All Around the U; Book Passage

The other day I drove down to San Rafael, a little less than an hour’s drive from my house. I planned to visit Book Passage, Marin’s famous independent bookstore. I had some vague idea of finding a nice little cafe and having lunch, maybe stopping in Fairfax, finding a place to take pictures…  my usual outing. None of those things happened (I had Thai food in Cotati on the way back) but the bookstore was an interesting visit, and has helped refine my thinking on this whole book publishing/marketing thing.

Book Passage has two stores; one in the Ferry Terminal building in San Francisco, and its original store in a tiny mall on Tamal Vista Drive in San Rafael. Take the Lucky Avenue/Anderson Drive exit, go west one block, and turn left at the first stoplight. You’ll go about three blocks and find the mall which contains a sporting good store (“Serving Marin since 1978′) a yoga studio, a bar, and a nails place, but no restaurants. Somehow, this seems quintessentially Marin County to me. It’s only missing a gluten-free bakery and a high-end specialty grocery store.

Book Passage has two buildings in the complex, separated by a courtyard. The main building’s public space is shaped like a shallow U. I went in and glanced at the cafe to my left. It’s a full-service cafe; a small daily menu that includes salads, soup sandwiches and panini, as well as coffee, coffee drinks and tea. There are about six small tables inside and another eight or nine outside.

Inside, right by the door, is the first promotion table, with books for the events scheduled this week, in this case, Living With a Wild God by Barbara Ehrenreich, who is speaking on Tuesday, April 22. To my right is a long magazine rack with three shelves, lots of choices. Then gondolas,gondolas and gondolas of books.

The first impression is one of almost incalculable bounty. Books everywhere. The end caps of the gondolas have shelves, with more books displayed. The space curves with the aisles radiating out like spokes, with two service counters forming the inner curve (not quite a hub). Behind the counters is closed-off space that I’m sure contains inventory and probably a break room and restrooms. On the far side of the U, Book Passage has a room always set up with a podium and chairs. This is because they do at least three events per week here.

So, paradise, right? Well, yes, although that sheer volume of… well, volumes, is a little misleading. Book Passage carries a lot of hardcover  new releases. They also order way more than one copy, so the artfully filled shelves don’t necessarily equate to selection. This becomes immediately more obvious when I walk all the way around the U to the science fiction and fantasy section, which takes up one aisle. Mystery, on the other hand, takes up three or four.

I noticed that the average age of the people behind the counter was about fifty, although one fiftyish woman was training a woman in her thirties — it was her first day. I don’t know if the age demographic says something about bookstores, or about Marin.

The Science Fiction section is not well-stocked. Looking at the shelving with a slightly better educated eye, and using the “awards filter” instead of a “gender filter”, I see that one of the Nebula nominee’s books is there (two others are shelved in Fiction). As far as the Hugos go, they have some Robert Jordan. They have no Larry Correia and no Ann Leckie. They do have two copies of the softcover Nebula Showcase 2014 which contains last year’s winning shorter works. They have some interesting anthologies, in particular two edited by John Joseph Adams. If they have those, they must have some of the brilliant Ellen Datlow anthologies, right? No. Not right. No LeGuin in sight (although Lavinia was shelved in Fiction).

I was pleased to see several copies of Cherie Priest’s Fiddlehead on the shelf. I was pleased to see some other writers I like, but overall the selection was lackluster.

Generally, if it’s literary, notable or a mystery, or general nonfiction, you will find it here. If you are looking for something new, different, out of the mainstream, you aren’t going to be as satisfied. Some of this is because of choices Book Passage has made about which publishers they carry.Unlike Copperfield’s in Sonoma County, for instance, they don’t seem interested in working with an SFF pubisher like Angry Robot. I was startled that they don’t carry PM Press, a small San Francisco Press that is mostly a reprint house; but here again, you have to have an interest in science fiction before you seek out PM.  I didn’t see anything by Small Beer press either even though they have a Nebula-nominated author this year.

Across the courtyard, the Book Passage Annex (“This is Book Passage Two” the trainer said to the thirty-something woman as they followed me over,) has used books, children’s books, travel and gardening. Another room is set aside for writing groups, which I think is a brilliant marketing stroke. The annex is filled, not only with books but with tchochkes and gifts. Many years ago, when Amazon first grabbed everyone’s attention, there were Words of Wisdom dispensed to brick-and-mortar stores about how to survive. Some of those Words included:

  • Become a community center.
  • Don’t limit yourself to selling books. Sell book-related offerings and gifts to lure in customers.

Book Passage has taken both of those edicts to heart. I think they’ve succeeded wildly at becoming a community center, and in fact were already one before Amazon hit. They certainly do sell other merchandise, though; in the travel section they had hats, scarves, umbrellas, Bagallini bags and rain coats. Near the door, a clever gardening display contained some garden books and a number of pretty tools; clippers, miniature trowels, hand and cuticle cream.

I’m not an expert on children’s books, but their selection looked good, not great. Used books comprise far less of this space, and the used fantasy and science fiction (one narrow case) was abysmal. I know there are science fiction and fantasy fans in Marin. I wonder how they get their books.

Copperfield’s has recently made an incursion into Book Passage’s territory by opening a store in Marin. I’ll be interested to see how they do. While Book Passage is a great place for the person who wants to read the books getting review in the New York Times and is able to pay full hardcover prices, I’m not sure its selection competes with the Copperfield’s chain. I’m also not sure they care, if they are thriving.




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3 Responses to All Around the U; Book Passage

  1. Brian Fies says:

    I think Book Passage (funny, I always thought it was “Passages” but today I learn otherwise) plays an interesting role in the literary world that may affect their stocking philosophy. As I understand it (caveat), they’re one of a relatively few independent bookstores in the country whose sales strongly influence what gets onto the NY Times Bestsellers List. This is an open secret among writers I know: if you want to get on the list, you’ve got to do a signing at Book Passage. A few dozen books sold (or not sold) there can make the difference between listing or not listing.

    If that’s true, it makes sense that they’d lean heavily toward stocking lots of copies of what’s hot now, and lack a very deep bench. As you know better than most, shelf space is a zero-sum game. Twenty copies of the latest Nora Roberts edges out a lot of non-Roberts books.

    Or I may be full of hooey.

  2. Steve Russell says:

    Many years ago I lived in Marin County. What sets Marin apart is, quite simply, money. Marin has the highest per capita income of any county in California. This concentration of wealth skews things a bit. An example from my past: I once bought six high quality dress shirts, each monogramed with the first letter of my last name on the breast pocket, for $1 apiece at the Bargain Box, a San Rafael thrift store supporting a childrens’ charity. Who wears custom made monogrammed dress shirts? Whos needs used books when you can afford brand new hardcovers without blinking?

  3. Marion says:

    Brian, I’ve heard this elsewhere. Of course, to get a book event there, you have to have a publisher that is one they work with. So if Small Beer, Subterreanean Press or Angry Robot published your work, you’re out of luck (unless Copperfield’s wants to host you).

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