Many Area Bookstores Forced to Move or Close

Photo: Black Oak Books was forced to move from its Shattuck Avenue location to a new site on San Pablo Avenue. Many bookstores have been struggling to pay for high rents around Berkeley.
Karen Ling/Photo
Black Oak Books was forced to move from its Shattuck Avenue location to a new site on San Pablo Avenue. Many bookstores have been struggling to pay for high rents around Berkeley.

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The city of Berkeley is home to several small, independent bookstores, but in the past couple of years, business has not been immune to the nation's downward economic trend and the expanding online market.

Local bookstores have been forced to relocate - or close - due to a combination of factors such as high rent in the city and the increasing popularity of purchasing books online.

Black Oak Books, formerly located at 1491 Shattuck Ave., moved to a new site on 2618 San Pablo Ave. in December 2009 after property owners Rue-Ell Enterprises declined requests to lower rent, according to bookstore owner Gary Cornell.

"Rue-Ell properties wasn't going to increase the rent, rather they weren't willing to negotiate the rent to a lower amount to take into account the challenging economic environment," Cornell said in an e-mail. "They obviously thought they could get more rent than we were willing to pay - we even offered to pay a (percentage) of our sales, but they weren't interested."

Known for their stock of rare or unusual books, Black Oak Books opened in the late 1980s under the ownership of Don Pretari and his partners. The bookstore operated at the Shattuck location until 2008, when the store went bankrupt, according to Cornell, who bought the store name and some of its assets with a group of locals. In early 2009, Cornell and his partners began the search for a new location.

"We just kept on looking for a building we could afford in a neighborhood we thought was on the upswing," he said. "There are two wonderful restaurants two blocks away and a wonderful tea shop is opening two doors down, so we think we made a good choice."

While Cornell attributes Black Oak's relocation to the high rent - which has caused other independent bookstores in Berkeley, like The Other Change of Hobbit, to relocate -Dana Ellsworth, vice president and director of acquisitions of Rue-Ell Enterprises, said the trend toward online shopping was the major factor prompting Black Oak Books's move.

Eastwind Books of Berkeley, which opened in 1982, saw a 35 percent drop in sales since 2007 - which store manager Bea Dong also attributed to the online book market. Similarly, Andy Ross, owner of Cody's Books formerly located on Telegraph Avenue, said in an e-mail that he closed his store in 2007 because of the shift to purchasing and downloading books online.

"The growth of ebooks in the last year is putting new stresses on bricks and mortar stores," he said in the e-mail.

Though difficulty paying rent plays a big role in hindering business development in Berkeley, Dave Fogarty, the city's economic development project coordinator, also considers competition with online stores and corporate chain bookstores, such as Barnes and Noble a more serious issue for independent bookstores.

With the power of the corporation behind them, chain bookstores make sales off best-sellers through advertising capabilities that independent bookstores do not have, Ross said in the e-mail.

"Borders books is virtually insolvent," he said in the e-mail. "This really wasn't Cody's long suit. We were much better at selling a broader range of books, literary, scholarly and scientific books. The audience for these kinds of books was drying up."

Regardless of the independent Berkeley bookstores' steady clientele of students and professors, Owen Hill, buyer and event coordinator for Moe's Books, said business could be better.

"In a way, it's a complicated question," Hill said. "The short answer is we're doing okay. It takes a lot more work to sell books. We're surviving in paying the bill, but business is not up."

Councilmember Jesse Arreguin said at this time of economic downturn, increases in rent compounded by the surge of shopping online worsens the economic well-being of these bookstores. He added that he plans to introduce an ordinance to the council to address the city's vacant store fronts by requiring property owners to pay vacancy fees.

Steve Barton, housing director for the city and formerly a regular customer at Black Oak Books and The Other Change of Hobbit, said bookstore closures in recent years have disrupted his regular local outings.

"I used to combine going to Black Oak Books and going to dinner at Saul's," he said, adding that he rarely visits the bookstore's new location. "Now I go (to The Other Change of Hobbit) once in every two months instead of twice a week."


Karinina Cruz covers business. Contact her at [email protected]

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