Supporting Small Businesses: An Interview with Alley Cat Books

All images taken by Book Club Babe

All images taken by Book Club Babe

One of my 2016 resolutions is to visit five new bookstores this year, in order to support small businesses and promote the hidden gems in the literary community. In March, I interviewed the owner of Recycle Bookstore in San Jose, Calif., and during my European vacation in May, I discovered Pocket 2000 in Rome.

I may not be purchasing any books this year (yet another goal of mine), but that doesn’t mean that I can’t give independent bookstores the shout-outs they so rightfully deserve!

Last week I interviewed Simon Crafts, bookseller and event coordinator at Alley Cat Books in San Francisco. Alley Cat opened in 2011 in the Mission District, known for its cultural diversity and emphasis on the arts.

A unique aspect about Alley Cat is that the store’s owner Kate Rosenberger is a painter and prides herself on featuring local artists in the gallery at the back of the shop. As its bilingual website demonstrates, Alley Cat is also dedicated to stocking a wide variety of new and used books in both English and Spanish.

Simon is one of four Alley Cat staff members, currently studying poetry and creative writing in his MFA program at San Francisco State University. He was gracious enough to answer a few questions for Book Club Babe, so let’s jump into the Q&A!

Alley Cat bookseller Simon Crafts in front of the “screaming door” featuring Writer in Residence Paul Ebenkamp

“Book people are great. People who care about physical books are generally decent, interesting human beings.” ~ SC

Book Club Babe (BCB): What are the most challenging and most rewarding aspects of working at a bookstore?

Simon Crafts (SC): The most challenging aspect is paying the rent! This is challenging because it involves being the best possible small independent bookstore we can be and making people want to come and shop here, while trying to be as different from a thing like Amazon or Barnes and Noble as possible. We want this to feel like a more intimate and interesting space than that, and we don’t want to sell books like they are just a product.

To that end, I think we’ve settled on trying to make an argument with this place to the people who come in: that books and bookstores have a deeper and more profound value than money and convenience and that there is something intangible and beautiful about a room full of books and the people, ideas, and things you might encounter inside a space like that.

This is also the most rewarding thing about working here. It feels exciting to be a caretaker, and so intimately involved in a place that is so electric and creative, like a big strange antenna into the world of ideas. It’s almost a sanctuary for certain sorts of people (both old and young) in the digital age and you’re stewarding that sanctuary.

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Stewarding the Sanctuary

BCB: How has the digital age affected your business?

SC: The damage has already been done. People who shop on Amazon do that now and I don’t think there is as much intersection or competition between the two worlds as people think. In fact, I’ve seen more people coming in and trying to wean themselves off Amazon this year than ever before. I think the public opinion has turned (at least in San Francisco) and this thing that was thought of as a revolution of convenience at first has lost its charm because it’s been revealed to be capitalism as usual. There is a silver lining to Amazon and e-books in that they shut down or greatly damaged the viability of big chains. This has actually improved our business by getting rid of competition here on the ground or “IRL” as it’s known on Twitter.

BCB: How are you involved in the community, and what role, if any, does social media play in your business?

SC: We are very involved in the community here. We have a gallery and event space in the back of the store that hosts poetry readings, fundraisers, open mics, book releases, film nights, square dances, and occasional music. We promote through newsletters, social media, and print calendars and good old-fashioned word of mouth. We try to give priority to local artists and people in the neighborhood. We really feel an obligation to participate in a positive way in this neighborhood and its community given that it is being threatened by intense gentrification.

We’ve also recently joined with fellow 24th Street bookstores Modern Times and Adobe Books to form an organization called United Booksellers of San Francisco whose mission it is to try to protect San Francisco bookstores as cultural and literary resources. Rents are (seemingly always) climbing in San Francisco, and we are all in threat of being priced out.

BCB: What does your inventory look like, and how do you select which books to highlight in your store?

SC: We carry used, remainder, and new books. We buy used books over the counter every day. We don’t stock romance novels or textbooks, but we have a more extensive art, poetry, and queer/feminist/radical politics sections than most bookstores.

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“Read about more than straight white men” ~ SC

BCB: What trends are you seeing in the books that are purchased?

SC: So people are talking a lot about it being “the golden age of television” but I think it’s really the golden age of the essay. There’s this sort of “hybrid-essay” genre that has appeared. Books like Maggie Nelson’s “The Argonauts,” Claudia Rankine’s “Citizen,” Brian Blanchfield’s “Proxies,” and just about anything by Rebecca Solnitt. They really blur the line between essay, poetry, memoir, and criticism. They’re also simultaneously tackling some of the hardest cultural discussions and problems of our age. I’ve been selling a lot of these kinds of books, and it gives me hope for the future because it means people are interested in what they’re saying and they’re carrying these ideas into their lives.

BCB: What are your favorite books/authors/genres, and why?

SC: Well, I write poetry, so my favorite books are generally poetry, which is not everybody’s cup of tea (though I wish it was!). Frank O’Hara’s “Lunch Poems” is a touchstone for me and a classic that I think even non-poets can enjoy.

As for fiction, anything by Eileen Myles (who is also a poet). Her novel Chelsea Girls was re-released last year, and I recommend it to everyone. She writes like she is speaking to you in the room with this really infectious, casual voice. It’s like the opposite of fussy overwrought MFA fiction. The stories are autobiographical and short, but they all fit together into a larger tapestry. It’s a really amazing and quietly experimental book that is totally enjoyable for almost everyone.

BCB: Our book club is all about wine. Which wines would you pair with your favorite books, and why?

SC: We’re not really wine drinkers here at Alley Cat, so I would be lying if I claimed to know about any kind of wine except two buck chuck! We’re mostly beer and whiskey folks. I think a moderate amount of alcohol pairs well with just about everything (read or otherwise), but too much alcohol and poetry can have you speaking in tongues. That could be a good thing or a bad thing depending on your friends.

BCB: Anything else you think Book Club Babe readers should know?

SC: We’re sister store to Dog Eared Books and Dog Eared Books Castro (which opened in June)! They are amazing independent bookstores, each with a slightly different aesthetic than ours. You should check them out as well!

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“There is something intangible and beautiful about a room full of books.”

Supporting Small Businesses: An Interview with Recycle Bookstore

All images taken by me

All images taken by Book Club Babe

As I’ve explained in my blog post about my 2016 resolutions, one of my goals is to visit five new bookstores this year. Buying books online may be cheaper and easier, but nothing beats exploring a unique, independent bookstore in person. This is the first feature in my new blog series on supporting small businesses, in which I will be interviewing the owner of an indie bookstore to learn about their business and their own reading preferences.

Let’s get started with the first Q&A of this series, starring Eric Johnson, owner of Recycle Bookstore! Recycle Bookstore has been in business since 1967 and has been owned by Eric and his wife Cynthia since 1998. Recycle Bookstore stocks over 100,000 titles, buying, selling, and trading books at its two Bay Area locations in San Jose and Campbell, Calif.

Before Eric began operating Recycle Bookstore full-time, he worked at the San Jose Mercury News. He enjoys running the store with his wife, their 15 staff members, and the store’s two feline mascots, Emma and Ender.

“I’ve always loved the magic of entering into a bookstore…Each book is a door that I can pick up and enter.”

 

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Eric Johnson, owner of Recycle Bookstore in San Jose, Calif.

Book Club Babe (BCB): What inspired you to start your business? Have you always wanted to own a bookstore?

Eric Johnson (EJ): I’ve always loved the magic of entering into a bookstore. To me, going into a bookstore is like a window into a whole range of worlds. Each book is a door that I can pick up and enter. I work in a time machine, because [through reading] you can travel through time and space. There are lots of places you can go!

BCB: What are the most challenging and most rewarding aspects of owning this business?

EJ: The most challenging part about owning a bookstore is just the day-to-day effort it takes to actually make it work. There are a million little, tiny things—in any small business, but especially in a bookstore when you own over 100,000 books in it—that you have to be doing: clearing out sections, getting rid of older books, and paying attention to what sells and what doesn’t sell to convey that to the staff who also buys books. The most challenging part is what I call ‘being nibbled to death by ducks,’ because it’s all the tiny things that add up. Before you know it, your week is gone.

The most rewarding aspect is seeing the pure joy on people’s faces when they have a great browsing experience. Hearing the feedback from customers when they compliment us on the store…it‘s more than just a compliment: you know that this person has had a great experience. Another rewarding part is just working with the employees in an environment where people can have fun and make a little more money than the typical retail job offers. It really is a close family relationship, and we like to hang too.

BCB: And how about the cats? What do your customers think of them?

EJ: We’ve had Emma and Ender for four years now. We adopted them from the San Jose Animal Shelter at the same time. Everyone loves to interact with cats. Their personalities are perfectly suited for a bookstore. They’re calm; they’re relaxed for the most part. It encourages a hedonistic slowness. You have time to do whatever you want to.

The many faces of Emma

The many faces of Emma

BCB: How has the digital age affected your business?

EJ: It’s obvious that used bookstores have lost customers to electronic devices. The amount of books that we’ve sold in the stores has declined for a number of years, but there’s been a little bit of a bounceback. People usually do both, both electronic devices and buying books in store. And some people tried [e-readers], but never got used to them. If people are buying less physical books, then they’re not turning them into us to sell. That’s part of the ecosystem, so to speak.

BCB: How are you involved in the community, and what role, if any, does social media play in your business?

EJ: I’m very much focused on my own little world. You have more outreach when you’re a new bookstore. Essentially, I like to think of my audience as one that doesn’t necessarily need something splashy to get them to come in. The focus is solely on the books. We recently got on Twitter; someone does that for me, so we do have a presence on Twitter and Facebook. We have lot of interesting people on our feeds.

BCB: What does your inventory look like, and how do you select which books to highlight in your store?

EJ: The selection process is half-art, half-experience. Through the years, I think I’ve learned what to buy and not to buy by listening to people. It’s an interactive process with the community. We don’t get new books unless they bring them to us. Especially early on when I started, I’d ask people, “Why are you buying this?” You just create a mental database of these odd books that people keep asking for.

"Each book is a door" ~ EJ

“Each book is a door” ~ EJ

BCB: What trends are you seeing in the books that are purchased?

EJ: Some people might find this surprising, some people won’t, but a big part of our sales is our kids and young adult section. Kids love the tactile experience of having a book in their hands, and they also love the idea of being in a bookstore and pulling out books. I think our first instinct is to really interact with our environment in a real-time way, and kids naturally gravitate toward that.

You definitely notice certain trends when you’re looking at a section that isn’t selling. Things are shifting all the time. Like I said, our kids section is selling a lot more, so we expanded that section. And then we have to look at a section like Americana, which is frontier, history, and things like that. It used to be a great selling point. A whole bunch of older men come in and buy stuff, but then, either because they’ve retired and have no money or have passed on, that audience just shrunk. So you really have to pay attention to certain trends. We have what I call ‘institutional memory.’ It’s why we have one central work area to communicate with one another [regarding these trends].

BCB: What are your favorite books/authors/genres, and why?

EJ: I’ve found poetry to be both a practical and a spiritual base to go back to throughout my life. I love poetry, because it seems like poets try to distill this moment of truth in a language that’s both real and vibrant. If I feel like life’s getting away from me, I always go back to some of my favorite poets: Wendell Berry, who’s an actual working farmer and poet who writes about agricultural issues, and the classics like Walt Whitman and Theodore Roethke.

BCB: Our book club is all about wine. Which wines would you pair with your favorite books, and why?

EJ: For some reason, I always prefer heavy red wines when I read. My favorite winery is probably Yorkville Cellars near Anderson Valley. Their Cabernet Franc is usually very good.

BCB: Anything else you think Book Club Babe readers should know?

EJ: A small business is a very delicate operation, and you build it over the years, book by book, customer by customer. We’re always changing, making the stock more interesting and more attractive. You’re looking at each person who comes into the store and trying to enhance their experience and connect with them.

I had a Yelper that put the nail on the head, and he said, “It’s like a comfortable home that you’re visiting.” I read that and thought, either unconsciously or consciously, that’s what we do. I don’t like to have a hierarchical relationship with my employees. We all work together. We don’t have a real dress code. We don’t say you need to interact with customers in XYZ way. Pay attention to the people, and see what they want. That’s what’s unique about our store. It’s the atmosphere that’s welcoming.

“A small business is a very delicate operation, and you build it over the years, book by book, customer by customer.”