Interview with a Bookstore: Books Inc.
From the Goldrush to the 21st Century
Books Inc.’s origin dates back to the Gold Rush days of 1851 when Anton Roman struck it rich in Shasta City, California and set himself up in business selling books. That small bookstore was moved, bought, sold, burned, rebuilt, renamed and became Books Inc., as we know it today, in 1946.
Lew Lengfeld purchased the store in 1946 and was the primary owner for 50 years until his death in 1996. The good news was that Lengfeld left the business to a few trusted employees; the bad news (aside from the obvious) was that they inherited the business just as the national chain stores were discovering and colonizing the West Coast. The impact of this change in climate within the book trade was the closure of ten of the twelve Books Inc. stores and a Chapter 11 bankruptcy in an effort to restructure and save the company.
By this time only Michael Grant and Michael Tucker remained as owners. They were determined not only to survive, but to thrive. The company emerged from Chapter 11 in August of 1997 with four stores and a fifth was added in 1998. All integral systems had been revamped and computerized, from buying to accounting.
Tragically, Mike Grant died suddenly in August of 2000, just as the company was poised for further expansion. Michael Tucker assumed the role of president and carried out the plan. Five stores have been added since 2000 and the 12th location will begin construction in March of 2016 in Santa Clara.
What's your favorite section of the store?
Tanya Landsberger (Manager of Books Inc. in the Castro): Well, at the moment, I have to say our wall devoted to adult coloring books is my favorite section, in part because it’s growing so much, but mostly because pretty much everyone has a reaction. Lots of people are won over quickly, and even if a customer comments on how silly it all seems, they often find one appealing and get it!
Althea Ku, (Sidelines Buyer): Jellycats, plush, kitchen items.
Shannon Grant (Children’s Buyer): The Kid’s Section.
Ingrid Nystrom (Manager of Books Inc. in Laurel Village): Absolutely picture books. They are the most wonderful, most complete package of goodness. A feast for the eyes and ears, and—if lucky—you’ll get a good cuddle in the process.
Nadine Orzechowski, (Manager of Books Inc. in Palo Alto): Art, travel, architecture and cooking.
Elena Eustaquio, (Marketing Department): Why would you make me pick? I don’t want to hurt any of the books feelings. If you’re going to be insistent I guess I’ll say (in a hushed voice to spare the others feelings): Fiction & Art / Architecture.
Caitlin Ayer, (Children’s Department): The kids section, particularly picture books. I strongly believe picture books are for everyone to enjoy—adults should read them too!
Brian Pettus, (Manager of Books Inc. in the Marina): As the holder of a degree in history, I have to say history. Pretty sure that’s in the fine print. But truly, few sections in a bookstore appeal to as wide an array of people, if you know the books.
If you had infinite space what would you add?
Scott Kinberger (Buying Director): Every great narrative ever written.
Margie Scott Tucker (Director of Marketing): I would wish for a corner in every store that had time lord technology—just an average corner, but you walked in and it was a comfortable event space that easily grew to accommodate 5 to 500? Not so much to ask is it?
Ingrid: A lot more kids space for lounging, art, activities and events. And on the other end of the store (away from the noise), a leather chaired lounge area featuring very upscale, collectible coffee table books.
Tanya: Oh wow, I guess it’s not fair to say everything, so I’ll go with my first instinct: Graphic Novels, both for adult and kids. This storytelling is rapidly evolving, taking on more varied subjects, and really becoming its own art form.
Don Watson (Manger of Books Inc. in Opera Plaza): If space wasn’t an issue I would love to add a dedicated area in the store where local artisans could put up a small pop-up shop. We could change it out every week and cross merchandise with books. For instance, wouldn’t it be great if we could promote local honey and/or olive oil producers next to a well curated cookbook display?
Earle Peterson (Manager of Books Inc. in Burlingame): I would add a much larger art and photography section. The production of high quality art and photo books has fallen off. It is also difficult to sell them to the general public. But I have always loved the fine art books. It is a great combination to have an important artist represented in book form, and then have the book itself be an accomplished creation.
What do you do better than any other bookstore?
Althea: Combining interesting and fun sidelines with books to complement both items.
Margie: I think the event staff—in every store—are so wonderful. I get the best compliments back from escorts, authors and publicists about them—I think the overall experience that authors have is so positive…
Who is your favorite regular?
Nadine: Annie the Golden retriever and her owners Jeff and Melissa.
Ingrid: Oh my, we have a quite a few. One of my favorites just passed away at the age of 94. He always had his bag, his list, and his credit card wrapped together with rubber bands. He’d order mostly military or serious history books, but sort of delighted in us presenting him with a little something different which he would invariably buy.
Glen: We have a lawyer who works on Castro Street that comes in several times a week and ALWAYS on Tuesdays because he knows that is the day new releases arrive. He pulls printouts from our website and gives them to us to special order. He is a true Books Inc Mountain View fan and easily spends a couple thousand dollars a year with us.
Schyler Baker (Manager of Books Inc. in Berkeley): My favorite regular is actually a colleague in the industry—a Field Sales Representative with PGW/Perseus named Leslie Jobson. For years, our store was just down the street from her office, so she stopped in quite a bit. We would also see her at PGW signings or author dinners, frequently at her invitation. And now, even though we moved locations and are farther away, Leslie still makes the trip to see us. Leslie has always been friendly and warm toward us in a way that can’t be faked. She has watched our younger staff mature, and she continues to take an interest in how they are doing. Anytime Leslie stops in, she makes sure to check in with us and to answer any questions we might have about what’s brewing at PGW. She is a reminder of the great relationships that can form between publisher and bookseller, especially when they spend some time as neighbors.
Earle: There is a couple who walk the neighborhood and swing by the store with their dogs two to three times a week. They actually supply the store with dog biscuits, not only for their dogs but any other who pop in. The couple is very friendly and well read, and it is a pleasure to hear what they are reading and to have a visit with their pets.
Brian: No names, but we have a woman who comes in every other day to browse our sale books and mysteries, and she is always up for a laugh and nice conversation. She’ll stay in the store for a couple of hours reading a book, and then come up and buy it to take home and finish. She is very well-read, and talking with her about just about anything is a delight.
Elena: I don’t know his name, but I love him. He has a walker he uses to help him get around and there is a small metal basket attached to the front of it, which he always fills with three or four plastic cups. Each cup is always filled to the top with a different kind of candy and he always gives whoever rings him up a handful to share with the whole staff. He’s the sweetest!
What’s the craziest situation you’ve ever had to deal with in the store?
Ingrid: The two children who within a week of each other got their heads stuck in balcony railings.
Nick Petrulakis (Manager Books Inc. in Alameda): I was asked to provide a boat for an author event with about six hours notice. On a busy October morning when everything seemed to be happening all at once in the Bay Area (Fleet Week, the America’s Cup, the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival—in addition to the 49ers and the San Francisco Giants playing games) we were preparing for a big event at the store. Tony LaRussa, one of the greatest managers in baseball history, was to be at the store in the afternoon, and that morning I got the call that he needed a boat to cross the bay after the event because he was doing color commentary during the playoffs in San Francisco and getting there from Alameda—with everything that was going on—was looking dicey. What I learned from that phone call is—everyone needs a friend with a boat. A couple of Facebook messages later, after a few missed connections, my friend Jengiz was lined up to do some ferrying across the water. It took us about 20 minutes to secure the boat—proving that Books Inc. rocks.
Glen: Oh, you mean the guy who passed out in our bathroom and had to be medically evacuated?
Brian: Either the tennis-white-dressed petty thieves who were being tailed by a police detective, or a woman who escaped from her custodian and was insisting on converting everyone in the store into Christians by yelling at them. Both memorable moments.
What’s your earliest/best memory about visiting a bookstore as a child?
Ingrid: My family didn’t have a lot of disposable income, and we lived within a few blocks of a library. Each year, though, I got to choose one book for my bookshelf. So difficult, and so wonderful. I always had to keep in mind that next year I would get another, so I couldn’t possibly go wrong.
Brian: I don’t have an earliest memory of bookstores, but I remember poring over the shelves and finding an interesting cover. Took that book home and it remains one of my favorite books (and authors!) of all time. I never would have discovered that book if not for a small independent stocking that book in the odd chance someone came by and fell in love with it.
Earle: The only book store in my town was a used book store. I loved reading history and had recently read about Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. I asked the clerk if they had the book. Instead of sneering at a teenager who would never read a book like that, she told me she could order a copy of the Modern Library version. She was so excited and got me an affordable edition. I still have the two-volume set.
If you weren’t running or working at a bookstore, what would you be doing?
Michael Tucker (CEO): Lion tamer
Ingrid: My work history is mostly in event planning, and I imagine that is what I’d be doing if I hadn’t made taken the step to author events and then managing a bookstore.
Althea: I’ve worked in bookstores for 36 years, I can’t think of another thing I’d be doing.
Brian: Well, I used to work in real estate finance, so probably that. But that job is 24/7/365 and super-high stress. Running a bookstore lets me work hard and sometimes long hours doing something I really love, and that makes all the difference.
Nadine: I would be reading more books.
What’s been the biggest surprise about running a bookstore?
Nadine: Bookstores don’t run themselves. It takes a lot of concerted effort by a lot of great booksellers.
Ingrid: In some ways, it didn’t come as such a surprise to me, but is always surprising to new staff (especially those who have worked in retail)—just how unique the shopping experience is. It is not simply a different product than shoes.
Brian: It’s a remarkably dynamic job—working the register and helping a customer find that perfect book one minute, doing community outreach to local schools and organizations the next, and every day has a different texture in this way. I never know quite where my most exciting, fun, or humorous moment is going to come from each day, and that makes this job pretty special.
Glen: It continues to be fun (99 percent of the time, anyway) even after 24 years of doing it.
Earle: I feel as invigorated today as I was the first time I became a manager. Invigorated by the new books each month, and by the quality of people I’ve been able to find to work in the store. As with the previous question, I see other people who can’t wait to get out of their jobs; I’m surprised by how fresh the job is each week.
SLIDESHOW: Books Inc. Staff Recommendations