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Borders' Closure Keeps Castro Bookstores on Guard

Loyal customers, diversity of products and a friendly referral relationship helps Mountain View's downtown bookstores stay afloat.

Here's one thing that makes Mountain View rare. Its downtown has a trio of independent bookstores—,  and —right across the street from one another.

Even one bookstore has become an unusual commodity in some towns, especially now that Borders, the second-largest national book retailer, may have to shut down 399 stores across the country, including the ones on University Avenue in Palo Alto and El Camino Real in Sunnyvale. 

"I buy books from Borders and I'm going to miss them," said Bob Hoyt, 83, from inside Books Inc. on Castro Street. The Mountain View resident had just bought 360 Degrees Longitude: One Family’s Journey Around the World by John Higham. "But I'm a unique person. I don't have a computer and no electronics whatsoever."

People like Hoyt, and the bookstores they frequent, may become more unique, indeed, according to a report issued in June by the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project. Its research shows that in just six months, the number of "adults in the United States who own an e-book reader doubled to 12 percent in May 2011, from 6 percent in November 2010."

"I think everybody is worried to a degree," said Alex Papoulis, a supervisor at Books Inc. about the e-book readers. "I think what independent bookstores have to do going forward is identify their niche and figure out what they can provide to customers that they can't get elsewhere."

To be sure, while the shift to e-book readers, like Amazon's Kindle, Barnes & Noble's Nook and the Apple iPad, could be partly to blame, charges of mismanagement at Borders have also arisen.

While Mountain View's independent bookstores continue to pay close attention to the fate of the big-box retailers, they say they can make it alone, especially if they stick together.

"Obviously, we don't have a Borders right downtown," said Kevin Shlossberg, head buyer at Bookbuyers. "We have a Books Inc. right next door, but we've never felt like we were competing. It's a reciprocal relationship. They send people here; we send people there."

The reason the relationship works, he explained, has to do with the concept of Bookbuyers—selling pre-owned, rare and out-of-print books.

"We are a pretty decent-sized store, about half a Borders, and we have 200,000 different titles," said Shlossberg. "You can't get that at a Borders, because they'll have 20 copies of one new title."

Both frequent buyers of books, Angela Becerra Vidergar and her husband, Alex Vidergar, said that for them, the different stores offered different things. They said they liked Borders, because of its rewards program. 

"They'd send 40-percent-off coupons, and that's when we'd go," said Becerra Vidergar, 29. "But Bookbuyers is more of an experience for us. It's more of an activity. If you go in often enough, you begin to notice the new stuff."

Both also said they liked Books Inc.'s collection of . On July 28, the authors of one of those novels will speak to fans in Mountain View. It's events like that, which could help the local stores.

"In addition to our cafe and author events as the types of experiences you can't get online, we have story time for kids on Saturdays," said Papoulis.

Looks like the success of the local bookstores depends on the diversity of things for customers to buy and do. At least, that's what Surendra Conti's experience has been with East West.

Conti, who with his wife co-owns the store of spiritual, metaphysical and self-help books, explained that books bring in only about 25 percent of the business. The rest of the store's revenues come from the sale of crystals, jewelry, apparel, health and body products, and yoga and meditation supplies. They also have author events almost every day.  

"Those are a powerful driver to get people here," he said. "But more than anything, we are a community resource and a gathering place."

East West has begun to experiment with selling e-books through its website, too, and actively encourages customers to go there, according to Conti.

Also, like his counterparts across the two-way Castro Street, Conti said he believes customers benefit from having three bookstores.

"If there's a book we don't have, we refer them to Books Inc.; if it's out-of-print, to Bookbuyers," he said. "It's a very symbiotic relationship and benefits all three."

With several dozen restaurants in Mountain View's main downtown, all three bookstores get foot traffic. But that's not a big enough reason to take what's happened to Borders lightly.

"Worried isn't the right word," Conti said. "But we are definitely on our toes."

Serge Bonte July 20, 2011 at 05:28 PM
Mountain View is indeed very fortunate to have not one but three bookstores. It's also very fitting that the book bought by a Mountain View resident in a Mountain View bookstore....was actually written by another Mountain View resident (and neighbor): John Highham.
Claudia Cruz (Editor) July 21, 2011 at 12:13 AM
I "Like" your comment! As I reported the story I felt the same way. There's nothing like sitting on the floor next to the stacks of books and getting lost in reading. Also, like the subjects said, each store has a different vibe.

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