Sam Walton he ain't. Michael Levy is the co-owner of Pet Food Express, which may be a 22-store operation but offers quality goods and a close connection to its neighborhoods and customers. Levy and his co-owner Mark Witriol visit their branches every weekend and answer their own phones. But when Levy recently moved one of his stores to the corner of University and San Pablo avenues, he discovered that as far as his own employees were concerned, he wasn't exactly a noble independent shopkeeper.
About three months ago, Levy was forced to call a meeting with unhappy employees at his future West Berkeley store. Only Berkeleyites could have raised a fuss about this, but they worried that the new store was too close to the independent pet stores Animal Farm and Lucky Dog, which they didn't want to drive out of business. Levy brought in a city official, who assured them that the two independents would probably survive. Which is to say that, despite embracing a humanistic business model, in Berkeley Levy always will be a chain-store magnate.
Levy's employees needn't have worried. National chains are on the run in Berkeley. Blockbuster video stores in West Berkeley, Southside, and just across the Oakland border all have been shuttered in the last few months. Four years ago, Berkeley's downtown had the usual complement of fast-food joints, and members of the Berkeley City Council went so far as to consider slapping a moratorium on more fast-food chains in the area. (Indigenous greasepits were fine.) But it wasn't necessary, because everyday folks did their job for them. Today, downtown's Burger King, Taco Bell, and KFC outlets are all gone, and company representatives acknowledge that at least two of these closed because of underperformance. In other words, they died of indifference.
Nor are they the only underperforming chains in Berkeley. Compare the all-chain block of Shattuck Avenue that includes a Barnes & Noble, High Tech Burrito, Extreme Pizza, Jamba Juice, and Blockbuster with the no-chain block of Telegraph Avenue that includes Cody's Books, Bay King, Moe's Books, Shambhala Books, Reprint Mint, Continental Art, and the Soup Kitchen. According to city sales tax records, last year the Cody's block did twice as much business as the Barnes & Noble block. And according to one city hall source, Starbucks representatives have vowed to never open another cafe within the city limits, because its outlets make so little money. (Starbucks officials did not return phone calls seeking comment by press time.)
The most interesting aspect of this backlash involves the book and coffee industries, which do so much to establish the city's identity. In the past decade, businesses realized that the gourmet espresso, overstuffed chairs, and in-store author appearances of boho cafe culture could be commodified and sold to Middle America. Within a few years, Starbucks branches were springing up on every block, and Barnes & Noble and Borders began to squeeze small bookstores in college towns nationwide.
Independent booksellers around the Bay Area grew terrified at the behemoths, especially since publishers began offering potentially illegal discounts to the big chains. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, by 1994 the big chains accounted for 27 percent of nationwide book sales, while the independents' share was just 19 percent.
But ten years after the Great Chain-Store Scare of 1993, the Bay Area's native cafe culture has managed to survive after all. According to the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association, the Bay Area had 170 independent bookstores in 1993; today, there are 168. "In the East Bay, we have seen ongoing strength in the independent bookselling ranks," says Hut Landon, the association's executive director. "Our numbers are solid."
According to Landon, the independents have weathered the storm of the big chains through a combination of die-hard customer loyalty and smart, aggressive responses -- suing to end discount deals between publishers and chains, for example, or creating a counter marketing group such as BookSense.com. Book lovers in Berkeley and Oakland, the bedrock of cafe culture, have proven to be a lot more committed to particular stores. "God knows we don't live here for the housing prices, so what else do you live here for?" Landon says. "It's Telegraph, Rockridge, the local coffee shops. ... We've survived chain stores, Amazon, publishers giving secret deals; we've survived all of that. You can't do that without running a good business."
Interestingly enough, the survival of independent cafe culture backs up the very arguments made by the big chains in the first place. When the independents railed against the bullies with bulk buying power, companies such as Borders answered that, in fact, they were advancing the cause of good books. Rather than gutting the idiosyncratic literary landscapes of Berkeley, North Beach, or Greenwich Village, the chains have introduced suburban and rural America to a vast array of literature, as well as the cafe milieu in which to enjoy it. And, in fact, independent booksellers in Berkeley and Oakland have adapted and survived, and now Richmond, Dublin, and Newark also have decent bookstores.
In fact, the chains sometimes even wind up helping the very stores they're competing against. Back in the early '90s, Amy Thomas was wavering on whether to keep her downtown Pegasus Books store open. The neighborhood was a blight at the time, and she was worried that too few customers would run the gauntlet to come to her doorstep. But once Barnes & Noble opened across the street from her store, Thomas, who bears the big chains no love, concluded she would benefit from the extra foot traffic. She's been there ever since. "They think they can beat us with their economy of scale," she says. "It's a good foil for us; kind of a challenge to work harder, to be better."
Thanks to chains such as Barnes & Noble, there are more books in the world today than there were ten years ago. Far from giving up, the independents have fought back, and their core customers have proven loyal enough to keep them alive. And the residents of cities and small towns that never before had a decent bookstore can now browse through thousands of titles. According to Fremont Mayor Gus Morrison, his city's only bookstore of note fifteen years ago was the Book Mark, a place where people bought their Louis L'Amour and got out. Now, he says, Barnes & Noble and Borders offer residents somewhere to sit down and page through books at their leisure. "They don't close at nine o'clock like the other guys used to do," he says. "They let people hang around and read, and kids do homework there."
Still, not even Morrison considers these stores his favorite. That would be DeLauer's, the downtown Oakland newsstand that hawks international newspapers, the Daily Racing Form, and a mountain of pulp novels. After a hard day's work at some stultifying regional government meeting, there's nothing Morrison likes better than to pop in, get himself the latest Tom Clancy, and hit the BART ride home. Even suburban mayors, it seems, have a preferred independent bookstore.
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