Guest Blog: Co-op Bookshop

Community Supported Bookshops

Guest Blog by Todd Pratum of Owl & Company Bookshop, Oakland

After 31 years in the book business, five bookshops and three warehouse internet operations later, I’ve pulled myself out of the internet (almost entirely--tired of staring into a screen instead of a face or walls of fine books) and moved most of my 30,000 volumes into a beautiful new bookshop of my creation. 1,200 sq. ft. for $3,000 on a very busy street, one of the best shopping and clubbing streets in the Bay Area and the Bay Area’s greatest concentration of bookshops, six now, within five blocks. My website is primitive but there are photos on Yelp. So far so good, though there are a lot of people coming in saying things like “I love bookshops,” “I love the smell of old books,” “Thank you for joining our neighborhood,” “I LOVE books,” etc. then leave without buying anything, waving from the door and saying, “Good luck!”

For this reason I am starting something unique in the book business (I believe), what I am calling ‘Community Supported Bookshops.’ CSB, modeled on something well established here in the US, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), where people, who now realize the value of the family farm ‘join’ the farm for certain (usually minor and at no extra cost to the farm) benefits, and the joy of supporting something local and real.

Soon we will be charging $40 per year for membership. Besides T-shirts and bumper stickers, all members really get is advance notice of our quarterly 35%-off sales, and they get to come in a week before the public. These sales are held anyway so this costs us nothing. This is my answer to all the people who ‘love’ bookshops but never buy anything. Or come in and find books then use their phone to find it cheaper. (NB about 30% of all purchases on Amazon are generated first by a discovery in a brick and mortar shop).

What I’ve built here is a ‘traditional looking’ bookshop: 13-foot custom wood shelving to the ceiling, with only incandescent lights, a community meeting / art gallery in back, and generous open hours to serve the browser. Most everybody that comes in says things like “This reminds me of London,” “4th Street NY,” “The Old Library where I grew up,” “What a bookshop should be,” Harry Potter, Charing Cross Road (or the movie), the Ninth Gate, etc. And for Generation Y, they intuitively know this is a good authentic thing even though they have never seen anything like it. They value at least the idea. 

If there are any dealers who would like to help me develop this idea into a movement, where other bookshops join the CSB Society and make it global then I would like to correspond. My manager is hot on the idea, and I can pay her for some extra time to work on this project.

A few details: We still pay our generous rate on books for cash and trade but mark everything much cheaper than the net. Turnover is the key (read The Mathematics of Bookselling). No longer do I price books compared to the net but much cheaper.

What do I love the most these days? The amazing books that find their way here. My shop has brought in wonderful libraries and collections. Many are GIVEN to me. But my best and most exciting experience is working with salvage people who find crazy and unique collections of books, documents, letters, ephemera, photos, etc. that have been left at the dump or thrown in dumpsters, or though real estate agents, probate attorneys, even the City Of Oakland (abandoned houses especially), and the like. Why? Because there are only a few bookshops in this entire area of 13 million that buy books, so people are just desperate to do something with them.

We are a totally general shop which is key I think, but I have still retained my old focus on esoterica, antiquarian scholarly books, and “uncommon fact & fiction.”

The SF Book & Fair Show last month in San Francisco was a great learning experience. I haven’t exhibited or even attended a fair for many years, and I sold very few books at this fair, one of the largest in the world, ugh... But I learned. My most memorable observation? Almost everybody was at least 40 years old, with many ancient people and no ‘20-something’ people. This I believe is partly due to the fact that the dealers there only sell the old standards, and don’t try to appeal to young people’s interest. Yet after five bookshops I have always found that when it comes to used books the bread and butter of a general shop is the young people who are most willing to pay for books, and eat later (Erasmus).

Soon we will have a computer terminal here so people can check the internet on any books and decide for themselves what is the better deal.

Thanks to Todd Pratum for sharing his essay. Tell us what you think of community supported bookshops!

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