Interview with a Bookstore: Book Passage
From travel guides to 800 events
Book Passage first opened in 1976. It was started by Bill and Elaine Petrocelli, who still own the store today. It was initially conceived as a travel book store, as Bill and Elaine felt there weren’t any bookstores with an emphasis on the then new advent of travel guides and accessories.
What's your favorite section of the store?
The children’s section! If only because you hear amazing snippets of conversations between kids and their parents, watch kids get so excited to see the book they want on the shelf, and can grab a favorite picture book to page through to brighten a tough day. We’ve also been known to fall in love with kids books and burst into each others offices to read them to one another.
If you had infinite space what would you add?
More rooms for events and classes! We have over 800 events a year, plus daily classes on subjects ranging from Italian to memoir writing. We also run book fairs for most of Marin County, and all that stuff not surprisingly takes up quite a bit of space. On a more whimsical note, who could turn down a reading room? We have a café and plenty of chairs scattered across our two buildings in Corte Madera, but a room just for curling up with a new read would be divine. For our SF store, it would be lovely to feature more local authors, given so many incredible talents call our neck of the woods home. We certainly feature many of them, but a San Francisco room would be incredible (with art commissioned by Deth P. Sun).
What do you do better than any other bookstore?
Events! Want to have lunch with your favorite novelist and see our event room turned into a restaurant? Come to one of our literary luncheons. Want to eat a meal inspired by a famous chef’s latest cookbook with that chef at one of the Bay Area’s most acclaimed restaurants? Visit our next Cooks with Books event. Want to meet former presidents, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelists, and leading figures in a vast array of disciplines? Come to one of the 800+ events we host at our two store locations, in addition to joint partnerships with local venues like Dominican College, Davies Symphony Hall, and many more!
Who is your favorite regular?
This might be cheating a little, but Isabel Allende. We are very lucky to have her as a local resident, and seeing her having coffee in the café, shopping for her friends and family, and of course visiting us when her new books arrive or stepping in to converse with other authors for their events, is an incredible gift we will never stop being grateful for. The same could be said for Anne Lamott, who has taught her one writing seminar of the year for the past several years at our store. Elaine welcomed Anne when her very first book came out, a product in part created during writing workshops she attended at Book Passage, and it’s been incredible to see her become such a literary superstar!
What’s the craziest situation you’ve ever had to deal with in the store?
We’ve had construction tear our stores apart, power outages, and all the normal headaches any small business has to suffer when they’ve been around for almost 40 years. Perhaps the craziest is the Secret Service walk-throughs that took place ahead of events with Jimmy Carter, Hillary Clinton, and others. Those guys are very thorough. You don’t know every inch of your store until you’ve walked with with a Secret Service agent.
What’s your earliest/best memory about visiting a bookstore as a child?
For me personally (I’m 28), I remember going to see Brian Jacques at Book Passage (no, for real). I was obsessed with Redwall, and it almost didn’t seem real that there was an actual person behind all the words I’d fallen in love with. It was one of my first author events, and it has always stayed with me.
If you weren’t running or working at a bookstore, what would you be doing?
Writing, which I already do anyway. I’m a staff writer for Consequence of Sound and a contributor to SF Weekly. My life is built in words, and there is no alternative. It’s like the old trop of a guy going back in time and accidentally stepping on a bug during the Cretaceous Period and subsequently altering humanity’s future. You could send a million people back in time to change a million things and I’d still be working at a bookstore and writing. It’s my DNA.
What’s been the biggest surprise about running a bookstore?
The loyalty. I love movies, and some movie theaters are far better than others, but unless a movie is only playing at one theater, I’m not necessarily going to go out of my way to see it at a certain place. Ditto with many things in my life, but somehow books are different. We get people who travel across states to take Anne Lamott’s classes, across counties to attend events; people who want a signed book from a favorite author so badly they’ll have it sent to Tokyo or New Zealand, wherever they may be. The people who frequent our store every day are overwhelmingly familiar faces, and they are what keep us going. To recommend a book you’ve loved to a willing recipient is wonderful; to finish one and hope a certain customer comes in soon because you know they’ll love it is something entirely more magical.
SLIDESHOW: Books Passage Staff Recommendations