Danville’s Rakestraw Books celebrates its 45th year
By Lou Fancher
You could fill a book with reasons why Rakestraw Books has survived for 45 years.
The independent bookstore, located in Danville and founded by Brian and Mary Harvey in 1973, was purchased in 1995 by Michael Barnard. Although it has relocated several times within the city’s downtown, Rakestraw has operated without interruption — a remarkable record in an industry plundered in the 1980s by behemoths like Barnes and Nobles and by the Internet in the 21st century.
“I used savings, borrowed money and bought the store,” recalls Barnard. “Being 25 years old at the time, I didn’t think I was crazy; it didn’t occur to me it wasn’t reasonable.”
Michael Barnard, president and general manager of Rakestraw Books, talks about his love for reading as a child on April 7, 2018 at Rakestraw Books in Danville, California. The local bookstore is celebrating its 45th anniversary this month. (Photo By Haley Nelson) Thank goodness for that, say longtime customers like Sue Bell, 80, who doesn’t remember when she first visited Rakestraw, but is certain why she stops in several times a week.
“All my life, I’ve loved books. In fifth grade, I got my first chapter book and I never stopped reading.” Asked why the store thrives, Bell says the location in the center of town makes them “a part of people’s routines and always a part of the neighborhood.”
Jonathan Winslow of Danville attributes Rakestraw’s viability to a natural, human instinct for storytelling. “It’s one of the great things we do, from ‘The Odyssey’ to everything written after that.”
Winslow points to community support for literature to explain the fundamental continuity of the bookstore, but includes other features.
“When you go to a chain, they ask what you want. Here, Michael will pull out a book and read it to you, tell you the author’s history, know of other books that might interest you. It’s amazing that a small store can bring in renowned chefs with cookbooks and famous, best-selling authors. Some authors only do four stops on a cross-country tour, but they come here.”
Barnard, who is single, is in the store six of the seven days it is open. He works approximately 60 hours each week, attends trade conferences, closely tracks national and local trends to stay one step ahead of the next wave in distribution methods or new technology. During the 23 years he has owned Rakestraw, he defines the first five years as settling in. Moving to a location near Lunardi’s Market resulted in a busy, upward trajectory second period.
“Then 9-11 happened and bookstores lost money, author tours were cancelled,” the 43-year-old bookstore owner said. “The recession that followed was a challenge.”
The housing crisis in 2008 manifested itself as another “big, dramatic event,” just when the industry was stabilizing. Fortunately, what Barnard calls “the third period” since moving to the current location at 3 Railroad Ave. in 2015 has been characterized by steady growth. In the larger, 2,000-square-foot space that allows for Rakestraw’s well-attended events to accommodate 150 people, he says, “It feels more like it did 20 years ago.”
Asked to explain the overall dynamics at play, Barnard says, “The thing I always come back to is the books. What I and the staff have read, what we’re excited about. Looking across the years, the marker posts are the good books we’ve put in customers’ hands.”
A customer browses the staff recommended table on April 7, 2018 at Rakestraw Books in Danville, California. The local bookstore is celebrating its 45th anniversary this month. (Photo By Haley Nelson) On a deeper level, he says modern life is distancing, with interactions lived only online. “It’s anonymous: but this isn’t. I’ve seen customers grow up. We’ve played a role in their lives. That means this is a place to be known, to be recognized, to be and create community.”
Loucy DeAtley, 71, of Danville says she can’t imagine going to bed without reading. She says Barnard’s “antennae always on to the business environment” work ethic makes the store unique. Book suggestions that aren’t topically adjacent — unlike Amazon’s “if you like this, you’ll like that” model — feed her intellectual curiosity. “Reading takes you to another place. Books enhance a good day and carry you through a bad one. They open up different worlds.”
Oakland resident Amanda Reid has worked at the store for one year, specializing in children’s and YA literature. A Where’s Waldo? event that involved stores throughout Danville she said generated excitement and further established Rakestraw as a community hub. Books, she says, are pivotal to family-centric communities.
“Kids can see themselves in different narratives, like chubby kids who love themselves instead of hating themselves. Books can save a child’s vision of what a life can look like. Books can build empathy and give hope.”
It’s not hyperbole, says customer Bea Winslow.
“My daughter from a very young age was convinced she was a writer. Michael gave her free, advance reader copies of books like Tamora Pierce’s girl power fantasies. He took her so seriously. Now, she writes for television professionally. Rakestraw gave confirmation that her literary self and her goals were authentic, real.”