The iconic City Lights Bookstore has launched a Go Fund Me page to stay afloat. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

San Francisco bookstores struggle to survive

The beloved bookstores of San Francisco are joining the growing list of struggling small businesses during the shelter-in-place shutdowns.

The beloved bookstores of San Francisco are joining the growing list of struggling small businesses during the shelter-in-place shutdowns.

“Closing the bookstore has loomed and haunted us for years but this was like a light switch flipped,” said Pete Mulvihill, co-owner of Green Apple Books, which shuttered three locations on March 16.

The sharp dropoff in business after bookstores closed during the statewide shelter-in-place orders last month left some questioning if they could continue business. With libraries shuttered and Amazon prioritizing deliveries of essential items over books, the owners of independent bookstores have turned to dire means to stay afloat and fulfill the needs of loyal customers.

City Lights Books, the iconic bookseller and publisher on Columbus Avenue and Broadway, launched a GoFundMe donation page. Publisher and CEO of City Lights, Elaine Katzenberger wrote in a message that with no way to generate income, the bookstore’s cash reserves are quickly dwindling. The public responded en masse, reaching the goal of over $300,000 in donations in just two days.

“For many of us, a world without City Lights is something we don’t want to imagine” Katzenberger said. “For me, personally, it hurts to think of that.”

Kate Razo, the owner of two Dog Eared Books locations and Alley Cat Books in the Mission, has launched GoFundMe pages for all three locations. The donation pages are just one way to try to keep the bookstores going, Razo said.

“Each store has its own story,” she said. “We have deep roots in the community and nobody wants us to go away.”

For Green Apple Books, turning to launching a GoFundMe seems like a last resort. For now, the bookstore has shifted operations online, luckily a system that was already in place, Mulvihill said. The bookstore has started hosting virtual events with authors such as Bonnie Tsui on April 7 for her book “Why We Swim” on a Zoom meeting that over 200 people attended.

Although owners had to make the difficult decision to furlough the 30 people on staff, Green Apple Books staff have contributed to curated lists of books on the website including lists like “Books for when it feels like the world is ending” and “Books about people living in close quarters.”

“It’s definitely not the same as browsing around a bookstore, smelling the dusty shelves and pages,” Mulvihill said. “But we’re trying — even just a little bit — to replicate what we do in the stores.”

Not all bookstores were adequately equipped to transition business completely online. Brian Hibbs, owner of Comix Experience with locations on Divisadero Street and Ocean Avenue, rushed to get the comic book store’s entire inventory onto an online store. Hibbs has so far been able to keep all six employees on staff, but they are working four times as hard fulfilling online orders for a quarter of the usual profits, he said.

“As a retail store we are optimized for browsing,” Hibbs said. “We’re shopkeepers. We like seeing customers browsing and we like putting books into their hands. Losing that is like losing oxygen.”

Without the regular business the comic book store receives, Hibbs said he will have to go into debt to keep the store open, an action he is reluctant to take. Customers looking to support the business can join the Graphic Novel of the Month Club, a subscription that includes monthly curated graphic novels and livestream meetings with artists and authors.

“We matter, bookstores matter. I believe that we are the heart and soul of the art industry,” Hibbs said.

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