Passion and resilience keeps Books Inc. thriving for more than a century

STORY BY DANA HUCH AND SIDDHANT KANWAR, PHOTOS BY EMILY MCNALLY

When Books Inc. founder Anton Roman struck it rich during the Gold Rush, he used his loot to build the chain’s first bookstore and publishing house in Shasta, California. 170 years later, Books Inc. remains the oldest independent bookseller on the West Coast.

But lately, the bookstore has had its fair share of struggles. On March 16, 2020, all businesses received a 24-hour’s notice that they were required to close up shop by the next day for an undetermined amount of time. For most of the two months the shutdown lasted, Books Inc. managers and staff were in the dark, not knowing what lay ahead for the business, their coworkers and themselves.

“There were so many questions and so much anxiety and fear,” Seamer said.

Loyal patrons of Books Inc.’s ten locations around the Bay Area, too, were concerned for the future of their neighborhood bookstores, so they took Books Inc.’s website by storm to fight for the business. Never before had their modest website operation experienced such a flood of book orders. Within the first week of stores closing, Books Inc. needed to expand its website staff of two people to 20 in response to the incredible surprise.

“That’s really one of the main reasons that we were able to keep going,” Seamer said. “All of our customers, because they couldn’t come into our stores, found us online and continued to support us that way.”

With this support, Books Inc. was not only able to stay in business, but also keep the entire staff employed and on health insurance through the lockdown. Seamer said managing through that period of extreme uncertainty has been his proudest work.

Shelves at Books Inc.’s Mountain View location.

Gold and resilience established the bookstore we know today — but mostly resilience. The pandemic was certainly not Books Inc.’s first time overcoming opposition. Transitions in leadership, ruthless corporate competitors and even the earthquake and fires in San Francisco during the early 20th century have all failed to wipe out the little juggernaut.

The outpouring of website support in response to the shutdown reflects how much customers appreciate Books Inc.’s attention to individual communities and their character.

“Each one of our neighborhoods is very unique and we want our bookstores to really reflect that community, carry what that community wants to buy and really be a part of that community,” Seamer said. “So we strive to keep each store very different from the others. There’s no cookie-cutter model.”

The Palo Alto location in the Town and Country Village shopping center, for example, emphasizes books for children due to the family-friendly atmosphere. The store’s staff has a knack for children’s book selections and an entire room is dedicated to children’s and young adult books.

The Mountain View location, on the other hand, has a stronger tech and industry focused selection due to its proximity to the Google campus and other tech companies.

Maintaining collections tailored for locals is part of Books Inc.’s mission to “bring a love of reading in as many ways as we can to as many people as we can,” Seamer said. But letting locations remain independent while maintaining the unity of the company can be a challenge, as providing resources requires centralized organization. Books Inc. relies heavily on the passionate staff of each location to provide feedback and run stores with some curative freedom.

“Bookstores … attract book people,” Seamer said. “The people who work in our stores love books. They love being around books; they love talking about the books they enjoy and hearing from our customers about the books they enjoy.”

Tucked among the spines of books on Books Inc.’s shelves, friendly notes from staff members and children recommend their favorites to perusers. Recommendations are not a one-way street for this unique independent bookstore, with booksellers paying close attention to feedback from customers to make sure that the selection reflects what the community wants to read.

A staff recommendation tucked in a shelf.

Human interaction plays a major role in creating value for brick and mortar stores like Books Inc. When shopping online, no seasoned reader is there to answer a customer’s questions about whether this book is the perfect gift for the niece they see twice a year or recommend a hidden gem based on the customer’s favorite book.

“It’s a place you can come and experience the discovery of something new,” Seamer said. “I think that’s what I love about bookstores, myself, is walking into any bookstore and knowing that somewhere in there there’s going to be something I love that I had never heard of before.”

Books Inc. makes this delight accessible to the community beyond storefronts through their nonprofit efforts and collaborations with local schools. With their book fairs, Books Inc. generates money to donate to local schools by setting up popup bookstores for students and parents. In a normal year, there are about 50 of these events at schools throughout their various locations’ neighborhoods.

Another way Books Inc. extends the love of reading to its communities has been through the esteemed events hosted in their stores.

“We love hosting events from the smallest to the largest,” Seamer said. “There could be one evening I’d be hosting somebody who lives in the neighborhood that self published a book and ten people show up and it’s just a great private party in the store. I love that Books Inc. can provide that. The next night, we do maybe Hilary Clinton and we have 2,000 people lined up around the block.”

During his years as events coordinator of the Books Inc. store on Van Ness Ave. in San Francisco, the two largest events Seamer was involved with both attracted the same size audience of around 2,000 people. The comparable throngs came to meet Hilary Clinton in one case and in the other, a social media sensation, Doug the Pug.

“It was a really fun event,” Seamer said. “I have never seen so many dogs in a bookstore.”

Though the pandemic has inhibited events of this sort for a while, Books Inc. has continued to host well-attended book talks virtually.

“It’s a hard time to look too far ahead right now,” said Seamer. “Who knows what we’ll be able to do a month from now… We do look forward to the time when we can have large events in our stores again.”

As restrictions have eased, Seamer has witnessed the Bookstore Renaissance after the Dark (P)ages. With operations reopening, Books Inc. celebrates their resilience in enduring such a challenge.

“It feels like we can see the other side of it and to have been part of helping lead our company through that while keeping all of our staff employed has just been… I get choked up a little bit thinking about it,” Seamer said. 

After a previous generation of booksellers recovered from a historical natural disaster, Books Inc. seems to once again have surmounted momentous opposition with the pandemic shutdown. Thanks to its resilience and importance to the community, Books Inc. remains a cornerstone of west coast book culture.

“On behalf of all of Books Inc., we just cannot show our appreciation enough for how much support we’ve received from everybody at all of our stores,” Seamer said. “We wouldn’t be here without our customers and without the support they continue to give us.”

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