Tag Archives: independent bookstores oakland

Diesel Bookstore ~ based on the concept of community

Next up… Diesel Bookstore on College Avenue in Rockridge.

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I guess I should start by saying that I am somewhat biased against Rockridge… maybe it’s the demographics (one of our more homogenous pockets of Oakland) or perhaps it’s the price point (geared towards those oh-so-affluent demographics), maybe it’s the tricky parking or navigating the urban iditarod of strollers, or perhaps I’m just a bit crazy…

Whatever the case, I gleefully put up with it all to visit this wonderful bookstore (which, along with other additions like groovy vintage clothing shops, makes College Ave. actually cooler than I think it is).

Diesel is different from nearly all of the other bookstores I’m featuring in this indie series, in that they almost exclusively sell new books.  This wasn’t always the case, but when the store was remodeled a couple years ago a business decision was made to feature new materials more prominently because they seemed to sell faster than used.  There are still a handful of used books on the shelves, but for the most part, the store’s 60,000+ volumes are brand spankin’ new.

That being said, this is not the store you visit when you’re looking for cheap $1 books.  You come to Diesel for other reasons, and there are quite a few… For one thing, their space is gorgeous, befitting their slot in stylish upscale Rockridge.  The classic brick facade dresses a clean, spacious interior with smooth stained concrete floors, high ceilings, skylights running the length of the building that fill the space with natural light, and of course, their slick, well-designed, and creatively adorned book displays.  It’s simply a pleasure to be in the store.

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Second, they’re known for their “stunning” events.  In the month of June alone, they’re hosting seven events, nearly two per week, and many feature quite renowned and/or local authors.  The next event is tomorrow night (Thursday June 3rd at 7pm) with local cartoonist & author Daniel Clowes, who’ll be discussing his latest graphic novel Wilson. Check out this recent article discussing Clowes and character Wilson… Cartoonist Daniel Clowes celebrates Oakland with “Wilson” (By Jessica Yadegaran for Contra Costa Times).  A brief excerpt:

“Lonely and self-loathing, Wilson… hangs around the coffee shops on Oakland’s Grand Avenue, verbally sucker punching strangers with whom he instigates one-sided conversations. He is rude, neurotic and opinionated.”

Sounds fun, right?! Right.

Being one of the few bookstores left in Oakland focused exclusively on selling new books, Diesel likely has more power to command attention from such noteworthy authors (and publishers).

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But when I spoke with the general manager Jon Stich and asked him how Diesel distinguishes itself from other local independent booksellers, his answer was simple.  The Staff Picks.  And this is probably the most important reason why folks come to Diesel.  Curated by a staff of avid book-lovers, all specialists in particular genres (children’s, poetry, metaphysics, etc.), the shelves are full of staff recom- mendations, neatly annotated with short descriptive reviews, many even quaintly handwritten.

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I found two of my recent favorite books (The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga and Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Juno Díaz, both of which I devoured) written up by Stich himself.  I have a pretty good idea then, that I’ll like his other recommendations.  As one of their fans on Yelp explains, it’s customer service oriented around the “concept of community,” where books loved by employees and customers are shared, producing a bestsellers list that is “way more colorful than the list the New York Times has been paid to review.”

And colorful it is… the store hosts, not only uniquely interesting book picks, but features them in artistic ways.  Playful collaged signs handmade by employees and interesting arrangements of books based on color rather than theme or author, all add to the cool-factor.

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I guess the last thing I’ll say, is probably more than any of the other bookstores I’ve written about, Diesel seems to have embraced current technology most wholeheartedly.  Stich readily admits that Amazon has hurt them as much as anyone, but Diesel’s been able to use the internet to their advantage as well.  Their website is extensive with archived online monthly newsletters, a video channel for video book projects (including reviews), up-to-date event info, staff recommendations and more… they’ve got so many little social networking widgets on their site I don’t even know what some of them are!  And of course, you can buy books directly through the website too, including e-books for the iPad.

Diesel is your modern independent local bookstore. Check them out next time you’re on College Avenue and support your local independent booksellers!

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PS – they have a nice kid’s section too (for all those Rockridge stroller pushers!)

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The Bookmark Bookstore ~ supporting our libraries!

Next up in our installment of independent bookstores in Oakland is The Bookmark Bookstore. This store is what my friend, who is also a bookseller, refers to as “The Little Engine that Could.”  Did you have that book when you were a kid?  I did, and the story fits…

FOPL, friends of oakland public library

These guys are unique from all of the other booksellers I’m highlighting in that they:

  • are the only non-profit
  • are staffed exclusively by volunteers
  • sell only donated books
  • donate all proceeds to benefit our Oakland Public Library System

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It’s an unusual arrangement, but it seems to work, as the store generates approximately $100,000 per year for our libraries.  And given the current budget crisis, that’s not chump change.

Here’s how it works…  The store is run by a non-profit organization called Friends of the Oakland Public Library (FOPL).  Their mission:  “to advance the role of the Oakland Public Library as a vital community resource and as an institution critical to the culture, education, and welfare of our diverse community.”  They raise funds through membership dues (more on this below), special events, and the sale of books at Bookmark.

Proceeds go back into the library system for things like children’s reading programs, new library branches and upgrades to existing branches, scholarships, materials & special equipment, and more.

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The Bookmark Bookstore has been at its current location, 721 Washington Street in the heart of historic Old Oakland, since 1994.  Prior to that they were just down the street near Rattos, and at that time, every book in the store was priced at just $1.  They’ve raised their rates a bit since then, but still offer the best deals in town for quality specialized books.

They’re able to do this because of their limited operating expenses… as mentioned previously, all books are donated – mostly by the general public, but also by other bookstores – and you’d be surprised at the volume of books this little store is handling.  Nearly 10,000 volumes are donated each month, and about that same number are sold.  The idea is to keep the inventory moving, so every time you come, there’s a fresh stock of interesting books to explore.

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Also, excluding the general manager Bob Frey who is a paid employee of FOPL, all staff are volunteers who donate just a few hours per week.  There’s a small army of them, currently around 50, who come from all walks of life:  retirees, college students, foreign students wanting to brush up their English skills, those in between employment opportunities, etc.  I asked one volunteer why she offers her free time to Bookmark and she said it’s a great way to give back to the community.  It’s a great way to be out and about, mingling among those who have a real love for books & literature. Plus volunteers get a 50% discount on all books (priced low to begin with), and there’s a fabulous holiday brunch each year, I’m told.

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There are other ways to support Bookmark, if you don’t have the hours to spare each week.  Of course you can donate your books.  Obviously rare or signed books are best.  One book alone recently raised $1750 for the library… a limited edition signed copy of The Fairy Caravan by Beatrix Potter.  Nice!  Other desirables are new books, hardcovers, collectibles, uncommon books, CDs, and DVDs.  What are not well suited for donation are mass market paperbacks, textbooks & computer books older than 2004, encyclopedia sets, mass circulation magazines, or any books that are in poor condition (soiled, torn, highlighted, etc.)  Books can be donated anytime during open hours, but call ahead if you’re bringing more than 4 boxes (510-444-0473).

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Or wait… say you’ve got no books to give.  Well then, how ’bout a few greenbacks to spare?  You can become a member of the Friends of the Oakland Public Library for as little as $25 a year ($15 for Seniors & Students).  Not only will you be supporting this wonderful little institution, but you’ll get a 20% discount off all purchases at Bookmark. You’ll also be first in line for their bi-annual sales where every book in the store is 30% off. Folks line up for these events and the first day of each is always reserved for members only.

For just a bit more ($50/year), you can become a “Book Friend” member, which entitles you to the same benefits above, but also discounts at all of these participating local bookstores:

  • Bibliomania, 1816 Telegraph
  • Book Zoo, 6395 Telegraph
  • Laurel Bookstore, 4100 MacArthur
  • Marcus Books, 3900 M.L.K. Jr. Way
  • Montclair Book Tree, 6123 La Salle
  • Pendragon, 5560 College
  • Spectator Books, 4163 Piedmont
  • Walden Pond Books, 3316 Grand

These stores, some of which I’ve already covered and some of which I’m planning to cover in the next week or so, are also supporting the library system through their participation in this program.  Yet another benefit of patronizing your local indie booksellers.

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And lastly, of course, you can come shop in this wonderful store.  Despite the volume of books moving through their limited space, the store feels spacious and welcoming.  Housed in the historic Victorian Dunn’s Building, titles are displayed artfully, with plenty of places to sit and browse, and their prices simply can’t be beat.

Bookmark is a little known secret, but for those in the know, it’s a real treasure that’s visited often.  Please check them out, and support your local independent bookseller!

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Spectator Books ~ the perfect neighborhood bookstore

My catalog of independent bookstores in Oakland continues, and next stop is SpectatorAll aboard!

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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.

books at spectator books, piedmont avenue bookstore

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?

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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…

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Community Bookstore Oakland
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…

spectator books

Tim Hildebrand, Spectator Books

The Book Zoo ~ weird & wonderful

Next installment in our series of independent bookstores is Book Zoo.  Not exactly the antithesis of our starting point Walden Pond Books (the owners actually worked there before opening up their own shop), it is, however, the smallest bookstore I’ll be covering.  So from largest to smallest, we bookend our collection… we’ll fill in the rest of the shelf over the next week or so.

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Book Zoo is a rare breed of bookstore.  I was going to say “dying” breed, but I didn’t want to start off on a dour note, because this is truly something to cherish rather than mourn.  These guys are old-school.  Really old-school.  They don’t even have a cash register… instead using a secret compartment in a hollowed out book as their cash stash.  It’s incredible.

Book Zoo, Erik Lyngen

What’s more incredible is their uniquely curated collection of books. Limited by their small store, they don’t try to be everything to everyone, and they don’t carry books that are easily found elsewhere.  In fact, owner Erik Lyngen has an almost disdain for the commonly popular.  And as one who fails to understand the mass-appeal of much current pop-culture (e.g. – American Idol), I completely get where he’s coming from.

Book Zoo sells almost exclusively used books, about 95%; the other 5% are remainders.  They buy their books from the local community and are highly selective about what they’ll take.  You’ll find this is the case with most used bookstores these days (other than places like Half Price Books in Berkeley who’ll take your whole load, but give you pennies on the dollar).  They have to maintain inventories that they think will move, or that will at least be uniquely interesting.

When I asked Erik specifically what type of stuff he was looking for, he said, “the juicy stuff.” I asked what that meant, and he said, “you know how people are constantly cycling through books, clearing off their shelves to make way for new ones, but no matter how many garage sales they have, or how many used book stores they sell to, there’s one corner of the bookcase that they just can’t part with.  That’s the stuff we want.” The unusual, the eclectic, often radical, and weirdly unconventional… drugs, sex, occult, philosophy, poetry, sci-fi pulp.  You get the idea.

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flag with peace symbol, radical politics

You can see this from just a quick glimpse at their storefront.  While others typically host the current top sellers, Book Zoo features titles like The Ballet Lover’s Companion, Ecology of Fear, Visions ~ A History of the East Bay African American Community, Female Desires, Fighting for G.O.D. (Gold, Oil, & Drugs), and Cuntionary (you’ll have to go see for yourself what that one’s all about).

I asked about the challenges of competing with the likes of Amazon or Borders, but these guys aren’t competing in that arena at all. They’ve really carved out their own niche, creating a one of a kind experience that can’t be replicated online, or in a homogenous chain.  This is not the bookstore you come to with a book in mind, expecting to find it, or counting on them to order it for you.  No.  You come to Book Zoo to browse.  To explore.  To find something unexpected. For example, there’s a small rack of poetry books & pamphlets near the front door, including handmade books by the likes of  Greying Ghost Press who “seek to reassure the reading public that printed matter won’t vanish.”

Book Zoo Oakland

This falls in line with Erik’s philosophy as well. He’s not worried about the future of reading printed books. He offers this brief exercise… Imagine you could create your own dream community Main Street. What would you have? Among other things (grocery store, cafe, post office, etc.) you would undoubtedly have a bookstore, wouldn’t you? I would.

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book zoo oakland, eric Lyngen

Erik and partner Nick Raymond have created a warm & comfortable spot at 6395 Telegraph Ave. near the intersection of Alcatraz. It’s a tough location, being more car-friendly than pedestrian-oriented, but they’ve established Book Zoo as a destination in itself. Unusual art, posters, and artifacts decorate the walls, comfortable chairs & couches beckon visitors to sit and stay awhile, and a nice children’s section in the back welcomes kids too. They might even get to meet Ramona, Erik’s daughter and spunky helper on-hand (pictured above).

Their hours are limited… signs and website playfully say “By Appointment and or Chance.” Some may find this frustrating, but the truth is they simply don’t have the luxury to be open all the time,  both owners having other jobs to make ends meet.  The store is a real labor of love, and while friends pitch in to cover shifts, Erik admits they are chronically understaffed. You’ll mostly find them open Tuesday – Friday Evenings and most weekends. They also host frequent events, typically featuring live music. Check out their schedule here, as well as Erik’s photos of events and collection of customer portraits.

Go visit Book Zoo, and support your local independent booksellers!

The Demise of Oakland’s Barnes & Noble…

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 thingMany 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.

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