We are a place where a bookstore is the soul of the community

Bookshop
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)

THE HERE & NOW: The distressing headlines about many of the world’s great indie bookstores should remind Santa Cruzans that even beloved institutions like Bookshop Santa Cruz are not immune to the scary math of pandemic economics.

To paraphrase Thomas Jefferson, all local businesses are created equal — which is to say that anyone with the audacity and drive to hang a shingle in today’s hyper-competitive and pitiless economy is deserving of respect.

But a few local businesses, by their history and reputation, come to embody a community’s personality and its image of itself. Santa Cruz County has several of these businesses: the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk is the most visible totem of the county’s image as a tourist draw and a fun exciting place to visit; the strawberry giant Driscoll’s symbolizes the county’s agricultural muscle on the national stage.

O’Neill is the commercial embodiment of Santa Cruz’s distinctive surf culture, as much as NHS creates the avatars for the colorful and rebellious skateboard culture that, through giant red dots and screaming blue hands, is often Santa Cruz’s most familiar image to the rest of the world.

Of course, Santa Cruz has another long-standing, well-cultivated image — as a haven for the freethinker, the creative spirit, the intellectually curious lover of art and ideas, Berkeley-by-the-Beach, a wildlife preserve for former hippies and neo-beatniks, a warm and inviting sanctuary for artists marching to their own eccentrically different drummers, a safe space for the overeducated and underemployed, a political entity that is bluer than the deeps of the ocean.

And the local business that best defines and nourishes that version of Santa Cruz, as an intellectually ambitious community, is a bookstore.

It is not news to anyone who lives locally that Bookshop Santa Cruz is the soul of this creative and literary community. Consider this then only a reminder that even landmark iconic businesses are still subject to the intractable laws of economic math.

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Bookshop is still, for many, Santa Cruz’s living room, a vital and irreplaceable downtown destination, still a place to connect with community through the joy of books.

But as so many other businesses have closed their doors — either permanently or temporarily — the pandemic of 2020’s hardest lesson has been to take nothing for granted, especially bookstores.

For those with an abiding (sometimes unhealthy) love of books, the fall has brought many distressing headlines. Manhattan’s legendary, nearly century-old bookstore the Strand announced in October that the store’s revenues were down 70% and its cash reserves were depleted. In an unprecedented move, the store’s owners appealed to the public to come to its rescue.

In Paris, the wonderful Left Bank bookshop Shakespeare & Co. found itself in the same boat as the Strand, and also had to appeal to its customers for a lifeline. Back in the spring, San Francisco’s beloved City Lights bookstore had to close its doors temporarily and then turned to crowd-funding to keep from closing permanently.

I’ve visited each of these bookstores, and I’m pleased to report that, in each case, the store’s customer base stepped up to stave off financial ruin (at least until the next crisis emerges). But, of course, I do have a home-base bookstore and it’s Bookshop Santa Cruz.

In 2016, I was privileged to publish a book on the occasion of Bookshop’s 50th birthday about that store’s historical rollercoaster ride, titled A Light in the Midst of Darkness (Wellstone Books).

Alas, my historical account includes not a word about the pandemic of 2020, which has stressed a business that was nearly undone by the Loma Prieta earthquake, a downtown customer war with the chain Borders, and the drip-drip of the ongoing battle against Amazon, the indie book industry’s Death Star.

Still, Bookshop — like so many other retailers — has seen nothing like this.

Though it has also faced brutal revenue fall-offs for the last six months, Bookshop is not yet in the same straits as the Strand and Shakespeare & Co. But it could get there, and soon. Again, the lessons of the other indie bookstores in trouble can be instructive.

In those cases, a huge wave of public support after the SOS calls led to well-meaning chaos — a store, down on staff, struggling to meet all the new orders. At Bookshop, the reduced staff is swimming twice as fast to go half as far.

Bookshop Santa Cruz emerged shortly after the establishment of UC Santa Cruz and it quickly became the touchstone of a new kind of Santa Cruz, a shift away from the sleepy retirement town it was pre-UC and toward a more cosmopolitan and artistic college town. It is the connective tissue between the utopia of the 1960s and today. Santa Cruz without it is unthinkable.

What Bookshop needs is nothing heroic or splashy. It needs only its customers to commit to keeping it afloat. Web orders and phone orders are welcome, of course. But if you really want to ensure that Bookshop will live on in a post-COVID world, then call your friends and neighbors, ask them for a book order or two, visit the bookstore alone, get your books and go home.

Then the day after that, do the same thing for your favorite locally-owned clothing store. Then the day after that, your favorite gift store, then jewelry store, then music or record store.

This isn’t just gift-giving season; it’s heavy-lifting season for the vital labor of saving our local economy. Now that December is upon us, it’s time to get to work.