Counting closures: SF bookstore watches brethren fade away 

In 2002, Valhalla Books owner Joe Marchione began to print fliers mapping the bookstores in the immediate area around his Mission and 16th streets location, which at the time was densely populated by specialty sellers.

In the past five years alone, Marchione has slowly watched the number of bookstores on his original map close or relocate due to rent increases.

And now he will be joining them, as Valhalla plans to clear its shelves before the end of March. It has shared space at 2141 Mission St. with Meyer Boswell Books, Libros Latinos and Bolerium Books, all of which will remain. Nearby Dog-Eared Books is also still open.

Of the stores on Marchione's first flier, Abandoned Planet Books and Adobe Books closed and Forest Books was displaced, all citing rental hikes, just since 2010.

In Adobe's case, the bookstore closed when its landlord raised then-owner Andrew McKinley's rent and forced the shop out of its 16th Street location.

"You could rent the space for $10,000 or $12,000 now," McKinley said. He paid about $4,000 a month in rent before his lease ended and his landlord "jacked up the price," McKinley said, choosing to instead try to court a chain retailer.

Adobe was able to reopen two weeks after its closure because McKinley turned it into a co-op and found another space, he said.

Many businesses in San Francisco that have closed or relocated in recent years often blame gentrification and the tech boom for increased rents, and at least one recent closure was blamed on San Francisco's rising minimum wage.

But Marchione acknowledged that bookstores have long dealt with other challenges to staying open.

"Yes, there is the rent," he admitted, "but that could be handled with the changed book-buying habits of the public."

Last year, nationwide sales in retail bookstores were down every month except August from January through November when compared to the same months in 2013, bringing in 4.9 percent fewer earnings, according to the latest data available from the American Booksellers Association.

For bookstores to stay afloat, Marchione said they need customers to browse their shelves rather than shop online at places like Amazon — where books can be purchased at bare- minimum prices from the comfort of a computer or smartphone.

"Part of it is they're reading plenty, but they're reading blogs, they're reading Twitter, but they're not buying books, they're reading bites," said Marchione. "It's a tough business. We're fighting against a different way of acquiring information."

High-end book retailers like Argonaut Book Shop in Lower Nob Hill have been able to weather the changing industry with relative ease, owner Robert Haines said. The store specializes in rare books, some selling for as much as $15,000, and does not really have online competition.

"If, one, you have the capital to be able to buy those books, the collectibles, and, two, if you have the clientele, the rich people, and the personality to handle those clientele then you will do real well in the book world," Marchione said.

The Argonaut is part of the Antiquarian Booksellers' Association of America, whose members sell, buy and appraise rare books.

While all bookstores — from the Argonaut to the sci-fi sellers like Borderlands Books to the "different sort of used" shop like Valhalla, as Marchione put it, to small chains like Green Apple — are unique in their own right, they do have at least one thing in common.

Pointing to an indentation in the wall where the shop used to expand into next door, Haines said rent increases have caused Argonaut to downsize.

Likewise, Borderlands Books owner Alan Beatts previously told The San Francisco Examiner he would soon close the noncafe half of his store on Valencia Street because of the minimum-wage increases set to take place before 2018.

Beatts also said he made enough revenue last year to pay himself $28,000.

Upon hearing that, Marchione said "bookstores are a labor of love."

In perhaps a bold reminder on the state of bookstores today, Marchione said he would be satisfied to come away with any profit, if just the modest income Beatts previously said he earns.

"I put money into the store, [Beatts] is pulling money out of the store," he said.

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