The West’s Oldest Independent Bookseller: Books Inc.

In 1851, Bavarian entrepreneur Anton Roman struck gold in Shasta City, California, and immediately set his sights on another treasure: books.

What started as a single, small shop in Shasta City grew into a business of over 26 stores crisscrossing the state of California and a small publishing house, binding the likes of Bret Harte and Mark Twain. That is, until the San Francisco Earthquake and Fire of 1906, the death of longstanding owner Lew Lengfeld, and the fateful arrival of chain bookstores. In 1995, just two stores remained, and Books Inc. literally had to rebuild itself from the ground up.

A sketch of Books Inc.’s 19th-century ancestor, Shasta City Book Store.

Complete with dangerous terrain, trade adversaries, and, ultimately, the triumph of the underdog, Books Inc.’s mythic story earns a place between Jack London and Cormac McCarthy on its shelves. Thanks to the resolve of late owner Michael Grant and current president Michael Tucker, Books Inc. is now 11 stores and 150 employees strong and a permanent fixture of the San Francisco Bay Area.

In a recent phone call, I asked Marketing Director Margie Scott Tucker, to what we can attribute Books Inc.’s enduring success. “The communities we’re in,” she said. “When my husband and Mike Grant took over the business in 1994, they found a niche […] The model at the time was these 20,000 square foot stores, but those can’t go every place. So, we decided to go in the neighborhoods where the big stores couldn’t go and serve the community there.” Nestled between local shops, Books Inc.’s stores — three in San Francisco, four on the peninsula into the South Bay, two in the East Bay, and two in Terminal 2 and 3 at San Francisco International Airport called Compass Books — average a homey 3500 square feet.

Each Books Inc. store is tailor-made to its neighborhood. “Every store is different. They don’t look the same. They don’t carry the same books. They might have different sized sections […] Each store has its own buyer. Even the signage is different,” Margie told me. Books Inc.’s booksellers, of which over 50% have been with Books Inc. for eight or more years, carefully curate their selection and events with locals in mind. Consequently, customers can expect a distinct experience in each Books Inc. store they visit.

From left to right, Books Inc.’s Mountain View and Laurel Village locations

Although Books Inc.’s stores vary widely in appearance and atmosphere, the Tuckers work hard to foster unity. They encourage booksellers from all corners to openly discuss and compare their wares. Many of their employees have worked in more than one store. Staff regularly participate in Books Inc.-sponsored book clubs with winning names like “Women We’d Like to Lunch With” at Laurel Village and “Classics I Forgot to Read” at The Marina in San Francisco. Margie herself hosts a book club at the Palo Alto shop nearest her house.

Locals cozied up in Books Inc.’s Palo Alto shop for Michele Tam’s “Ready or Not” cookbook signing event.

The Books Inc. event calendar is always jam-packed. Regulars and travelers can attend storytimes featuring homegrown authors, writers’ critique groups, and signing events. You can expect some big names to stop by, too, like Hillary Rodham Clinton, Dav Pilkey, Peter Brown, and Neal Shusterman.

Hillary Rodham Clinton paid the Books Inc. Opera Plaza team in San Francisco a visit in October 2017.

During our conversation, Margie stressed the importance of supporting local schools and “promoting literacy for all.” Books Inc. hosts Shopping Nights, during which teachers can “take over” a store for two hours. A portion of the night’s sales are then donated back to the schools. Books Inc. also coordinates book fairs all over the Bay Area throughout the school year and arranges free author visits to schools. High schoolers can participate in the summer Junior Bookseller program and hand sell their favorite books to customers.

Mo Willem’s beloved characters Elephant and Piggie dropped in for Storytime at Books Inc. Mountain View.

Books Inc.’s leadership believes locals should have a direct say in what the stores offer. The Santa Clara team’s Teen Advisory Board, for example, creates eye-catching displays, writes reviews on Books Inc.’s YA blog, drafts “Shelf Talkers” for the YA section, volunteers at events, and gives buying advice to the children’s specialists. Margie hopes the program will expand to more Books Inc. stores: “It’s just one other way to get young people excited about reading.”

Books Inc. is a testament to the resilience of independent bookstores in today’s hostile climate. Residents of Campbell, California, can expect a new Books Inc. store in their neighborhood in late spring of 2018. With such steadfast tethers to the neighborhoods of the Bay Area, come hell or high water, Books Inc. is here to stay.

As a Reckless Reader participant, Books Inc. offers LARB customers a 10% discount.

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