Independent Stores Break the Chains

Literary passions support unique market for books
In a city with one of the highest concentrations of bookstores in the country, local independent bookstores have managed to escape the shadow of large chains.

Stan Spenger, manager of Shakespeare & Company Books on Telegraph Avenue, said independent bookstores in Berkeley have always dominated the market.

"People in Berkeley are more supportive of the independents. Chain stores don't really stand a chance here," Spenger said. "The whole ethos of Berkeley is anti-chain, pro-independent. The independents were here first, they opened up the markets.

"Now that I've seen chain stores grow up and die. I don't think anything specific poses a threat to this store," Spenger added, noting that Waldenbooks and Crown Books have recently closed shop.

With nearly 50 bookstores in the city, many specializing in used books, some smaller stores survive the competition by finding a niche in the market.

Andy Ross, owner of Cody's Books, an independent bookstore since 1956, said the independent market in Berkeley is "really strong" because it better suits the specific taste of the city's clientele.

"Chain bookstores have a cookie cutter formula. They're virtually identical everywhere, whereas communities are quite different," Ross said.

"You can't use mass merchandising techniques here. A buyer in New York can't deal with the unique qualities of the community. They're doomed to fail here," Ross said.

"We are rooted in the community. We're able to reflect the unique qualities of a community chains can't."

However, Ross added that despite financial success, chain stores have "put a lot of pressure on us."

"Corporations with identical stores are increasing and that is very dangerous," Ross said. "Book selling is the distributing of ideas, and it's being left in the hands of one or two corporations."

One of the main chain stores that has created such pressure is Barnes & Noble, which opened up three years ago on Shattuck Avenue. The store carries over 100,000 titles and occupies 18,000 square feet.

Rather than competing, the store attempts to complement local independent bookstores, said Megan Craig, community relations coordinator for Barnes & Noble.
"You have to have a little bit of both. We are an integral part of teh community as well," Craig said.

"We see ourselves not so much as a competitor, but as a positive light. We're trying to make it just as everyone else is," she added.

Craig said that although chains are able to provide large discounts on some books because they buy in bulk and have the advantage of a well-known name, a large chain store in Berkeley often experiences the same problems independent stores have.

"Instead of people fearing us, we are trying to integrate ourselves into Berkeley's community," Craig said.

For example, she said part of her job is coordinating programs such as author readings and character appearances, to bring the store closer to the community.

But other merchants still feel that large stores hurt their business. Philip Barry, co-owner of Shambhala Booksellers, said although his store is specialized, it is not immune to the competition by chain stores.

In fact, Barry said the volume of sales in his store has dropped 45 percent since 1987.

He attributes the downfall to the "big explosion" of public interest in new age books about eight years ago. As a result, he said that much of their collection went mainstream.

"Chains make a significant dent in our markets because if those are the books most customers want, they can get them anywhere," Barry said.

He said that the store's profit from books that are now being carried by chain stores originally helped them pay for titles that were technical or more obscure. Despite the fact that his business had been falling under every month this year, Barry said Shambhala remains committed to providing specialty books.

"It's very important the store makes available certain texts even if they aren't best-sellers. It's important to keep knowledge available," Barry said.

However, he said that money is extremely tight, and sales have been erratic.

"It's hard, we're struggling. We've had to refine our buying, dig deeper in our specialties and expand hours without increasing staff," Barry said.

But he also acknowledged that few stores like his, which specializes in various religious traditions, are able to exist.

"There's possible not many places that you can sustain a store of this kind. You need a lot of foot traffic and a certain cultural milieu that the campus provides," Barry said. "This is a big campus. People come from all over the world."
In order to beat the competition, Morris Moskowitz of Moe's Books, one of the oldest bookstores in Berkeley, said independent bookstores have several ways of avoiding competition with chains.

One strategy is to have a small specialized store which carries books customers can't get anyewhere else. Another alternative is to expand to a large used bookstore.

Moskowitz said that used bookstores are multi-faceted, and allow for a larger variety of books. He said that he has sold everything from a pocket book for as little as 13 cents to a catalog worth $4,000.

"We're a high-quality Woolworth's, with a touch of Tiffany's," Moskowitz said.

"I have no serious competition. I avoid competition by being such a big used bookstore. Chains will never go into used books in a big way," he added.

Instead, Moskowitz cites other factors that affect his business.

"I don't think chains have a bigger effect on the business than the reputation of the street," Moskowitz said, noting that his store is located on Telegraph Avenue, widely known for its collection of unique eclectic businesses.

Most students said they preferred to patronize local bookstores.

"I pretty much know what chain bookstores have, and what editions they have. Used bookstores allow you to have great finds," said first year graduate student Sonja Albrecht.

"It's kind of exciting to get your hands on an old edition of a book you thought you'd never find," Albrecht said.

Others said they liked the atmosphere of independent bookstores.

"It's slightly messy. The shelves look as if people have been ruffling through them. I like the fact that it's a little more unstructured," said Raja Sengupta, a UC Berkeley employee.

-- By Susan Huang, The Daily Californian, 9/11/95