How local bookstores stack up when their quirks, amenities and caf& %s;s are closely studied.
Thursday, February 22, 2001
Bookstores are at a crossroads. Every year seems to bring new and daunting changes to the business of writing, publishing and selling books. Amazon.com has become a household name, if not yet a sustainable business model. Downloadable e-books have been touted as "the next big thing," yet interest in Stephen King''s e-novella The Plant quickly wilted after the first rush of publicity.
Oprah''s talk show book club has encouraged millions of Americans to read quality books they might not have otherwise, leading some authors now to write books with themes and characters specifically targeted for this new audience. And in the great new Internet commercial reality, writers have become "content providers."
Old distinctive publishing houses find themselves swallowed up by large multinational conglomerates, fueling fears that literary quality and diversity will also be streamlined and downsized. Writers have had to become more like music and film celebrities to be viable, devoting as much attention to "synergistic" Web sites, film deals and promotional tours as they do to the act of writing.
For someone who as a kid associated summer vacation not with camp or the Boy Scouts but rather with frequent trips to the public library, where I would check out the maximum allowable number of books each visit, these changes appear vaguely unreal, like information about some distant, recently discovered star. I dimly acknowledge the news, then turn back to the more urgent business of buying and reading book after book after book, like I''ve done all my life.
Yet things are changing, and to take stock of those changes, I recently embarked on an exploration of the world of Monterey Peninsula bookstores.
One major change in bookstore culture in the past decade or so has been the introduction of cafés. Truly, we seem to be living in the Coffee Age. A recent cartoon in the New Yorker showed a man sitting before a cup of coffee the size of a child''s wading pool, only a slight exaggeration of the quart-sized café lattés that have become the gold standard in caffeine consumption.
What sets cafés in bookstore apart is that people tend actually to sit down and savor their coffee there, rather than scurry back to their car or office. Bookstore cafés offer places to recapture some of the old social and intellectual romance of coffee-drinking, where one drinks coffee not for the "buzz" of its medicating qualities but for the way it seems to open up the mind to new encounters--with ideas, other people, even oneself.
Four bookstores on the Peninsula that feature cafés--Monterey''s Bay Books, Pacific Grove''s Bookworks, Sand City''s Borders, and the Thunderbird in the Carmel Barnyard shopping center--provided a good point of departure for comparisons. Keeping certain criteria in mind (such as location, selection and how the café fits in with the rest of the bookstore), I visited all four stores with both an open mind and a critical eye. What follows are the observations of one very passionate booklover.
Company of Interesting Strangers
In the heart of downtown Monterey, Bay Books, joined by the Carmel Valley Roasting Company, offers a high-quality bookstore along with an attractive place to enjoy a cup of coffee. The bookstore itself is not large. A couple of its areas feel a little cramped, no doubt a symptom of trying to get as many interesting books in a medium-sized commercial space as possible while still leaving that impression of openness shoppers seem to crave.
Bay Books knows its clientele well. The international and foreign-language resource books section is especially strong, reflecting the proximity of Monterey Institute of International Studies and Defense Language Institute. On several visits, I have overheard foreign language tutoring sessions in the café, adding to the pleasantly cosmopolitan feel of the place.
Because of space limitations, certain sections seem weak. I saw very few interesting audio books here, and the fiction and poetry sections could use some work. But the store is a great place to browse when you''re not looking for a specific book.
One of the store''s chief attractions is a large display next to the cash register of books that are marked way down. Unlike most bookstores'' bargain sections, here one finds highly desirable books at great prices, not just throwaways that publishers have given up on and are trying to unload as cheaply as possible.
The café has several appealing touches. The chairs are wicker, not plastic, the tables wood, not particle board, and they are old enough to feature secret drawers (alas, empty--I was hoping to find a hidden love note or at least an old movie ticket stub). The tables come in different sizes, both round and rectangular, encouraging people to chat or perhaps smile at each other. On each table are fresh flowers in cobalt-blue glass vases.
The uncommonly friendly café staff creates a cheery atmosphere. Windows overlooking downtown Monterey allow one to people-watch (on warm days, the nice outdoor patio invites customers outside). The coffee itself is pretty good. A cup of Fog Blend--a dark, rich French roast--costs $1.25, plus 50 cents per refill. (Why not just charge $1.50, refills included?)
While I sipped my coffee, my thoughts were frequently interrupted by the piped-in music, a back-and-forth sampling of Ella Fitzgerald and Enya, two singers I do enjoy, but not necessarily back-to-back. When was it decided that music should be played at bookstores? All four bookstores visited indulged in this unfortunate practice.
Bottom line: Because of its location, as well as its atmosphere, Bay Books is browser-friendly, offering what many of us seek when we''re out in public by ourselves: a place to enjoy some genial solitude in the company of interesting strangers.
Lair of the Sleeping Cat
Bookworks, across from the Post Office on Lighthouse in Pacific Grove, fits into its picturesque location like a well-worn glove. It is a quieter place than Bay Books, somewhat smaller in size, yet it has a rambly feel, like an old house, and definitely has its own strengths. It doesn''t feature as many sections as Bay Books, but its fiction, mystery and certain non-fiction sections--like science and history--are superior to those found at the downtown store.
And unlike Bay Books, Bookworks also has certain elements that many people associate with an independent bookstore--such as a cozy, quirky atmosphere and that bookstore denizen par excellence: a sleeping cat.
The café at Bookworks adds to the overall homey feel of the place. With its board games, playing cards, soft couches and attractive window seats, it feels a little like the parlor of an off-the-beaten- track bed & breakfast. On the rainy afternoon I was last there, I was told that the espresso machine would be hibernating for the winter and only coffee and tea were available. So much for my idea of sipping a cappuccino by the window seat. (It turned out to be more like a long winter''s nap, though: The espresso machine is now back in service.)
I was doubly disappointed when I saw that I would be drinking my coffee out of a paper cup. Glumly I poured some cream from the pitcher marked "COW" into my paper cup and made my way to a couch. One sip, however, and my mood brightened: This was good coffee. So good, in fact, that I would taste no better throughout the whole of my bookstore café investigations. (It was also the most expensive: $1.50 a cup and $1 per refill.)
Like many bookstores, Bookworks has added a section of curios and knick-knacks, incense and candles and what-not, and while one may regret the space lost for books, it is done here with taste and style. At the back of the store there is a superior selection of greeting cards, underneath a cheerful assortment of colorful mobiles. Since the café is right next to the children''s section, and since it has a great cookie selection, some may feel they''ve stumbled into a particularly inviting child''s tea party.
Bottom line: Bookworks is a lovely, gracious bookstore, and the perfect place for a really good cup of coffee after a walk along the shore. Just be sure to bring your own mug.
Diverse Paths and Traditions
A visit to the Thunderbird bookstore in Carmel can only prompt the following response: What''s not to like? This bookstore is intelligent and inviting, a booklover''s dream. Near the entrance resides the most diverse selection of local-interest books around. A large central table presents all kinds of titles, some old, some new, some fiction, some not, that betray the creativity and wisdom of the bookstore''s staff and owner, not just the latest publishing trends.
To the right, there is a room with a wonderful children''s books corner that features some whimsically goofy décor, and strong science, poetry and biography sections for the grown-ups. To the left of the entrance, the attractive café area beckons, with its central fireplace, and beyond that a spacious solarium whose seats afford marvelous views.
Finally there is the bookstore''s Whole Life Center, where books on religion, New Age philosophy and the like are found. I was fully prepared not to like this part of the store--in my experience, too many New Age bookstores seem to be more about pampered self-indulgence than spiritual enlightenment. But I found seriousness, not frivolity at Thunderbird. By the very nature of its juxtapositions--from theology to health care--there clearly is an abiding respect for diverse paths.
The café is really a treat. The am-biance is mellow and refined. (On display until Feb. 28 are the astonishing pen and ink drawings of Martin Taylor, age 11. These drawings take childish doodling to a very high artistic level.) The coffee was fine--$1 a mug, free refills--but of more interest are the excellent soups, salads and sandwiches.
This place also has beer and wine (now that''ll get you feeling philosophical). The only problem with having a glass of beer or Beaujolais with your book is also the main problem with Thunderbird: its location. When you''re done, you have to climb back into your car (or take a bus) and join the thick crawl of traffic on Highway 1. Thunderbird casts a wonderful spell while you''re inside, but once you leave the store the breaking of that spell is instant.
Bottom line: A real destination bookstore. Make an afternoon of it: The food in the café is quite good and reasonably priced, and the store''s layout turns browsing into something like a stroll.
Bay Books and Bookworks have the advantage of being bookstores for pedestrians. Thunderbird points to both the delights and the drawbacks of automotive suburbia. Borders represents a third way: Whenever possible, I get there by bike. Granted, the Edgewater Shopping Center is dreadfully designed for anyone not driving an armored SUV: all that parking space and no areas marked for pedestrians or bicyclists.
But the bike path between the shopping center and downtown Monterey offers some of the most beautiful scenery in the world, making Borders a great destination for cyclists: One can freshen up at the café, maybe buy a magazine from the outstanding periodical section (the best in town), listen to some tunes in the music section, and then head back home.
Borders'' café is a bit of a disappointment. The coffee ($1.44 with tax or $1.72 with refills--is OK (there are several caffeine varieties to choose from--I found most of them blandly acceptable), but the food could use some improvement. I had a turkey hoagie that was essentially tasteless. While the sandwich was unlike the store''s dry pastries, it wasn''t necessarily moist in a good way. Sort of an airline-food kind of moistness. There are a lot of plastic-wrapped, microwaveable selections. One would think that a company with Borders'' resources could offer its customers food that was tastier and less ordinary.
What Borders does offer is space--in the café, in the seating area by the periodicals where readings and other events take place, and throughout the entire store. One never feels crowded in Borders, and this is, of course, greatly appea- ling to stressed-out shoppers. It reminds somewhat of a fancy grocery store.
During a recent evening visit, Borders hummed wonderfully with energy and activity. Several families were browsing, a story was being read in the children''s section, a musician was setting up next to the café, young couples arrived and arranged to rendezvous at the café after spending 20 minutes in their favorite sections--his was History, hers Computers--and as I stood by the large table of new books by the entrance (great big piles of books, some promising, others forgettable), Borders appeared to me as a small bookselling village.
Because of its size, there is greater opportunity for confusion here. Once I called ahead to make sure Borders had a specific book. I was assured that the book was in stock. When I arrived, however, a young employee had to spend 30 minutes looking for it in the back: The computer made no distinction between "on the shelf" and "at the bottom of some box."
Reflecting its wide demographic appeal, Borders has made certain questionable shelving choices. I appreciated the fact that, unlike the other three bookstores, Borders does not separate Literature from Classics--who''s to say what''s classic these days?--yet I was a little perplexed by the separate African-American and Gay and Lesbian sections. James Baldwin, both black and gay, goes in the African-American section. So does Toni Morrison. Marcel Proust and Virginia Woolf are Literature, Armistead Maupin is Gay and Lesbian.
Who makes these decisions, and according to what criteria?
I recognize that these sections are useful to customers specifically seeking books in those categories, but part of me wishes that all the books of fiction, all those imagined stories and people and places, could be together, side by side, the only division being the first one I encountered at the library so many years ago: The alphabet.
Bottom line: I am not a fan of chain businesses, but Borders has a definite place in our community. Its great selection of books and its many activities for both kids and their parents make it a useful and enjoyable bookstore.
The Tome Test and the Eternal Flame
Much is revealed by our books--the books we read, the ones we forget, the ones that endure. I was intrigued this past election season by the titles associated with the candidates. Al Gore said his favorite book is Stendhal''s The Red and the Black, a remarkable choice, not only for its exceptional literary qualities but for its main character, Julien Sorel, who is so ambitious and so hungry for the approval of a father figure that he will adopt any calling--religious, political, amorous, even criminal--in order to feel that he has made it.
The favorite book of George W. Bush is The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle, a book for toddlers published while Bush Jr. was in college. I think I''ll leave it at that.
The most interesting title to come out of the election, however, was that offered by Laura Bush, Dostoevsky''s The Brothers Karamazov. I''ve been meaning to read this book for many years, and this seemed as good a book as any to test the selection of the bookstores. I did a little research and determined that the best translation was published a few years ago by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. (This husband-and-wife team has just come out with a new translation of Tolstoy''s Anna Karenina, which is getting very favorable reviews.)
Thunderbird had two copies of an old The Brothers Karamazov translation in attractive hardcover. Bay Books had the same translation in inexpensive paperback. Bookworks had no copies at all, though the store did offer other titles by Dostoevsky. Borders had no fewer than six separate translations of The Brothers Karamazov, including the edition I was seeking.
This test seemed to confirm certain of my observations: Thunderbird''s upscale qualities, the appeal of Bay Books to students, and the obvious value of Borders'' size when it comes to selection.
I like to visit all four bookstores for various needs and moods and types of books. Yet bookstores, I realized during the course of preparing this article, aren''t really just about books anymore. Bookstores now attempt to forge a certain atmosphere, a certain experience for consumers. Hence the cafés and the busy calendar of activities: reading groups, music and craft events, author signings, classes and workshops. At the bookstores of my youth, you were lucky if there was a houseplant next to the register. Now bookstores must compete against all kinds of media in an increasingly visual world that has less and less time for reading.
Bookstore employees have gotten younger, too. In LA not long ago, I asked a teenage cashier at a chain bookstore where I would find The Diary of Anne Frank. "Who''s the author?" she asked.
Despite all the changes, all the dire warnings about the future, one thing is true: There are still a lot of great books out there--some old, some hot off the press--and people are still reading them. Bookstores will always occupy a important place in the heart of both small towns and big cities, and people who love books should support the bookstores in their neighborhoods.
Because bookstores are such a vital part of the whole book ecology that I find so necessary, I''ll carry on my romances with bookstores, flirting here and there with this bookstore or that one. But deep down, my heart will forever belong to my old flame--the public library.
Bookworks is located at 667 Lighthouse, Pacific Grove (372-2242).
Thunderbird is located 3600 Carmel Barnyard (624-1803 or click on www.thunderbirdbooks.com).
Bay Books is located at 316 Alvarado, Monterey (375-1855). It has the best Web site of all the bookstores--click on www.montereybaybooks.com.
Borders is located at 2080 California, Sand City (899-6643). The local Borders Web site is uninteresting (click on www.borders.com and enter your zipcode where requested).