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.”

Beyond satisfying local sweet tooths, Los Altos’ Sweet Shop is a community staple

STORY BY CARLY HELTZEL AND SIDDHANT KANWAR, PHOTOS BY EMILY MCNALLY

Harry Logan is such a regular at the Sweet Shop on Los Altos Ave. that the register has a special key just to ring up his order: a ham and scrambled egg sandwich with a coffee au lait.

The Sweet Shop — which likely has many patrons with a sweeter tooth than Logan’s — strives to have “something for everyone,” although there are some clear favorites. The staff at the shop have largely concluded that the Sour Rainbow Belts and Sour Patch Kids are the most appealing to kids, while adults seem to have a more refined taste, preferring dark chocolate. 

Apart from candy, the Sweet Shop also sells savory items, such as the “Croissantwich” (a croissant with eggs and melted cheese), or the “Egg White Skinny” (a croissant with egg whites, goat cheese, sun-dried tomatoes, pesto and spinach).

Most of the recipes for the savory meals are made by Sandra Colunga, the store’s manager, and taste-tested by employees. Colunga, apparently, tries to come up with healthier food options to counterbalance the sweetness. 

Harry Logan sits on the Sweet Shop patio. (Carly Heltzel)

As Logan — a Los Altos resident of 51 years, who has frequented the shop almost every day for the past 11 years — could tell you, the property has changed hands many times through the years (he nostalgically recounted the story of when his son tried to pay for a Tootsie Roll at Foodland with a $100 bill, only to later be busted for stealing it from his mom’s purse). 

But despite the Sweet Shop’s relatively recent history, Logan said that it’s definitively the best shop that has been there, and by far the one he has visited most frequently.

Sitting in the quaint parlor for a few hours every morning and striking up conversations with anyone who is willing to hear his war stories or talk about their own hopes and dreams, the loyal customer perfectly embodies the heartwarming atmosphere of this community-oriented and historical local business.

NEIGHBORHOOD-CENTERED

Twelve years ago, Stacy Savides Sullivan and her family bought the unusual property — which sits in the middle of a residential area — after it had been on the market for four years, and renovated it before opening the doors in August of 2009. With the hope that it would once again become an active part of the community, the Sweet Shop was born.

“[Sullivan] saw the opportunity and said ‘What if we buy this property, fix it up, and bring it back to give something back to the community,’” Colunga said. “And part of that was because when she was in high school, when there would be a special occasion, she and her friends would ride their bikes here and get one piece of candy. So there was some history for her personally as well.”

Since its beginning, the Sweet Shop has consistently retained its high school employees for around three to four years, some even staying through their years at community college. One such worker, Dania Zavala, an employee of three years, said that she has stuck around because “the hours are great and the people are great.” 

The Sweet Shop as viewed from Los Altos Ave. (Emily McNally)

“[The customers] are all regulars for the most part, so we know them by name, and they’re just really nice and they take the time to actually learn our names,” Zavala said. “Because of that, it’s just like a neighborhood.”

The friendly neighborhood aspect and close proximity to school make the Sweet Shop a local hotspot for elementary and middle schoolers, with mayhem ensuing when minimum days roll around. 

“It’s fun — super fun — but it’s non-stop for a couple of hours,” Colunga said. “[On] minimum days often kids can get sandwiches and candy and the whole thing. It’s just full of kids and bicycles and chaos.”

Normally, even when she stations someone at the door to mediate the number of people in the shop, it quickly becomes “jam-packed” with candy flying everywhere, Colunga said. 

PHILANTHROPY

With its largest demographic of customers being local students, the Sweet Shop decided to give back to the community by donating 5% of its yearly proceeds to local schools.

“We’re trying to support schools, basically where the customers are coming from,” Colunga said. “So Egan, Santa Rita, Gunn, Los Altos High School and Mountain View High School.”

Every year, Sullivan reaches out to the schools to find out what they might specifically need, and the Sweet Shop donates funds to fulfill that need.

One year, as the Egan photography teacher had been taking her students on field trips to the Sweet Shop to take artsy photos of the candy, Sullivan and Colunga decided to donate money to buy the kids better equipment.

“It’s a good thing for us and it’s fun for them, and [the teacher’s] been doing this for years,” Colunga said, describing the field trips. “So we gave them some funds because they are in need of better equipment for photography in general.” 

As a family-friendly establishment, the Sweet Shop is also home to a little library, a mailbox-type neighborhood book swap which Colunga bought a few years ago and continues to maintain. She said she loves seeing grandparents take out picture books to read to their grandkids on the Sweet Shop patio, or elementary schoolers swapping out their old novels for new ones.

“It’s the most self-maintained thing I’ve ever had because you don’t really do anything,” Colunga said. “Once in a while we clean the cobwebs and straighten the books, but you rely on the community; they come and bring you books.”

COVID-19 IMPACT

As it shut down during the first lockdown in March, the Sweet Shop management has had to change operation to follow county safety standards, particularly tricky given the nature of the candy shop.

Being unable to use the inside of the store led to the end of people being able to pick and choose what they wanted from different jars, a highlight for many customers but there have been some benefits.

“Probably one of the best things that came from COVID was the amount of money we’re saving on candy because when we have the kids and it’s a crazy Friday afternoon, candy is flying on the floor because everyone’s so excited,” Colunga said. “Now, there is no wastage.”

Instead, the Sweet Shop now offers pre-bagged candy packets, which Colunga says they’ll likely stick to for the foreseeable future. 

Even without its free-flying candy, the Sweet Shop has remained a unique and charming locale embedded in the community it serves throughout the pandemic.

And as more and more people come across this endearing establishment, the Sweet Shop’s loyal clientele continues to grow.

“You don’t have to live right down the street, you know we have people from across town, and other towns because they’ve discovered it,” Colunga said. “It’s become their special little spot.”

Monday, May 10: A previous version of this article had incorrectly stated the name and ingredients of the “Egg White Skinny,” and misspelled Dania Zavala’s name. The errors have been corrected.

‘Startup that helps other startups’: Ava’s Market serves community for 10 years

STORY BY SID KANWAR, PHOTOS BY EMILY MCNALLY

This story was published by a student in our middle school intro to journalism program.

While walking by Ava’s Downtown Market, a passerby likely wouldn’t give it a second look. But step past the red awning, and customers are met with a unique array of mainly local products not found in any big chain grocery stores.

Owner and operator Juan Origel founded Ava’s almost 10 years ago, with the intent of being a “startup that helps other startups.” 

“In order for you to get into a big chain store, like a Safeway or Costco or Lucky, you have to show proof of sales,” Origel said. “So the only way you’re going to start is to put the product in a store like mine.”

After people put their products in Ava’s, they are able to generate proof of sales to show to bigger chain stores.

“We try to always showcase something new and innovative,” Origel said. “Eclectic products, a lot of local products, higher-end, better-for-you-type products.”

Origel used the now common Straus and Clover milk brands as examples of Ava’s success stories. 

“At one point, those were pretty eclectic-type brands that you can only find in small stores or Whole Foods,” Origel said. “But now Safeway, they have a pretty smart team that goes around and they see what other stores are doing, and they mimic them.” 

Today, both brands are common items at Safeway.

Origel said it’s much easier to get a product into a store like Ava’s, whereas trying to become a vendor at a big chain store is a long and difficult process. At Ava’s, you simply have to contact him and he can showcase the product in his store.

“It’s more of a one-on-one, old-fashioned style of doing business,” Origel said.

Not only is it a more streamlined process, but Ava’s offers a delivery service called Starship, which manufactures self-driving delivery robots that can be remotely monitored on a smartphone. 

“When the pandemic hit it was perfect,” Origel said. “A perfect form of delivery for the neighborhood.” 

Based out of Mountain View, Starship also delivers food to employees and students upon request.

As a grocery store owner in the pandemic, Origel was able to find a silver lining as more people were learning to cook and bake at home. He said it was like a “Renaissance.”

“They had to relearn how to cook,” Origel said. “People started cooking a little bit more at home and eating at home. You have to eat no matter what, especially if you are so used to being catered to, like a lot of high tech employees are.”

An avid chef himself, Origel said he has enjoyed giving out cooking tips and building recipes with this newfound client base.

With this uptick in business, Origel has watched Ava’s thrive through the tough times of the pandemic and hopes to continue to do so for many more years to come.