In Marin / CONVERSATION
Will you give an example of books being not only
your business, but also your passion? I read all
the time. In the morning, I usually read nonfic-
tion for about an hour while Bill fixes breakfast.
And I always have a book in my purse; that way
if someone is late for an appointment, I can be
reading while they’re feeling guilty. I even like it
when doctors are running late. Of course, I read
a lot in the evening. I don’t see a lot of movies or
watch much television and, because of that, it’s
sometimes embarrassing when I don’t recognize
the famous actors and musicians who come into
Book Passage. I’m not a particularly fast reader
and, if I really like the book, I’m not fast at all
because I want to savor the beautiful writing.
There are certain books, like thrillers, that I
can read fairly fast, but I don’t think I’m really a
speed reader. I read between four and five books
a week. That’s my idea of fun, and it has been all
my life. And for the past almost 40 years, I’ve
never felt guilty about it because that’s my job.
Do you ever stop reading a book because you
just can’t get into it? Oh sure, I’ll give a book
about a hundred pages and if it just doesn’t make
me forget about going to work, I’ll stop reading
it. But that doesn’t happen very often because I’ll
usually know something about a book before I
start reading it. Maybe one book out of every five
I pick up I won’t finish. If I can’t recommend a
book, there’s no point in finishing it.
Please share how you got into the book busi-
ness, and some of the history of Book Passage.
We opened a little store, Lark Creek Books,
in Larkspur in 1976. I had been an educator
and didn’t know anything about business.
Although I had carefully selected the books,
I’m chagrined to admit I opened without a cash
register, a tax table or any change. Fortunately,
a generous woman who owned the gallery next
door loaned me the things I needed to actu-
ally sell something. She also showed me how
to make change. We weren’t open long before
we realized our customers loved to travel, so we
started a mail-order division in travel books and
called it Book Passage. We had a small sixth-
floor office in San Francisco and although we
didn’t do much mail-order business, people who
wanted travel books found their way there. One
day a customer said she didn’t think it worked
to have the mail-order business so far from the
store and that we should combine the two busi-
nesses, which we did. We moved into our Corte
Madera location in the late 1980s and opened a
smaller store in the Ferry Building in 2007.
Besides books, does Book Passage have other
forms of income within the store? Yes, definitely. Classes are a very important part of our
success here. On a typical workday, we’ll have
four or five classes, then a couple more in the
evening. So we’ll have several hundred classes
each year. Some are short, others long. For
instance, Don George gives a graduate-level
course in travel writing that lasts eight weeks.
Our language classes — Spanish, French,
Italian, even German and Japanese — run
seven or eight weeks. And some of our writing and art classes go for only three or four
hours on a given afternoon. Over the years, our
classes have grown in size and in the subjects
being covered. I guess you could say the educator in me has resurfaced, and I love it. Best of
all, many of the people who came as students to
our classes and conferences are now successful
authors who teach for us. For example, Cara
Black came to our Mystery Conference as a student. She says it was this conference that made
her dream to be published a reality. In July, she
will co-chair our Mystery Writers Conference.
We all know independent brick-and-mortar
bookstores have, of late, endured some
punishing blows. Would you talk about that?
Bookselling is a tough business. One of the
interesting things about bookselling is that
books have a price printed on them by the
publisher. And sellers who are perhaps predators go below that price, making it appear
that we are greedy when we ask the list price.
It’s not like a scarf or an item of clothing we
sell in the store. We can ask whatever we
think is fair for our gift items, but books are
different; their prices are set. I can go below
the list price but not above it. So a well-run
independent bookstore might make 1 or 2
percent profit margin on books. You have
to have lots of customers, lots of space and
plenty of inventory in order to make it work.
The minimum wage laws are going to have
a definite effect on small businesses. People
need a living wage, and it’s been suggested
that if towns and cities want to keep their
small businesses, they might want to offer
them some sort of tax abatement, or give tax
credits to landlords who agree to reduce rents
for locally owned stores. Because people need
a living wage, there’s no question about that.
But the quality of our lives is going to change
drastically if we don’t do something to keep
our small businesses viable.
What about the online booksellers who offer
discounts? How do they get away with those
low prices? The books the online people sell
might be loss leaders; they may be selling
some books at below cost in order to get you
to buy other titles that are more profitable.
Also the predatory online people have convinced publishers they will ruin them if they
I read between four and five
books a week. That’s my idea of
fun, and it has been all my life.