. You don’t have to go to Emeryville or turn to Amazon for fast service…
We are now a city of exclusively independent bookstores, and that’s a pretty incredible thing… Many wonderful quirky local bookstores remain in Oakland, continuing to survive despite the rise (and fall) of the Borders and Barnes & Nobles, and of course, the empire of Amazon.
In the next couple weeks I’ll be featuring many of our best indie-bookstores, and they’ve all got their own fascinating stories to tell… I hope you’ll stay tuned.
As an Oakland resident and former employee of The Tattered Cover in Denver, one of the country’s biggest and oldest independent bookstores, I applaud this post, especially the part that points out how we are a city now of independent bookstores. (As a busy mom working full-time, I will admit to almost exclusively shopping for books via amazon, UNLESS I have my daughter with me, in which case browsing is critical.)
It is very important to note, however, that independent bookstores, due to space limitations and the lack of a far-reaching regional and national umbrella, will have a bias to their buying trends. You will find that with independents whole genres might be left out, or others receive a weight that is not aligned with market trends or audience realities — meaning if the owner of that cozy place up the street doesn’t like true crime she might order some but it won’t be a wide selection. The advantage of B+N and Borders, etc is a truer selection based on market.
This is not bad. It’s just something to realize. The Tattered Cover fiction buyer when I worked there had attitude about Romance Fiction even though it outsold every other fiction sector combined. She ordered enough to justify a tiny alcove, but Denver romance readers went elsewhere, and not just for their romance, but for all their other purchases, too.
With a city of indie bookstores, one must shop around for the store that fits their reading style. Your neighborhood store might be way too heavy on the touchy-feely self-help and skimp on kids. Don’t decide that all indies will be like that and head to Emeryville. You may have to visit a few to find the right fit.
Great insights! Thanks for sharing. I do look forward to discovering more of how these stores distinguish themselves in terms of style and genre… there’s even a tiny bookstore that specializes in military and aeronautical books exclusively. Now that’s a niche!
One thing to consider for the busy Mom commenter above is that there are amazing independent book websites to get what you need when you can’t make it to the local shop. Amazon takes so much of the sale ($$) that it’s a miracle we don’t have authors panhandling in the streets.
The Pegasus Family of three bookstores are great for having a wide variety and calling around to get you what you want – their Pendragon store will soon be called Pegasus to avoid decades of confused buyers, btw. They’ve even called their “competition” for me: they want happy customers! Amazon won’t send you to Barnes and Noble online, that’s for sure …
I also would like to add that with the Barnes & Noble store: expensive parking, always understaffed, long lines, not a great selection after the first couple of years went by -and there was just that lack of human interaction and book-talk with the staff, you know?
When my local shop doesn’t choose to bring in hard cover, brand new Detective fiction I like to get my brother, they order it for me… it will cost me a few more bucks, but to keep this town from becoming sterile and economically devastated, I have to spend my money where I walk and interact.
Thanks for the great post…