Read All About It Bookstores gain new fans, community support in digital age

By Kathryn McKenzie
Photos by David Royal

It wasn’t all that long ago that brick-and-mortar bookstores were considered washed up, antiquated, dead as the dodo bird and dinosaurs. The behemoth retail website Amazon seemed to be a juggernaut hurtling straight at every mom-and-pop retail store out there, and especially at community bookstores.

And then a funny thing happened. Bookstores closed, yes: chain bookstores such as Borders, B. Dalton and Waldenbooks went under when they found they could not compete with online booksellers. But some independent bookstores — the ones that are often the heart and soul of neighborhoods and downtowns — hung on.

Now, e-book sales are declining, and membership in the American Booksellers Association is rising, signaling that more bookstores are opening across the United States. ABA also claims that sales at independent bookstores have risen 5 percent since 2017.

It’s a trend that Trish Triumpho Sullivan and Dan Beck are seeing for themselves. Partners in life and in business, they opened Downtown Book & Sound in Oldtown Salinas two months ago — just in time to celebrate Independent Bookstore Day this Saturday, a nationwide celebration of bookstores.

“So many young people are coming in,” said Sullivan, an artist and teacher at Hartnell College. “I think it’s a trend. I think that young people are disenchanted with technology — it’s a cold way of socializing, and humans are social animals.

“This is a place where they can talk about books, records, and be with friends, interacting. That’s really what’s been missing. It’s not the same as looking at your phone.”

Alexis Magdaleno shops on his lunch break near a hipster mannequin in Downtown Book and Sound | David Royal

To that end — bringing people together — Sullivan and Beck have designed a welcoming space with comfy chairs among the bookshelves. A selection of new and used books are available, with a section devoted to local authors and topics.

The brick walls of the 150-year-old building (originally the Odd Fellows Hall) are decorated with historic Salinas photos on the walls, neon and antique-style signs, and fun items, like the antique cash register (which still works) and a giant pencil modeled on John Steinbeck’s favorite writing implement. And there is a plastic mask of the famous Salinas author himself, perched on a shelf behind the counter.

Sullivan and Beck will host a grand opening May 15, despite the fact that they don’t yet have a sign on the store. Nevertheless, people are finding it.

Sullivan and Beck got into the book business by accident. They had been running the downtown visitors’ center across the street in a space that was too large, and had been approached by a couple who wanted to sell used books in the unused area. Eventually, the couple moved out and started Oldtown Book Nook further down Main Street, which has since gone out of business.

But Sullivan noticed how many people came in to buy books, and was struck by the numbers.

She and her husband arranged to lease 213 Main St., and then another piece of good fortune came their way — they had the opportunity to buy bookshelves, books and records from Logos, the legendary Santa Cruz book and record store that closed in 2017 when owner John Livingston decided to retire.

They also salvaged the long custom-made counter from Logos, which has become the centerpiece of their store.  “He was going to toss it,” said Sullivan, but she had a vision of how to make it work for them. Now the lovingly worn counter, topped with galvanized steel, is where people can sit, talk, or take their purchases to the register.

Sullivan is hopeful that Salinas will embrace what they’re doing at Downtown Book & Sound. To that end, she and Beck keep the store open until 9 p.m., since most customers come in after 5. Also fortunate: the store is sandwiched between a popular taproom and a restaurant, and foot traffic in evenings is consistent and lively.

“We’ve already sold out of our new books and we’ve had to reorder,” Sullivan said. “We’ve had a wonderful response.”

But not all local independent bookstore owners are so positive about the future of their business.

“There are a lot of bookstores closing,” said Kelly Pleskunas, who owns Kelly’s Books in Watsonville, and has come through a rough patch for her business — but is still hanging on.

Slow sales during the 2018 holidays and invoices coming due left Pleskunas in the red, and she kept afloat via a GoFundMe campaign to raise $7,500 to keep the bookstore going. The “Save Kelly’s Books” campaign caused a buzz on social media and in the local press. As of Tuesday, $7,325 had been raised.

Pleskunas, who took over the former Crossroads Books in 2011, had already been through some tough times. In addition to major shifts caused by changes in the public’s book-buying habits, in 2016 she was forced to move the bookstore after Kaiser Permanente took over the shopping center where it had been.

“I’ve never seen a dive that deep, that took place that quickly,” said Pleskunas of the decline in sales that began in 2011.

Now, nestled in the Nob Hill shopping center at the end of Main Street, Kelly’s Books is not quite as visible as it was in its previous location. But the warm, brightly colored space is a haven for locally created art and and crafts in addition to its selection of books in English and Spanish.

The biggest sellers there are books for children and young people. Pleskunas loves it when they hunt for books — “It’s adorable when the kids come in” — and she does feel that people are reading more these days than they used to. But sales are not as strong as they could be, which she says is due to online competition.

She points to a recent viral Tweet by a Kansas bookstore owner that points out how books may be inexpensive on Amazon, but buying them online hurts communities. A local bookstore creates not only jobs, but also a sense of belonging and to find like-minded people who also love books. Buy books from Amazon, and this vanishes: “A cheap book still has a high cost.”

But Pleskunas said the recent response to her GoFundMe campaign was heartening, and gave her hope for the future.

“I saw why I’m doing this,” she said.

Sullivan, still at the beginning of her new enterprise, is enthusiastic about what’s to come. There’s a second story to their store that will eventually become a music loft. They’ve already got plenty of events booked, including a book signing May 3 by Steinbeck scholar Susan Shillinglaw and another by Voices’ own Claudia Melendez Salinas on May 17.

Both Pleskunas and Sullivan are making plans for this Saturday’s Independent Bookstore Day, when Kelly’s Books will offer 10 percent off on any purchase and Sullivan plans to have live music and a scavenger hunt that day.

What it comes down to, Sullivan said, is providing that place for readers to connect with books — and with each other.

“The arts gather people together,” she said. “The arts have the power to overcome cultural differences. This is where we come together.”

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Kathryn McKenzie

About Kathryn McKenzie

Kathryn McKenzie grew up in Santa Cruz, worked for the Monterey Herald for 10 years, and now freelances for a variety of publications and websites. She and husband Glenn Church are the co-authors of "Humbled: How California's Monterey Bay Escaped Industrial Ruin" (Vista Verde Publishing, 2020).