The Naked Bookseller is proud to present the story behind California Bookstore Day (this Saturday May 3rd) — a grand notion incubated at the Bay Area’s legendary Green Apple bookstore, recipient of Publisher Weekly’s 2014 Independent Bookstore of the Year Award.
By Samantha Schoech
When you tell people you own a bookstore (or in my case, that my husband co-owns a bookstore) you get one of two responses. There are the delighted readers who imagine you live a life of cozy literary bliss, sipping tea and snuggling a cat in a sun-drenched room where bells on the door alert you to the arrival of an occasional customer. These people gush and tell you how wonderful it is that you own a bookstore.
By far the more common response, however, are the people who let out a little puff of a laugh and say something like, A bookstore? Do they still have those? They think they are being funny.
Yes, they still have those. And contrary to the bleak narrative of the last decade, more independent bookstores are opening than closing these days. Sales at indies rose more than 8% in 2012 and 2013.
So yes, Barnes and Noble and The Internet Behemoth Whose Name Must Not Be Spoken have changed the face of publishing and bookselling, but they haven’t wiped the indies off the face of the earth. And in fact, they’ve inadvertently helped spur and active shop local movement that has boosted certain segments of the bricks-and-mortar market.
And now we have California Bookstore Day to prove it.
A (Stolen) Idea Is Born
Have you heard of Record Store Day? California Bookstore Day is always so much easier to explain if you’ve heard of Record Store Day. Because, truth be told, we stole their idea. Each year, on the third Saturday in April, music geeks, vinyl lovers and record store aficionados line up outside their favorite indie record stores for a chance to buy copies of limited edition recordings and pressings that labels and artists produce for that day and that day only. At Amoeba Records in San Francisco there are lines of hipsters and nerds down the street. It’s pretty great.
After witnessing Record Store Day’s success and learning what a huge sales boost it has been for indie record stores nationwide, Pete Mulvihill of Green Apple Books in San Francisco, decided bookstores and booklovers deserved their own national day of coolness.
Let’s skim over the part where Pete returned from New York brimming with Bookstore Day enthusiasm and the quickly remembered that he had a full time job and couldn’t possibly handle the billion details producing such an event would require. And the part where The American Bookseller’s Association, a trade organization that represents all the independent bookstores in the country, decided that perhaps a nation-wide event was more than they wanted to bite off at the moment.
We’ll get right to the moment when Hut Landon, Executive Director ofthe Northern California Independent Booksellers Association (NCIBA) decided to throw caution to the wind, sponsor California Bookstore Day—we do, after all, have more indie bookstores than any other state—and, in a case of mini-nepotism, hire me (Pete’s wife) to make it happen.
A Word about the Culture of Independent Bookselling in Northern California
It’s probably important to know that there are no chain bookstores in San Francisco. None. That alone makes San Francisco, the Bay Area and the larger northern part of the state pretty unique. Also, after the great die off of the 1990s and 2000s, there are now more new independent stores opening than closing. I can think of four—The Napa Bookmine, Diesel in Larkspur, Copperfield’s in San Rafael, and a new branch of Green Apple in San Francisco’s Sunset District—that have opened or announced they are opening in the year since we started CBD.
But more important than the fact that they are thriving is the fact that they are all so nice to each other. The NCIBA is a chummy, clubby association where people freely share ideas, go out for drinks, and retweet one another’s good news.
Yes, they are competitors, but cutthroat they are not. This year Green Apple Books won Publisher’s Weekly Bookstore of the Year, thanks in large part to their nomination by Sheryl Cotleur, the buyer at Copperfield’s Books. This is like Ford Motors nominating the Toyota Prius for Car of the Year. On a smaller scale, but still.
This sense of a common cause is part of what made California Bookstore Day work. Back in the summer of 2013, when we barely had a website, we asked bookstores to sign up for an event we couldn’t quite explain and order a bunch of books and art pieces that had been neither written nor designed yet. Most of them trusted that we had their best interest in mind and went ahead and did it.
Why Publishers Still Care About Indies or How We Got Neil Gaiman
All together independent bookstores account for around 10% of all book sales in the U.S. Why then, would publishing giants like Penguin Random House, Scholastic and HarperCollins go out of their way to publish books with print runs of fewer than 1,000 for a small percentage of what is already a small percentage of the book market?
Simply put, indies make books. Amazon and airport stores will reliably sell the bestsellers—Danielle Steele, Jodi Picoult, David Baldacci, Nicolas Sparks—but it’s the small independent stores that turn the little guys into David Sedaris or Barbara Kingsolver or Dave Eggers by the sheer strength of their enthusiasm.
Indie mindshare is quadruple its market share, meaning people intend to buy their next book from indies more often than they actually do (stop that, by the way).
So, while sales are comparatively small, influence is much, much bigger. There is no paid marketing as trustworthy as a bookseller giving you a personal recommendation. Booksellers and buyers in bookstores still read books and carefully curate their stores. They know their communities and they have good taste and, most importantly, they really, really love books. No algorithm can replace that.
As Ruth Liebmann, VP and Director of Account Sales at Random House writes,
For Penguin Random House, independent bookstores continue to be essential – it’s where so many readers discover new books and new authors. Indies are terrific at hand-selling titles they are excited about, and many indies are quite sophisticated with social media and other new and creative forms of marketing. There are countless success stories about books that were launched with the help of enthusiastic handselling and recommendations from independent booksellers, including Wild by Cheryl Strayed, and A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra, both of which we proudly publish.
This explains why all the major publishers said, “sure” when Pete went to New York and when I came knocking at their doors later that spring, asking them to bring out their best authors and most talented designers and create something really unique and special, and most of them came through with flying colors. We needed big, famous authors to launch the event, and that’s what they gave us.
Random House published a specially designed edition of George Saunder’s graduation speech, Congratulations By the Way and then convinced Mr. Saunders to sign and doodle in each copy. Penguin made us a wooden recipe box filled with recipes from Michael Pollan; Harper’s Young Readers division published a cloth bound edition of a Neil Gaiman short story called “The Sleeper and the Spindle.” Harper also put together a California Classics Box Set with novels by John Fante, Charles Bukowski, Armistead Maupin and Leonard Elroy.
It wasn’t quite pennies from heaven—there were hiccups, and things that fell through, and some bad ideas tossed around (a $100 ceramic bear sculpture, for example). But in the end, we scored. Big time.
We Needed More Stuff or Why Authors are the Best
So, we had the big guys—famous, beloved authors and giant publishing houses. But we wanted more. By this time Pete and I were both so deliriously in love with the idea of California Bookstore Day that we became a little single-minded. Our cocktail party conversations suffered from our predictable chitchat.
This is when we learned important lesson #4,012: most authors will do anything for indies. While some publishers hemmed and hawed and got bungled up with agents and contracts, every single author we asked said yes without hesitation. When we wanted to ask Don DeLillo if we could use a line from White Noise for the Bad Citizen Graffiti Stencil, his publisher got a bit protective (which is their job, I know). When they finally agreed to ask him, his answer was an immediate yes; all he wanted in return was a copy of the stencil.
We also discovered the power of Dave Eggers. After going back and forth with McSweeney’s for weeks with some enthusiasm but no commitment, Zack Ruskin from Book Passage, who is also our webmaster (see what I mean about all the bookstore chumminess?) ran into Dave at a signing and told him about CBD. Later that day, McSweeney’s called and the gorgeous Bookstories was born.
Authors were so generous, in fact, that we decided we needed to create CBD Publishing so we could produce some of the items that had no publisher attached. I added hiring designers and copy editors (who would work for glory and peanuts), finding printers and packagers, and sourcing stencil wood to my ever-growing to-do list. I learned about bleeds and blads and discovered that I now require reading glasses to edit manuscripts.
It was a ton of work, but it was also going to help us make up some of our budget shortfall. If everything went right, we figured we could clear a whopping $7,000 as a publisher.
And then pennies really did fall from heaven. James Patterson, the bestselling author of all time, awarded us $15,000. He just gave it to us, no strings attached. Earlier in the year he had pledged $1 million to help indie stores nation wide. Ours was by far the biggest single award granted. Thank you James. In our world $15,000 meant we could print 80,000 bookmarks and pay the stencil guy and give the designer who had donated so much of her time to us a few hundred bucks as a thank you.
And Here We Are
We’re now 10 days away from California Bookstore Day. We have 93 bookstores participating and 13 exclusive books and art pieces. Our adorable bear logo, created by contest winner Danielle Gundry-Monji, walks the earth on thousands of tote bags and t-shirts and bookmarks.
Bookstores —all 93 of them—have parties planned for May 3. There are drag queen story hours, food trucks, readings, music, donuts, oysters, kids projects, trivia contests, signings, treasure hunts and all sorts of other things going on all over the state. Green Apple has used the DeLillo stencil to deface its sidewalk book bins.
And now, after a few nausea-inducing shipping snafus, many unanticipated expenses and surprisingly few marital spats, California Bookstore Day is ready to go. All that’s left are the customers. We built it and we sure hope they will come—in droves.
Because—and here’s the corny part, but bear with me— we are not just selling cool stuff at California Bookstore Day; we are celebrating a way of life. Independent bookstores are not just stores, they’re community centers and local anchors. They are entire universes of ideas that contain the possibility of real serendipity. They are lively performance spaces and quiet places where aimless perusal equals a day well spent.
In a world of tweets and algorithms and pageless digital downloads, bookstores are not a dying anachronism. They are living, breathing organisms that continue to grow and expand. And believe me, they are missed when they disappear.
At this point in the process people keep asking “What happens next? What will the world of Bookstore Day look like on May 4?” Well, we’ll know if this worked, for one thing. We could have an amazing opening weekend. Or, I suppose, we could flop.
The idea all along was to take Bookstore Day national. California was the testing ground. But who knows? Whether or not it goes national is up to the American Bookseller’s Association and they are waiting to make their decision until after May 3. Judicious of them, but anxiety inducing on my part.
Even if we do flop, and the customers come in a trickle rather than a rush, I’d like to do this all over again. I sort of like it as a California event. Celebrating our rich literary history and our lucky literary present feels totally legit to me. And if, to paraphrase Don DeLillo, California’s invention of the concept of lifestyle does indeed warrant our doom, I’m happy to go down as a member of the literary lifestyle—rearranging my books in that cozy fictional bookstore where customers are announced by the tinkle of a bell.
You can find a participating store near you and check out the catalog of exclusive books and art pieces at www.cabookstoreday.com. You can also follow CBD on Twitter and Facebook @bookstoreday for all the latest news. The Naked Bookseller is proud to be featuring several stores as part of California Bookstore Day, including Skylight Books in Los Angeles, and Green Apple in San Francisco.