Books Inc. is moving its Fourth Street store to Berkeley’s Gourmet Ghetto. Photo: Books Inc.
Books Inc. is moving its Fourth Street store to Berkeley’s Gourmet Ghetto. Photo: Books Inc.

After five years of sitting empty marked with a “For Lease” sign, the former Black Oak Books on Shattuck Avenue in North Berkeley will soon open its doors as a new business.

And that business is: a bookstore.

Books Inc., a Bay Area business that says it is “the west’s oldest independent bookseller,” will open in the former Black Oak sometime in early 2015, said owner Michael Tucker.

At the same time, Books Inc. will shutter its Berkeley store at 1760 Fourth St., essentially moving from one local spot to another, which Tucker hopes will boost Berkeley sales.

“The biggest issue we have on Fourth, beyond the fact it’s a little too small for us… is we just couldn’t get people to come in. We couldn’t get people to think of it as their neighborhood bookstore,” Tucker said.

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The former Black Oak Books at 1491 Shattuck Ave. has sat empty for five years. Image: Google Maps
The former Black Oak Books at 1491 Shattuck Ave. has sat empty for five years. Image: Google Maps

After more than two decades in business at 1491 Shattuck, Black Oak closed in 2009, after years of financial struggles, moving to 2618 San Pablo Ave., and today sells a mix of new and used books, with a specialty in mathematics and science fiction.

The North Berkeley site, smack in the pedestrian-friendly Gourmet Ghetto and surrounded by homes and apartments, should bring the foot traffic and community relationship that independent bookstores need to thrive, Tucker said.

“We always thought this neighborhood was perfect for what we do,” he said.

Tucker has signed a five-year lease on the Shattuck building, with an option for a five-year extension. His landlords are Rue-Ell Enterprises, a Bay Area developer that owns and manages numerous Berkeley properties.

“We put Black Oak Books, which had a SF location, in the space. Loved by book collectors and the neighborhood, Black Oak was a victim of Amazon and Borders and went out,” said Dana Ellsworth, vice president of Rue-Ell.

“We couldn’t be more pleased to see another bookstore, and one with book readings and other events taking the space,” Ellsworth added.

When Black Oak went under in 2009, many people blamed the developer, Ellsworth said. But she blamed the challenging economics of independent bookselling: “Despite the whispers of greedy landlord, we actually lowered the rent to the owners.”

Indeed, the death march of independent bookstores over the past decade has been palpable locally, with the Berkeley closings of Back Oak and Cody’s, both beloved stores. Small booksellers were hit by one bad trend after another, Tucker said, starting with the rise of major chain bookstores, who buy goods at such high volumes they get significantly lower prices than small stores; followed by the rise of online book sales and ebooks.

But the bleeding may be slowing down, Tucker said. After declaring bankruptcy and shutting 10 of its 12 stores in the 1990s, Books Inc. has built itself up to 10 stores today, and is positioned for growth, he said.

In addition to Berkeley, the company has four stores in San Francisco, and one each in Alameda, Burlingame, Mountain View, Palo Alto and at the San Francisco airport. Each store has a buyer purchasing specifically for that location. “You respond to your customer base,” Tucker said.

Tucker attributes the turnaround to a shift in what people are seeking when it comes to books. Big box chains, though struggling, online and ebooks aren’t going away, he said. But increasingly smaller neighborhood stores with personal customer service, author visits, shelves to browse, and community involvement such as at schools and libraries are drawing, or drawing back, loyal customers.

“There’s been a real renaissance with independents across the country,” Tucker said. “We’re finding the one thing you can’t do online is any kind of author experience; or events and school fairs, which we’re really involved with. They’re not anything that’s going to happen online.”

According to Hut Landon, executive director of the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association, national membership declined to 1,700 in 2010 from a high of about 4,500 20 years ago. From 2010 it’s jumped to over 2,000 members today. “Things are quantifiably better,” he said, adding that the Bay Area is also experiencing this trend.

Ann Leyhe, co-owner of independent bookstore Mrs. Dalloway’s on College Avenue in Berkeley agrees. “We’ve definitely seen a renaissance,” Leyhe said. “[Bookselling] is always unpredictable… but there’s nothing to replace a bookseller who knows what you want to read.”

Mrs. Dalloway’s is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. “I do think that indies are benefitting from the Buy Local movement. You can try an algorithm and see what you get [commonly used to make book recommendations on web-stores], but it really doesn’t replace a conversation.”

Gina Davidson reopened a former used bookstore near the campus as Bookish at 1816 Euclid Ave., a stone’s throw from the Cal campus.

Much of Books Inc.’s potential for success depends on forming a partnership or teamwork with the surrounding community and neighborhood, Tucker said. Fourth Street proved not to be a great match for this. He’s optimistic about Shattuck.

“If people want indies around, they really need to be able to support them.”

Justin Georganas, a bookseller at Black Oak on San Pablo, agrees that the demise of brick-and-mortar bookstores may not be imminent. He hasn’t worked at the store long enough to weigh in on significant customer trends, he said, but Black Oak has returning fans.

“We’re frequently asked in the store if we think bookstores will be around in 20 or 25 years,” Georganas said. “I definitely think there’s a contingent of people who will always prefer bookstores. There’s something about the tangibility of bookstores.”

New independent bookstore opens in Berkeley (06.26.14)

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Freelancer Catherine "Kate" Rauch has been contributing to Berkeleyside for several years. Her work as a journalist has encompassed everything from 10 years as a daily news reporter for the East Bay Times,...