Salinas’ Last Bookstores
City leaders watch their final remaining bookstores leave with anger and angst.
Thursday, January 25, 2007
A little girl with long dark hair and a baseball cap runs to the end of the B. Dalton bookstore in Salinas. She is looking for Harry Potter. Her father trails behind and slowly walks past eight shelves of science fiction. I listen to alternative rock music leaking in from the Anchor Blue next door while glancing at the two small shelves of current-events titles.
Nobody stays in the store for very long. If they wanted to stay, they couldn’t sit down anywhere.
B. Dalton carries the bestsellers from the New York Times list and a solid row of John Steinbeck novels. It has a little bit of everything but not much of anything. To book lovers, the store is a tease. To families heading to JCPenney, B. Dalton is a five-minute stopover. Yet besides a few specialty stores in the city, B. Dalton is Salinas’ last bookshop.
At the other end of the mall is Waldenbooks. Signs announcing a price-slashing sale are taped to the store’s short shelves everywhere. A teenager with his hood pulled over his head sits on the floor reading Japanese manga comics. A mother loads up her arms with children’s books.
Waldenbooks isn’t a reader’s paradise either, but it does have a couple of shelves dedicated to books written about Monterey County. A store employee, who was hesitant to talk to me last week because I’m a reporter, says she built up the section over her 15 years at the store.
The bookshop closed Wednesday, Jan. 24. Stores in the mall come and go, but Waldenbooks was in Salinas for more than 25 years. The store’s demise is the latest for a city that is losing more and more books.
First, the city’s used bookstores closed. Now the new bookshops are leaving. The question is whether anything will come and take their place.
City officials and developers have tried for years to bring a full-service bookstore like a Borders or a Barnes & Noble to Salinas. So far they’ve failed. Although Salinas has the population to support a bookstore—about 157,000—the city may not have the right type of people, according to corporate bookstore representatives.
Barnes & Noble looks at the number of college graduates, the income levels, and the lifestyles of a community before building a new store. When looking at demographics, Salinas is not attractive on paper. Only 12 percent of Salinas residents 25 years and older have a bachelor’s degree or higher, according to a 2005 survey. The state average was nearly 30 percent. That same year 20 percent of Salinas was in poverty compared to about 13 percent for the state.
Dennis Donohue, Salinas’ business- savvy mayor, says Barnes & Noble’s analysis is dead wrong. The book companies, he says, are judging Salinas for its poor neighborhoods and are overlooking the fact that the city is a regional shopping destination. Donohue says a large bookstore, perhaps with a cafe, would do well in the city and would draw visitors from the entire Salinas Valley.
“I think people love to tell Salinas what Salinas is, and they don’t know Salinas,” Donohue says. “I think all of Salinas is interested in education and literacy and I don’t care what their numbers show.”
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About eight years ago, Salinas developer Tony Sammut tried to get a Barnes & Noble or a Borders in Westridge Center, a shopping hub along Highway 101. They turned him down. Next Sammut invited the companies to come to Boronda Crossing, a retail development behind the Salinas Auto Mall. They also said no thanks.
“I tried very hard for a long time. I have not been successful,” Sammut says. “At the present time I do not have a bookstore that has shown me any interest in coming to Salinas.”
Sammut says the companies told him that the city’s education levels are too low.
In recent interviews with the Weekly, neither Border’s nor Barnes & Noble would outright say that they are not interested in Salinas.
“Barnes & Noble has not yet found the right opportunity in Salinas, and we plan to continue to evaluate opportunities as they arise,” says Ed Toohey, the company’s real estate director.
Holley Stein, spokeswoman for Borders, says the company also hasn’t found the right fit in Salinas. She says Borders considers many factors, such as foot traffic, parking availability, and the strength of co-tenants, before selecting a site. Demographics like education and literacy levels, Stein says, don’t play a huge role in the company’s decisions.
“We look to see if there is a need for a bookstore there and if it is an area that would support a bookstore,” she says.
City Councilwoman Jyl Lutes has no doubt that John Steinbeck’s hometown would back a bookshop. Lutes has pushed for a bookstore since she was elected in 1998. The elementary school teacher is annoyed that she has to tell her students to go to Borders in Sand City to find books.
“It’s absolutely absurd that we don’t have a major bookstore,” Lutes says. “I think it’s a bias on the part of the companies.”
Of course, like other businesses, book companies are probably turned off by Salinas’ overpriced housing and reputation for gang violence. But there may be other factors at play.
Bookstores across the nation are suffering from the rise of Internet sales. Customers will go to bookshops, write down titles and buy them on Amazon, says Jerry Welling, co-owner of Book Haven in Monterey. Even corporate stores like Borders, Welling says, are carrying more DVDs and CDs, because selling books alone does not give the companies enough profit, he says.
More bookstores are closing than opening, and this is true throughout Monterey County. The independently-owned Thunderbird Bookshop in Carmel closed last year, as did the used bookstore Old Capitol Books in Monterey. But Salinas readers have fared the worst from the bookstore exodus.
In the ‘90s Salinas had at least three used bookstores: Family Book Center on E. Laurel Drive, Book Worm on Main Street and Books Then and Now on Park Row. Now all three are closed.
The owner of the Book Worm moved her store to Monterey in 2000. Fred Marcal, the owner of the Park Row store, passed away in 2005.
Suzanne Cepello took over the Family Book Center about two years ago. She says business was good, but that her landlord raised the rent and she decided to close up last September.
The Friends of the Salinas Public Library has the inventory of a good used bookstore but can’t afford to rent a place, says Lauren Cercone, book sale coordinator for the organization. The nonprofit group has about 25,000 books, Cercone says, and is stocking up for its annual book sale in April.
Even if the Friends could afford to pay rent, Cercone says the city doesn’t offer an ideal location.
“There is no place in Salinas right now that can generate the adequate foot traffic for a bookstore,” she says.
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Longtime residents remember one independent bookstore called Books & Books. The store, which was open in the ‘80s, was located in south Salinas, in the shopping center that now houses Albertson’s (in those days the grocery store was called Lucky).
The city doesn’t have records of when the store closed but those who remember the bookshop miss it.
Retired teacher Karen Steadman used to shop there. Steadman says the store was small but it had good titles—and not just paperbacks. The Salinas resident still has bookmarks from the store.
She says she is sad that Monterey County’s largest city is now left with only one bookstore.
“I think it’s really terrible,” she says. “Not everyone can get over to Borders. “It’s not easy to say, ‘I want this book,’ and then you have to drive all the way to [Sand City].”
Those who don’t want to drive to the Peninsula can of course visit one of the city’s three library branches. The libraries recently expanded their hours and are slowly getting their collection replenished after nearly closing in spring 2005.
Jan Neal, administrative manager for the libraries, says people are trickling back into the branches, but the percentage of Salinas residents with active library cards is still low. The city has about 22,000 active library users, or about 15 percent of the population, Neal says. That number is low compared to most cities.
Salinas is also short on library space. The city needs about 31,400 more square feet of library space, according to the state-recommended standard of one half square foot per capita.
Neal says it is important for any city to have ample shelves of books to both buy and borrow.
“They provide something to a community that you can’t measure and put a number on,” she says. “It’s a community safe place for social interaction.”
She adds that the libraries can stimulate an interest in books among young readers, eventually creating book buyers. “Maybe we can develop some customers for [the bookstores],” Neal says.
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Classical guitars hang above Libreria Mexico’s wall of books in Spanish. Books about Che Guevara are mixed in with translated Dan Brown novels. The store, which is on East Alisal Street, also carries CDs, cassettes, a bit of vinyl, and (oddly) yarn. The white-and-gray checkered floor has seen a lot of traffic over the last 35 years.
Co-owner Stella Sanchez, who has long brown hair and glasses, sits near the cash register. A stack of La Opinión, a Spanish newspaper out of Los Angeles, sits on the glass display case in front of her. A small selection of audio books is behind her.
Sanchez says music was once the popular item in her store but now it’s books. She says Hartnell College students come here to get dictionaries and texts for their Spanish classes. The store also sends books to inmates in the county jail and prisons in Soledad.
It helps her business, she says, that so many titles are now released simultaneously in English and Spanish.
“Before it took a long time, but now as soon it comes out in English, it comes out in Spanish,” Sanchez says. “It’s a growing market.”
Spanish-language books are needed in Salinas. More than half of the city’s residents speak Spanish at home, and about one third of its residents don’t speak English competently, according to the Census Bureau’s 2005 survey.
Sanchez’s nephew Aurelio Salazar works with with Second Chance, a gang intervention program in East Salinas, Salazar says the big book companies are missing an opportunity. He says Borders and Barnes & Noble don’t understand the Mexican media market, and are wrongfully assuming that Salinas is illiterate.
“If these stores really wanted to they could totally come in and access the community,” Salazar says. “They would be able to pick out the right books for a young reading crowd and a bilingual, bi-literate community.”
Borders spokeswoman Ann Binkley says stores in heavily Latino areas have strong Spanish-language sections. Moreover, the company has three stores in Puerto Rico, she says. Borders has full-service stores in rural places like Visalia and Modesto but not Salinas.
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A mother studies Farsi intently while sitting at a table tucked away in the children’s book section in Sand City’s Borders. Her young son sits beside her anxiously, his legs dangling from wooden chair. This section alone is about the same size as B. Dalton in Salinas.
The coveted black leather chairs toward the back of the store are nearly full with people reading. An Asian man sleeps with his head reclined back and his mouth slightly open.
Chairs are also scarce in the café. People hunch over laptops or flip through magazines while sipping coffee or tea. A student wearing a University of California Riverside hooded sweatshirt reads with her hand on her brow. A few books are stacked beside her, including one on bioterrorism.
Most of the people here are alone, but some groups are scattered around the store. Four 20-somethings chat near a table of bargain books. Three high school girls giggle while reading a book from the erotica section.
Salinas teens can’t head over to a bookstore like this to hang out after school. Hartnell College students can’t study comfortably in the corner of B. Dalton. Salinas’ young population—37 percent of the city is 19 years old or younger—would certainly benefit from a socially and intellectually stimulating environment like this.
Salinas wants this type of bookstore, but convincing Borders or Barnes & Noble to come will be difficult, if the companies remain focused on education levels. About 43 percent of Salinas’ residents older than 25 haven’t graduated high school.
Another factor that Barnes & Nobles considers before opening a store is a city’s growth pattern. Salinas may have to wait until the future growth area north of Boronda Road is developed to attract a national chain bookstore.
Developers are lined up to build about 11,700 housing units on the city’s northeastern edge. The neighborhoods will have shopping centers within walking distance and a bookstore would be a good fit. Or perhaps a bookshop could find a home in Oldtown.
Councilwoman Lutes says wherever the bookstore ends up, it will do excellent business in the city.
“There are dozens of places they could go in the city,” Lutes says. “It’s just convincing them that we have the population necessary to support it, and I really believe we do.”
Waldenbooks, which is owned by Borders, closed because it didn’t have enough sales to make it profitable enough for the company, a spokeswoman says. Mayor Donohue nevertheless insists that residents would, however, support a state-of-the-art bookshop.
“The reality is we are a sophisticated market and we want a complete bookstore experience,” Donohue says. “There is plenty of money in this town. The level of interest in education—regardless of the percentage of college graduates—is very high.”
As evidence, Donohue points to the community support for the National Steinbeck Center, the successful fundraising drive for the Salinas libraries, and the November passage of an education bond for the Alisal Union School District.
The mayor says he is irritated with retailers like bookstores, or specialty grocery stores, who say Salinas can’t support them.
“I find the notion that there is no money and a lack of education and literacy in East Salinas an insult.”
Salinas already draws shoppers from the growing cities in South Monterey County and from Prunedale and Castroville. These same shoppers, Donohue says, would also come to buy books in Salinas if it had a large bookstore. Now money is leaving the city because residents are going to Borders in Sand City.
Donohue says he is going to call the corporate book companies to try to get them to change their minds.
Maybe he’ll start a new campaign this time—not to save the libraries, but to get a bookstore.