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Sunday, 19 January 2014

Dude, Where's My Bookstore?

You know what's been a shock since moving back to the Bay Area from London? The lack of bookshops.

I can't say I didn't see it coming, of course - over the last few years, I've been watching with increasing trepidation as more and more bookshops closed around here. It's not a complete desert, but with all the closures and moves to less expensive environs, Palo Alto now has one used bookshop and one new bookshop within its borders (and then there's the university bookstore at Stanford). If I want to go to a nice, big, well-stocked national chain, I have to drive all the way out to Redwood City, or to San Francisco.

There are, of course, independent bookstores around here, and I'm happy about that - Kepler's in Menlo Park is good for setting up author events (or just passing on the news about them happening elsewhere), while I'm lucky enough to work in an office just a block up from Books Inc in Mountain View.

But indies can't really scratch my itch for an enormous repository of books, like we used to have when Borders occupied the old movie theater on University Avenue. Or like I had access to in London - throughout my time there, whether I lived in East London or West London, I was always a short tube ride from Foyles on Charing Cross Road or Big Waterstones on Piccadilly. And there were smaller versions of these stores elsewhere in the city.

I'm trying to put my finger on why this is, but can't really point to one single cause. Sure, the move toward buying on Amazon (and e-books in general) has hurt the physical bookstores a lot - Amazon is probably directly responsible for killing our beloved neighborhood bookstore, Printer's Inc, back in the 90s. The fact that Americans aren't big readers can't have helped either - but coming from Palo Alto, I really have to ask how a university town can exist without a decent array of bookshops.

I suspect the weird, techno-libertarian gentrification of my hometown also has something to do with it, incidentally. I don't have a clear idea of why Know Knew Books, a used bookstore, decamped to Los Altos before I moved back, but I assume it's something to do with the increasingly extortionate rents that landlords have been charging - not every empty shopfront is turning into a tech startup, but a lot of them are turning into things that cater to tech startups - or they put the rent up too high for any shops to stay there, and end up standing empty for years on end (this happened to our beloved Caffe Verona in the 90s, and it stayed empty for most of the 00s, because they couldn't find anyone who could afford to take over the spot).

Admittedly, I'm not sure how to stop this slide into shittiness - the only thing I can think of is buying up as much real estate in Palo Alto to keep it from falling into the hands of people like Marissa Mayer or Larry Page, but I think I need to save up a few more pennies before I can start doing that. But it'd be nice if Palo Altans could mobilize as a group and actually have a conversation about what kind of community we'd like to be - while we're still a community.