Last chapters?

The threat to San Francisco bookstores goes beyond Amazon and ebooks to rising rents and demand for commercial space

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Bibliohead owner Melissa Richmond says her rising rent will force th esmall but successful store to relocate from Hayes Valley.
Guardian photo by Nathanial Downes

news@sfbg.com

The tale of the threatened independent bookstore, quivering under the might of Amazon, is nothing new.

It's only been two months since Marcus Books was evicted from its Fillmore District location. Both Adobe and Forest bookstores fled the Mission's 16thh Street last year. But ebook sales growth is shrinking, and sales for many of San Francisco bookstores are up.

Instead, the tale of the struggling indie bookstore has become less about Amazon and more about a different monster: gentrification. San Francisco's rising rents, demand for commercial space by deep-pocketed chains, and lack of commercial rent control are putting the squeeze on the city's remaining bookstores.

Take Bibliohead, for instance. Its owner has recently been forced to relocate in spite of her bookstore's success. Bibliohead is an easily navigable, highly curated, and tiny book jungle — more like a carefully manicured garden, really. The whole store can be explored in minutes, and there's a gumball machine that dispenses poetry out in front once the book-happy are satisfied.

Its size has served it well. Sales at Bibliohead — Hayes Valley's only bookstore — have risen solidly 7 percent each year since the store opened 10 years ago.

"We're small, but mighty," Melissa Richmond, Bibliohead's owner, told the Guardian. "Although recently we haven't been feeling so mighty. I'm kind of a wreck."

In May, Richmond learned that she has until January 2015 to leave her store for four months while her building undergoes mandatory earthquake retrofitting. The landlord will double Richmond's rent after the retrofitting, and has asked Richmond to pay for further renovations to the building when she returns.

"It's off the table that I can stay here," Richmond said. "I will not be offered a new lease. I don't hate landlords, but I want a landlord who will contribute to the spirit and creativity of San Francisco."

On June 22, Richmond launched an Indiegogo campaign to raise the $60,000 she'll need to move and attract new customers. So far, with a little less than a month to go, she's raised almost $3,000.

"What really breaks my heart is when a new customer walks in," Richmond said. "They ask you how you're doing after they've fallen in love with the place a little bit. Then you have to break their hearts by saying you don't know what's in store for your future right now."

 

DISPLACEMENT TREND

Richmond is not the only bookseller in San Francisco forced to relocate. Last year, Adobe Books and Forest Books were forced out of 16th Street within three months of each other when their rents increased. Forest Books slipped quietly off to Japantown, and has since experienced an increase in sales. Adobe Books' anticipated closure was met with an invigorating Kickstarter campaign that raised $60,000. It was enough to keep the store alive, but not on gentrifying 16th Street.

Nowadays, Adobe is re-branded as Adobe Books and Art Cooperative at its 24th Street location. The original Adobe's charming, lackadaisical, and no- structured structure has been traded for alphabetized and carefully curated books. There are only two staff members, and its used books are selling far faster than in the old location, despite its shrunken size.

"It's strange. A lot of the times I was not sure if it would work at all, and now here we are in this shop," Brett Lockspeiser, a member of the Adobe Books and Art Cooperative, told us. "Things are running differently, but it's still Adobe."

Adobe will soon be celebrating its first anniversary in the new spot. The store might not be making any profits, according to Lockspeiser, but the cause for celebration is that it's survived.

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