By Lou Fancher
When the Laurel neighborhood Lucky supermarket became a Maxx Value store in 2012, Laurel Book Store owner Luan Stauss was unlucky, then lucky.
Dinged by the subsequent reduced foot traffic, watching the up-till-then profitable sales and daily transactions at her store drop precipitously, facing lease renewal, and exhausted by 80-hour-plus workweeks with shadowy future revenue in light of the discount market replacing Lucky, Stauss told herself, "Go home or go big."
Choosing to "go big" after 13 years in a 900-square-foot space generously known by devoted customers and staff as "cozy," Stauss leapt to a 4,000-square-foot former bank space in downtown Oakland. The store's new location, in the Lionel Wilson Building at 14th and Broadway, formerly the First National Bank Building, is steps from the 12th Street BART station, opens onto Frank H. Ogawa Plaza, and comes from good stock: "Money was exchanged here and can be again," Stauss said, half-joking.
Even so, with the high-ceilinged space gloriously filled with sunlight on a recent morning, and throngs of office workers bustling past -- many pausing to peer in or to exclaim, "A bookstore! When will you open?" -- it's not where Stauss expected to be. The bookstore opens Friday.
"Luan didn't want to come so far down Broadway, but once I took her in, it was great. There are no bookstores like hers downtown," said Brian Kendall, project manager for the city of Oakland's Project Implementation. Formerly known as the Redevelopment Agency, Kendall's division works to bring businesses to the downtown core.
Project Implementation introduced Stauss to the location and is providing up to $50,000 in capital improvement matching funds. A $110,000 Oakland Business Development Corp. loan and just over $32,000 from a successful Indiegogo campaign are also financing the Laurel Book Store's move, renovation and extra computer and equipment expenses.
Stauss said moving is simply good business. The lease came with a few months free rent and is priced lower per square foot than the former location, where shelves had to be moved for every store event and passing buses drowned out presenters' voices.
"Just turning my inventory face out, instead of spine out, is a big deal," Stauss said.
As school groups file past the window-lined space and the lunch hour releases throngs of potential shoppers, Stauss plans aloud, saying, "Computer-type reading, more nonfiction, local authors, kids and school events, painting classes, downtown festivals, First Friday art exhibits, lunchtime book clubs, collaborations with libraries, three blocks from the Marriott. ... "
Linda Carucci, cookbook author and former chef instructor at The Art Institute of California, came to help unload books onto shelves. "It's always been super crowded at the old store," she said. "It was exciting, but it was so small the programs couldn't include cooking demonstrations. Now, people could come on their lunch hour -- there's a kitchen. Imagine what can happen."
Sandy Mullin has been hired as manager from her previous position with Books Inc. in San Francisco. Born in Oakland and amazed at the city's growth and San Francisco rents she said are "forcing out the very people who made the city what it is," Mullin said the store is a third place where people meet and get inspired. "You have work, home and your third place. People fall in love in bookstores. We're people's third place."
Skeptics, or people who don't read trade publications or attend industry conventions where the current buzz is noting an uptick in financially successful independent bookstores, might doubt Stauss' move.
Bookseller Pete Mulvihill, of San Francisco-based Green Apple Books, is tired of the "How does your store survive in the age of Amazon?" question. He wrote in an Oct. 3 Publishers Weekly editorial: "How do we survive? We don't. We thrive." Arguing that bookstores face the same problem as hardware stores, burrito joints, school teachers and anyone else who must remain relevant in a competitive market, Mulvihill might well be speaking for Stauss.
Books are social, even though reading is singular, she said. She said Amazon has given people the wrong idea: that books aren't worth the price on the jacket.
"No one can compete with Amazon, but the personal touch, we have that down. If people want their sales dollars to stay in Oakland, here I am. I don't try to beat Amazon at their game," she said.
As for the future, Stauss said she's considering a downtown delivery service, frequent local author visits, approaching the soon-to-open Wine Thieves next door about collaborative wine-book events, and no, she's not changing the store's name.
"I've had that name for 13 years," she said. "It tells me where my roots are. It's also a nice tree." After all, she added, harking back to ancient Greece, you get a laurel crown of victory when you win.