By Kit-Bacon Gressitt
Indie bookstore survives in Seaport Village
Upstart Crow Bookstore & Coffee House, a 25-plus-year fixture in San Diego’s Seaport Village, announced on Dec. 5 its planned closure by the end of that month.
It was going the way of countless small independents before it, succumbing to the book sales behemoth, Amazon.com, and a national coffeehouse chain that had opened across the street two years before.
Upstart Crow store manager, Judith Calleros, captured the store’s situation in one sentence: “People would come in with Starbucks cups in their hands, look at our books and buy nothing.”
The circumstances were dismal and responses to the store’s closing announcement on Facebook were mournful and sadly reminiscent — all 250-some of them. But then something unexpected happened. As more people heard about the closing, they started coming into the store — some for the first time in years. And they started spending money.
“All the Upstart Crow merchandise, we sold out the first week we announced we were closing,” Calleros recalled. “The owner started getting more attention and sales went up. It was like, ‘OK wait a second.’ We had a lot of media attention, too. People were wondering why we were closing, what they could do about it.”
Ultimately, the owner, Lila Abed, decided to continue the struggle to make the business work and the challenge is not as bleak as it might have been just a few years ago.
As Amazon.com was busily gaining the dominant role in U.S. book sales, experts predicted the demise of independent brick-and-mortar shops. Their predictions seemed accurate, with so many stores across the nation — even some large chain stores — shuttering their storefronts. And San Diego was not immune to the trend.
However, by 2013, that trend had noticeably shifted toward the positive. Some independent stores were surviving, others were thriving, and a few new stores were opening with great success.
Some visionaries had seen this coming earlier, perhaps most well known of them, was bestselling author Ann Patchett. Patchett, along with a publishing industry veteran, opened Parnassus Books in Nashville in 2011.
Their success, and that of other independents, has been built on embracing the concept of a bookstore as the combination of an old fashion general store — the gathering place of a community — a reading nook, and an events venue. Independents are drawing customers and their dollars in with author readings, writing workshops, seasonal events — even free films and music performances, a tradition Upstart Crow is now continuing.
One of the store’s long-time performers, “soul songstress” Stacey Murray, had a farewell show in December, but is now returning to the store on a regular schedule.
“I first heard they were closing around the middle of December. I was disappointed,” Murray said. “I’ve been singing there — this month makes eight years. … We did a farewell performance and it was wonderful. It was a really great night. Then it was kind of like, ‘What’s going to happen?’ Then the manager asked me if I could do another show the next Saturday. Apparently, they’ve gotten a lot of response, people not wanting them to close. It was cool.”
Just as cool, to Upstart Crow’s customers, was the store’s March 10 Facebook announcement of their formal decision to remain open, which garnered more response than the closing post had.
The message reads in part, “We are excited to share that we have made the decision to stay open! After our announcement that we were closing we had an OUTPOURING of love and support from all of you and it made us realize how much we love being a part of the Seaport Village and San Diego community.”
In order to continue the “love,” Upstart Crow has made some changes to the store, including an increase in inventory and adjustments to the menu and physical layout.
“We have more [books] than we did last year,” Calleros said. “We’re focusing more on bestsellers, humor, and new arrivals — more like an airport style bookstore. We have a bigger kids and games selection. It’s more like a little lounge upstairs, with giant Chinese checkers, places to sit, places for kids to play. And we have new vegan and organic food options: fresh smoothies, avocado toast and hummus, bagels. And all the original menu.”
And, of particular importance to an independent bookstore, “Now we promote shopping locally,” Calleros said.
It could be that the threat of losing Upstart Crow has endeared the shop to the community more than ever. Time will tell if San Diego and its tourists will develop a lasting appreciation of the charms of the independent bookstore.
Upstart Crow Bookstore & Coffeehouse is located 835 C W. Harbor Drive, inside Seaport Village in the Marina District, Downtown. They are open seven days a week from 9 a.m.–9 p.m. For more information, call 619-232-4855 or visit upstartcrowtrading.com.
—Kit-Bacon Gressitt formerly wrote for the North County Times. She currently writes commentary and essays on her blog Excuse Me, I’m Writing and is a founding editor of WritersResist.com. She also hosts Fallbrook Library’s monthly Writers Read authors series and open mic. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.