by Frank Dunnigan
Now that it’s Fall, I’m reminded of the affinity that so many of us have with books, newspapers, and magazines. There’s no better time of year than right now to curl up on the couch with some good reading, so it’s time to take a look back at our once-passionate love affair with the printed word.
Even though I received a Kindle for Christmas last year, I’m still fond of printed paper, in spite of all the space that it continues to occupy in my ever-expanding bookcases. Whenever I’m visiting a new city, I find myself drawn to local bookstores, just to look around and see what they have to offer, and a printed volume or two is often my only “souvenir” of a particular trip.
How could it be any other way? I grew up in a household that subscribed to two daily newspapers—The San Francisco Examiner and the San Francisco News (later known as the News-Call-Bulletin from 1958-65), plus the weekly Catholic Monitor, and a stack of magazines, including Life, Readers Digest, Sunset, and The Saturday Evening Post. In addition, both my parents always had a paperback or two on their nightstands for late night reading, and Mom’s sister was always passing along copies of Bon Appétit and Gourmet plus stack after stack of condensed books once she was finished with them.
From the time that I started browsing the comic book selection at Reis’ Pharmacy at 18th & Taraval in the mid-1950s, I’ve been hooked on reading. When I was six, the only thing that I wanted for my birthday was a library card so that I could have unlimited access to treasures contained within the red brick walls of the Parkside Branch at 22nd Avenue & Taraval, even though their six-book limit for checkout was a constant annoyance to me.
Most of us baby boomers remember the décor of our first apartments—plywood shelves (sometimes wrapped in wood grain contact paper for a more upscale look), combined with concrete cinderblocks to form bookcases. This ubiquitous decorating item was sturdy enough to hold yard after yard of the volumes that we had collected from various college courses (things like the Norton Anthologies, Essentials of Accounting, and Churchill’s History of the English-Speaking Peoples), along with personal reading favorites of every sort. Today, the first things I see walking through my own front door are seven-foot-tall bookcases and my favorite armchair in the living room, with a strong reading lamp nearby. In the bedroom, I have a pair of nightstands with built-in bookshelves, so that I can keep even more reading materials close at hand for impromptu bedtime reading. With these items in place, I’m all set.
However, selling the printed word today has become a tough business, even for big businesses. In the last 20 years, every city in America that still had a struggling afternoon newspaper has lost it, and since the dawn of the new millennium, several areas are on the verge of losing their morning journal as well. Bookstores have not fared much better, and the recent loss of the Borders chain is just another milepost on the long road of decline for reading in this country and here in the western neighborhoods, too.
When the new Stonestown Galleria opened in 1986, a huge Brentano’s opened near the middle of the top level on the west side, replacing the tiny 1960s-era B. Dalton that had been tucked away in the old mall near Blum’s. Then Brentano’s closed and was replaced by Borders (in the space once occupied by the Walgreens lunch counter and the Stonestown Market from 1952-1988, then by Bank of America from 1988-98). As Borders now vanishes into a cloud of paper dust, it has been replaced by ODE (newly named operation that makes use of some of the original letters on the building’s sign), with the same format of books, music, café. Any bets on how long that might last?
When the new Lakeshore Plaza opened on Sloat Boulevard in the 1980s, the big discounter of the time, Crown Books (unceremoniously dethroned by the sudden ascent of Amazon.com in the 1990s), occupied the corner at the western edge of the center near Sloat—the same spot once occupied by Grant’s Charcoal Broiler, Orlando’s Restaurant, and then GETs—but that corner morphed into a pet supply store in about 1998.
A year or so ago, I noticed that Waldenbooks on West Portal (site of the old Sherry’s Liquor Store), which had been a convenient reading spot for a nice 20-year run, had suddenly disappeared from the scene and had not merely relocated.
Canterbury Corner, out there at 17th Avenue and Geary Boulevard in the Richmond for many years, was once a prime location for St.Ignatius’s Stanyan Street students to find their copies of the iconic yellow-and-black Cliff Notes (and the less-common, but also good, red-and-black Monarch Notes) on everything from The Merchant of Venice to The Catcher in the Rye. Today, that corner has been taken over by yet another coffee house. Isn’t it funny to think of how we now automatically associate books with the smell of coffee? I sometimes fear that we are raising a whole generation of young people who will have no goal for their working lives other than becoming baristas.
Sadly, the big department stores abandoned their book departments decades ago. Emporium Stonestown used to have a wonderful selection on the main floor near the elevators. Mom once stood in line there for nearly an hour to buy me a copy of William Manchester’s Death of a President when it was published in 1967, and that was also where I discovered Robert Cameron’s great photo essay, Above San Francisco in 1969. The downtown store had an even larger area collection at the back of the main floor under the dome, and much of it was devoted to San Francisco history—a browser’s delight.
One of San Francisco’s most colorful department store book buyers from the 1950s through the 1980s was the late Ethel Stevenson, and I had the pleasure of working with her for several years. Well-educated, well-read, and well-traveled, she put together an eclectic mix of titles that was guaranteed to draw people in. She believed in something for everyone—biographies, novels, history, reference, cookbooks, sports, self-improvement, plus science fiction and mystery paperbacks. When Roots became the smash hit of 1977—there was Ethel, personally pushing a hand-truck laden with carton after carton of freshly printed volumes that she herself had just picked up from the distributor, in order to make sure that they were stacked and ready for her customers when the doors opened for business. She even pre-dated one Seinfeld gag by suggesting that some large picture books (known in the trade as “coffee table books”) could have four legs attached to the bottom and actually be used as a coffee table! And although she personally despised the genre, she always made sure that some tucked-away corner in each store contained an abundant selection of what she sarcastically referred to as “T.R.”—trashy romance.
Waldenbooks and Tro Harper, both downtown institutions, have faded from the fog of days gone by, though the venerable Books, Inc. is still doing business out there on California Street in Laurel Village. Stacey’s, a Market Street icon since 1914, closed its doors for good in 2009.
The area around City Hall once contained several used book shops that would buy and sell old books and periodicals. Likewise, the area around McAllister Street in the Western Addition, prior to the redevelopment of the 1960s, was a second-hand treasure trove for all things, including books and magazines. All of these have now vanished in a cloud of dust called Redevelopment.
Book lovers are lucky that Green Apple Books, a neighborhood institution since 1967, is still doing business on Clement Street. It is a rare breed—the independent neighborhood bookstore. When the founder-owner retired a few years ago, he wisely structured the transition as a sale to a group of long-time employees who are truly dedicated to the business. Whenever I’m in San Francisco, I can easily spend an entire afternoon, wandering aimlessly up and down the aisles, finding things that I never knew would interest me until I stumbled upon them.
Even the junk mail has changed. I no longer receive book club offers of “ANY 20 BOOKS FOR JUST $1 TOTAL WHEN YOU AGREE TO BUY JUST 4 OTHERS AT REGULAR PRICE ANY TIME IN THE NEXT 5 YEARS!” Those offers always seemed to hinge on the customer’s inability to return the OPT-OUT card for the monthly special, thereby generating shipment of another volume automatically. The advent of electronic communications obviously had something to do with the demise of this standard business model for many book clubs.
There are some high spots, though. Arcadia Publishing has done a great job of collecting and publishing neighborhood histories in concise 128-page format mid-size paperbacks that are chock-full of never-before seen photos, mostly from individual collections. Local offerings include volumes on the Sunset District and the Richmond District, both by Lorri Ungaretti, West Portal Neighborhoods by Richard Brandi, Catholics of San Francisco by Bernadette Hooper and Rayna Garibaldi, Jewish San Francisco by Edward Zerin and Marc Dollinger, San Francisco’s Ocean Beach by Kathleen Manning and Jim Dickson, and the San Francisco Zoo by Katherine Girlich. Woody LaBounty’s Carville-by-the-Sea and an upcoming Ingleside Terraces book are also impressive contributions to local history, and make for very interesting reading.
Even a cookbook can be a good read if it is properly written. Not just a compilation of ingredients and instructions, a cookbook must tell a story, and even if you don’t plan on preparing a recipe immediately, it can be an enjoyable read at any time. One local author, Rick Rodgers, always manages to weave his family’s story into his writings, whether it’s an all-purpose cookbook or a single-subject collection of things like Thanksgiving, summer barbecue, or Christmas. Southern food writer Paula Deen is also an accomplished story-teller as she provides cooking direction and personal remembrances to her readers. Cookin’, out there on Divisidero, has an entire back wall, from floor to ceiling, filled with used cookbooks, and I never tire of browsing the collection there.
During the years I worked at Williams-Sonoma, I once visited with company founder Chuck Williams (now a spry 96 years young) in his surprisingly modest office at the company’s downtown headquarters. Dominating one entire wall were built-in bookcases nearly 12 feet high, and running at least 40 feet from one side of the room to the other. On a daily basis, he worked alongside thousands of different cookbooks—some good and some not so, but all were interesting, he told me. He had read every one of them multiple times, providing him with just a bit of inspiration each and every time.
In its final year of publication in 1982, San Francisco’s City Directory listed well over 200 retail bookstores. Sadly, things have been in decline ever since. So far this year, the San Francisco Chronicle has reported on a dozen or more closings of small neighborhood bookstores throughout the City. Not even the Government Printing Office Bookstore, once a fixture in the Federal Building, was able to survive, and is now gone.
Over the years, there were many book retailers operating in the western neighborhoods: Jabberwock Books, Porpoise Books, Slovo Books, and Gallery Bookshop on Clement Street; Lieber’s Bookstore on Geary Boulevard; the Russian Bookstore on Balboa Street; Book Fair, Blue Sky Books, and Sunset Books on Irving Street; Fanning’s Bookstore and Bolerium Books on Judah Street; Gutenberg Books on 9th Avenue, plus the ever-present Christian Science Reading Room on West Portal Avenue. Even the old California Book Company, forever on Phelan Avenue near Ocean Avenue, as the only book store for City College, has now become a mere annex to the main campus outlet, with merchandise offerings now focused on clothing and other logo items, snacks, sundries, calculators, CD players, and school supplies. So much for books…
Our public libraries, saved from extinction by some recent voter-approved upgrades, can barely keep their doors open, and their once-standard 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. operating hours vanished while I was in college in the 1970s. Sadly, many are now open only a few days per week, with nighttime hours severely curtailed and even non-existent at some branches. Hey, City Hall, just when do you think that working people find the time to relax and read for pleasure?
For several years now, the U.S. Congress has officially sanctioned a proposal by a teachers’ group declaring October 20th as the National Day of Writing, in recognition of its impact on all of our lives. So let’s all celebrate this new event by going out and picking up a newspaper or a magazine, buying a book, renewing a library card, and encouraging those around you to do likewise. Supporting writing through the related activity of reading can be a great way to start and end each day in the Outside Lands or wherever you happen to be.
Contribute your own stories about western neighborhoods places!
Page launched 31 October 2011.