Neighborhood book store survives, thrives in an unlikely era
By Lou Fancher
In the age of e-readers, Amazon and the Internet, launching a successful independent bookstore is like stepping up to bat in a baseball game already behind in the count.
Nevertheless, owners Marion Abbott and Ann Leyhe opened the doors of Mrs. Dalloway's Literary and Garden Arts in 2004. Now striking -- not striking out -- the grand old age of 10, they're celebrating a decade at 2904 College Ave. in the Elmwood neighborhood.
The store will celebrate on Oct. 18 and 19, when everything in the store will be 10 percent off, flowers will be given gratis and the first 25 customers each day will depart with a limited edition letterpress broadside featuring a quotation from Virginia Woolf's "Mrs. Dalloway" and designed by Berkeley artist Gregoire Vion.
Squeezed between the books, gardening gifts, posters announcing past author visits and other items in their tiny, backroom office, Abbott and Leyhe sat down for an hourlong interview in late September.
They originally met in 1975, at a publishing procedures course in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Reunited in Berkeley by a mutual acquaintance in 1984, they had common interests in books, publishing careers, children, and homes in the neighborhood.
"We even dress alike," Abbott said. The two longtime friends have a chemistry and appreciation for each other.
"Marion's brilliance has many layers, but among them is an enthusiasm for finding exactly the right book for someone," Leyhe said. "She's great in the business world: she knows how the book world works."
"Ann has a beautiful, acute eye," Abbott said. "She's responsible for how inviting the store is and people come here for her gardening advice, not just for books."
Leyhe, she said, is responsible for the store's extensive stock of local artists' cards, watering cans, pottery, seeds, and inevitably, gardening books.
Behind the warm and tidy tributes they pay each other, a fierce allegiance to core principles exists. Mrs. Dalloway's is a hybrid of literature, garden items and the owner's dedication to authors' back titles, not just current bestsellers, which gives the store what Abbott calls "street cred."
Leyhe recalled a story that illustrates the respect their store has generated.
"Mary Gordon (author of numerous short stories, memoirs and award-winning novels) came here as one of our first events in 2005," she said. "Years later, a friend of my daughter was carrying a Dalloway's bag in New York City. Gordon, who lives in the city, ran up and said, "That's my favorite store!" When I heard about it, I had an epiphany: We'd made something that's grown to be recognized."
A devoted customer base expectedly, albeit unscientifically polled, supports the assertion. "Always resourceful," "They've never let me down," and "The best bookstore in the Bay Area," are comments collected in a 10-minute survey.
Leyhe attributes the store's survival to correcting "a million little small things" daily. Never resting on their laurels, never saying, "now we understand everything," has been key to withstanding the publishing world's slippery slope.
Reading their customers as thoroughly as they have read favorite childhood books like "Black Beauty," "Charlotte's Web" and "Stuart Little," Abbott said expanding the store's footprint in 2009 and beefing up the children's picture book and young adult novels have been successful.
An anniversary provides an opportunity to reflect on the past, but also, a mandate to look into the future. Leyhe hopes to see the publishing world "settle out" on the issue of tablets. "There's been chaos, but people are responding to and loving books despite technology," she said.
Abbott said recent dust-ups involving publisher buyouts and an Amazon push to dominate book retailing that had authors caught up in the swirl, is confusing and distracting for readers.
She's turning the store's focus to forging more local alliances--already, they hold an annual three-day benefit in November with 20 percent of net sales donated to area schools.
With 140 events on their store calendar, the partners have events copresented with community groups and UC Berkeley on their radar. "We'd like to have more of a presence," Abbott said.
And then, responding to the "ping" of the customer service bell, the two formidable businesswomen and forever friends, rise as one. Like Mrs. Dalloway, who "said she would buy the flowers herself," they have a store to run.