Small Press Distribution — the only nonprofit book distributor in the country dedicated exclusively to independently published literature — is planning to close its West Berkeley warehouse.
Kent Watson, the executive director of SPD, said no timeline is set for the move, and the nonprofit will still have an office based in the Bay Area, though he has not yet identified a location.
The nonprofit is now focused on raising $100,000 through GoFundMe to move tens of thousands of book titles eastward to warehouses run by Ingram Content Group in Tennessee and Publishers Storage and Shipping in Michigan.
Faced with rising rent and operating costs at its Seventh Street location, SPD is betting that the partnership with those organizations will help its presses reach a wider audience. The deal allows SPD publishers to ship worldwide and print their books on demand.
“I need this to happen. I need to get us to this next phase so we can help those presses that are struggling,” said Watson. “We’re really establishing a way for a really small press to … have 21st century technology that they’ve never, ever had.”
Founded in 1969, SPD is one of the only options for small presses to bring literature to bookstores and libraries nationwide. The nonprofit champions presses that might otherwise be considered too small for larger distributors to take a risk on.
Kelsey Street Press, a Berkeley-based press that publishes experimental feminist poetry, is distributed by SPD, and its books have included EXTRATRANSMISSION, a poetic critique of the U.S. military role in the War on Terror, and and recombinant by Ching-In Chen, the 2018 winner of the Lambda Literary Award for Best Transgender Poetry.
Atelos, a publishing project from Bay Area poets Lyn Hejinian and Travis Ortiz, is also distributed by SPD, and has issued books like WORK by Brandon Brown, a book described as a “sustained lyric study of all that happens in between the poet leaving their office at 4:30 in the afternoon on Midwinter’s Day, 2018, and returning to it at 7:45 the next morning.”
For generations, SPD has also been a resource for Berkeley booksellers like Moe’s and Pegasus looking to offer customers avant garde and experimental literature that would be hard or impossible to find in chain stores.
SPD has survived the rise of Amazon, ebooks, and decades of consolidation in the book publishing industry, but operating costs have only continued to rise while grant funding has declined. The nonprofit, which distributes poetry that doesn’t generate a lot of money to begin with, also took a financial hit when bookstores shut during the pandemic lockdowns.
Watson said SPD will continue to stay connected to the Bay Area literary community.
Small Press Distribution’s history is rooted in Berkeley
Small Press Distribution started as a small, deeply local project from Serendipity Books owner Peter Howard and publisher Jack Shoemaker. Serendipity Books was a legendary rare bookstore in Berkeley, and Shoemaker went on to become the founding editor of Berkeley-based Counterpoint Press.
The vision for SPD began with space for presses and a mailing list, recalled Jean Day, a poet and the group’s director during the 1980s.
She met her husband at SPD; he was one of their customers. UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library was among those that relied on SPD to keep tabs on contemporary poetry.
“Many people who were involved with the literary community had the idea of, ‘Well, we’re not going to wait for New York to decide that this is valuable or interesting,’” Day said. “It was a time where it seemed there was more across-the-board agreement that poetry was important to the culture.”
Day remembered how Sam Francis, a Bay Area painter, would wander in and buy some 50 books.
“We were all really excited when Sam came in,” Day said.
This was during an era where small publications were blossoming, Day said. Letterpress equipment and cabinets of metal type were cheap, Malcolm Margolin, founder Heyday, an independent nonprofit publisher in Berkeley, has written.
Margolin, who founded Heyday in 1974, wrote of the small press bonanza: “If I wanted to do something that none of my contemporaries dared do, I might have opened a stationery store, a dry cleaners, a miniature golf course, or better yet in those pony-tailed hirsute times, a barbershop. That would have left them speechless! But a publisher? It seemed that half the people in Berkeley were creating publishing houses.”
Owen Hill, a longtime buyer at Moe’s Books in Berkeley, was thrilled just to go to SPD.
“It was worth a Greyhound trip from Santa Cruz and a BART trip to the East Bay just to go see what books they were distributing,” Hill said. “I pretty much dropped out of school to be a poet. So I was being a poet, working day jobs, and trying to keep up with what poets of my generation were doing. And that was the place to go to keep up.”
Hill said when he started working at Moe’s in Berkeley in the late 1980s, the book buyer who trained him advised him to stop by SPD’s warehouse at least once a week and see what was inside.
“I may not have made it every week but I got out there as often as I could,” Hill said.
Boosted by National Endowment for the Arts funding, SPD went from distributing a small number of local presses to serving nearly 400 presses today.
Independent bookstores now represent about 15% of SPD customers, though Amazon is the nonprofit’s largest single customer, according to SPD’s publisher handbook.
Day said the idea of losing books always seems scary, but she’s hopeful SPD’s recently announced plans will make books more accessible.
“SPD has really, really been a survivor,” Day said. “It’s no surprise to me that a big change in the way books get distributed would be needed, and I’m really actually quite grateful that a new model is available. Because the old model was pretty unsustainable all along.”
Considering alternatives in book distribution
The mission of SPD has also been complicated in recent years by allegations of wage theft and a hostile work environment. In December 2020, a former employee published an anonymous Medium post in which they described being underpaid by more than $4,000. The worker said they were asked to sign a severance offer that included a non-disparagement agreement.
The post prompted an investigation and the departure of then-executive director Brent Cunningham. It also sparked a wider conversation among some publishers and writers about the need for distribution options beyond SPD.
Brad Johnson, owner of East Bay Booksellers in Oakland, said over the past decade or so that he’s seen the options for getting books into bookstores go away one-by-one. He says that means when book buyers learn about bad labor practices, for example, they don’t have a lot of good options.
“Your alternative is to say, ‘I guess I won’t order from X, which means I won’t get this small, tiny press’s book, because they actually don’t have the means of shipping it out themselves. So let’s just burn the entire house down,” Johnson said. “There needs to be almost as many kind of nerdy people as invested in the logistics of distribution as they are in the creative aspect of publishing.”
The next chapter for small presses and bookstores
Small presses that are distributed by SPD are waiting to see how the changes will affect them.
Kate Robinson Beckwith and her husband run Dogpark, an Oakland-based press that publishes “poetry, prose, and everything in between.”
Dogpark’s books are distributed through direct sales and SPD, and Robinson Beckwith said the press is “seriously weighing” the pros and cons of being distributed by SPD. She said social media has made it a lot easier for small presses to handle direct sales.
“We already have our own network, and our own connections, and we know how to produce books,” Robinson Beckwith said. “There are some ways in which SPD’s services are needed more than ever, and other ways in which they’re really just not anymore. People can DIY it a lot better than they once were able to.”
Robinson Beckwith remembers wandering around SPD’s warehouse, and how seeing all those books — a half-century of small press history — could feel both awe-inspiring and depressing.
“You can look at them and touch them and be like, ‘Oh, I can buy this right here’ or it’s like, ‘Look at these books that no one is reading,’” she said.
Owen Hill, the Moe’s employee who left the bookstore last year after decades on the job, said he supports SPD making the changes it needs to survive, but he also hopes SPD staff continue to maintain ties with independent bookstores.
“The great thing about being a Bay Area book buyer is there was a hands-on ability to look at a book and feel the book and look at the cover,” he said. “ ‘Oh, that looks good on a table’ You know? It’s harder to make that decision online. But we’ve all had to learn how to do that.”
COVID-19 has changed the significance of the warehouse space, where SPD once held open house events and spelling bee fundraisers.
“In a way, we’ve been mourning for them since the pandemic started,” said Joyce Jenkins, the editor and director of Poetry Flash, which puts on literary events in Berkeley. “The community would come in and look through the shelves … and find unusual titles that they didn’t realize they wanted to read. … That has been gone since COVID.”
Jenkins said the difference now is that there isn’t the promise of SPD returning as it once was.
“That’s a loss, it’s a loss for us… but everything’s changed, and we just have to try to work with the new ways,” Jenkins said. “I just hope we’re going to have access to those books without jumping through flaming hoops.”