My catalog of independent bookstores in Oakland continues, and next stop is Spectator. All aboard!
Spectator Books is one of two bookstores on the lovely walkable retail stretch of Piedmont Avenue. Folks love this little main street in Oakland… locals call it “The Avenue,” and as one writer notes… “There aren’t many streets where you can have your shoes “renewed” while you practice yoga, pick up organic produce, and flip through Japanese manga before lunching on anything from duck confit to fish tacos.” (Piedmont Ave… by Charity Ferreira)
The Avenue’s got it all… tons of restaurants, a grocery store, a post office, a library, shoe shops, clothing stores, card shops, toy shops, antiques, magazine stands, coffee & tea shops, hot tub rentals, day spas, movie rentals, a movie theater, and of course, bookstores.
Spectator Books is, according to one patron I spoke with, “the perfect size bookstore.” Not so big that you feel overwhelmed, but not so small that selection is severely limited or space is cramped. To give you a sense of size, Book Zoo, which I featured yesterday, holds about 15,000 books in their store. Spectator which is at least twice as big with a space that’s comprised of three rooms total (or about 2000 sq ft), holds somewhere around 75,000.
So how do you fit 5 times as many books in a space just 2 or 3 times as big? Well… you have to see for yourself, but it’s pretty impressive. Every inch of wall space is used. Once bookshelves are filled, new stacks and rows are placed on top. Full to the ceiling? No problem. Start filling bins on the floor. Or forget the bins… just stack books on the floor! This store is chock full, and there’s a lot of fun stuff to look at. And I specifically mean “look” at.
Spectator is run by Tim Hildebrand who has a background in Art & Photography, in addition to his MFA in creative writing. One of the unique things about his store, which sells both new and used books, is the large collection of Art books. In some ways this is a natural reflection of his love for visual arts, but in another sense, it’s downright strategic, focusing on books that are simply pleasurable to hold in one’s hands… gorgeous illustrations or large scale photography or beautiful bindings. These are items that won’t translate well to Kindle’s and iPad’s, and Tim’s belief is that these new digital readers will affect sales of text-only books more dramatically. Pretty smart, eh?
While the store is predominantly filled with used books, there is a nice collection of current releases on the front table. Tim says these are the types of books that have been hurt most by online sales to Amazon, with 50% of fiction today being bought online. However, the goal is for Spectator to really be a “general bookstore“, so he stocks a small collection of current fiction.
He’s also formed a collaborative relationship with the movie theater across the street, not only stocking the titles that are playing across the street (ie – The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which was a pretty great movie by the way (Swedish version)), but also donating copies for the theater’s weekly raffle. It’s a win-win for both establishments, not to mention the local customer. This is indicative of the real community spirit on Piedmont Ave.
It’s been a tough economy for small retailers (hell, for all retailers) during the last couple of years, and despite Piedmont Ave’s charm and walkability, it too has suffered, with numerous store closures and reportedly 18 empty storefronts at one point.
For this reason, it’s even more important that those who survive and thrive support each other, and you do get this feeling. Tim speaks highly of Black Swan Books, also on The Avenue, not as a competitor, but as a collaborator in the effort to keep books alive. A smaller store with narrower selection, Black Swan features collectibles, old & out of print books, antiques (including old maps), and more cutting edge materials (like their occult section). I hope to get to them in another post…
Not only do most retailers know each other, but most know their customers by name. During my 15 minute interview with Tim, at least 5 customers came through the door who all knew Tim by name, and he knew their’s as well. You can’t get that kind of personalized service at Borders. This is community.
A few other noteworthy points… Spectator buys books everyday from 11 – 5. As with other used bookstores, they are pretty discriminating, but really do rely upon the local community for their stock. Sections grow and diminish based upon customer preferences… current highlights are: cookbooks, metaphysics/spirituality, black studies, mysteries, and as mentioned, their art books section. They also feature a large children’s section (a whole room!), used DVDs, a specialized book-buyer (from now defunct Cody’s) who can find whatever you’re looking for, even if you just have a portion of the title. He’s that good.
Please visit Spectator & Black Swan on your next trip to Piedmont Avenue, and… say it with me now… Support your local booksellers!
Have a great holiday weekend everyone. And check back next week for more indie-bookstores, including some great events with local authors and more…