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Marin's Independent Bookstores

Various approaches call for community support.

I don’t want to live in a city that doesn’t have a bookstore,” novelist Ann Patchett, author of Bel Canto and State of Wonder, said recently upon the closing of the last independent bookstore in her hometown of Nashville, Tenn. Patchett, however, didn’t move away. Instead, she found a knowledgeable partner, ponied up an initial investment of $300,000 and opened Parnassus Books in downtown Nashville. That’s how much independent bookstores mean to people — many of whom live in Marin.

Obviously, independent bookstores are in survival mode. As if a sluggish economy weren’t problem enough, they’re fending off price-cutting competition from giants like Barnes & Noble, Costco and Target, as well as online sites such as amazon.com.

“Amazon sometimes gives buyers a better discount than I get from my wholesalers,” says Woody Leary, owner of  1st Street Books on College Avenue in Kentfield. “How can you compete with that?” Yet, somehow, Leary is competing. “We’ve been here almost 35 years,” she says with a business-is-pretty-darn-good smile. “We have customers who enjoy discussing books before buying them,” she adds. “They love books and we love them; so it works for everyone.”

Leary’s 1st  Street Books is one of only five independent bookstores in Marin (with its population of 258,000) that are waging a determined battle against big-box retailers and Internet sellers. In most instances, the heart of the bookstore’s surrounding community is at risk. Another Marin merchant waging the battle is Steve Costa of Point Reyes Books in Point Reyes Station, which has sponsored popular book events that attract noted poets, novelists and journalists. “Steve and his staff don’t just sell books,” says Nancy Adess, an appreciative customer. “They also help build community.”

Now, Costa has come up with a plan similar to the decades-old community-supported agriculture network, which he calls Community Supported Bookstores (CSB). It calls for people who value the presence of Point Reyes Books (many claim it’s the “first place they go” when visiting West Marin) to write checks from $150 to $500 as deposits against purchases they’ll make in the coming year. “This seals in their commitment to the local bookstore,” says Costa. In its first five weeks of existence, Point Reyes Books’ CSB has enrolled 90 members. “Some people have written checks for $1,000,” he reports. “We hope to have over 200 members by the end of the year.” Costa’s Community Supported Bookstore concept is receiving nationwide attention and acceptance.

In Corte Madera, Book Passage has had a similar plan under way for the past year. “Our Friends of Book Passage has hundreds of members,” says co-owner Elaine Petrocelli. “It’s one reason we’ve been able to survive and now almost thrive.” A Friends membership costs from $75 to $2,500 a year, depending on what someone who appreciates the bookstore is willing to invest. In return, Friends get front-row seats at author-signing events (Regis Philbin and Isabel Allende recently appeared), invitations to author receptions at Dominican University (Chris Matthews and Dr. Andrew Weil headlined in November), talks on the publishing industry given by Petrocelli, and entrance to a twice-a-year sale where everything is marked down 30 percent. “I wanted to include a discount on books purchased,” recalls Petrocelli, “but our members said, ‘No, we appreciate your being here and we want to keep you here.’ ”

Similar attitudes and events involving the community take place at Whyte’s Booksmith in San Anselmo and Book Depot in Mill Valley. An independent, locally operated bookstore is a treasure, one worth going out of your way to support and thus ensure its continuing presence in your community.

That is my point of view. What is yours? Email pov@marinmagazine.com.

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