Monday, June 16, 2008

TV Documentary Chronicles Indies' Challenges

by Edward Nawotka -- Publishers Weekly, 6/16/2008

Paperback Dreams, a new documentary by San Francisco filmmaker Alex Beckstead, chronicles the history of Bay Area bookstores Cody's Books and Kepler's Books and Magazines, and in doing so, it offers a microcosm of the struggles faced by many independent booksellers over the past 50 years.

The film, which will run on PBS stations starting in November, begins with the opening of Kepler's near Stanford University in 1955, documents Andy Ross's purchase of Cody's in 1977 and follows the impact of the Internet age of the late 1990s. It ends with the closing of Cody's San Francisco location and a depiction of Kepler's ongoing struggles to remain open.

Ross, who now works as a literary agent, and Kepler's president Clark Kepler are featured in the film, along with Powell's bookstore owner Michael Powell, Grove Atlantic publisher Morgan Entrekin and others.

A native of Salt Lake City, Beckstead grew up shopping at the King's English Bookshop, Sam Weller's Zion Bookstore and the now-defunct Waking Owl. After he moved to San Francisco, Beckstead became a fan of Kepler's and Cody's. “I worked in Menlo Park on documentaries and bought a lot of my books for research at Kepler's,” Beckstead said. “When I heard Kepler's was closing [briefly in 2005], I was shocked: it's in one of the most affluent, educated cities in America—just 15 minutes from Stanford University—and it made me realize that if an independent bookstore couldn't survive there, there must be a larger story.”

To research the film, Beckstead followed developments at the stores over the past years and interviewed dozens of insiders. Production wrapped last September. Funding came from the Independent Television Service, KQED Public Television and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, along with numerous donors. The total cost was approximately $300,000—half the typical budget for an hour-long PBS documentary.

Beckstead said his research revealed four elements essential to the survival of an independent bookstore:

  1. Own your own building. “It's why Cody's moved off of Fourth Street; it's why Kepler's closed in 2005—a big hike in your lease can put you out of business.”
  2. Hire experienced staff. “Bookstores that work have people that have been in the business for six, eight, 10, 20 years. That's a big part of why Green Apple Books and Moe's Books have survived in San Francisco.”
  3. Sell used books. “There's an art to knowing how to buy and sell used books. The margins are good, but it is a deep pond to jump into.”
  4. Figure out some way to sell books online. “Stores need to find a way to break their geographical boundaries. A corollary to that is to sell books outside your store—at school events, local film festivals. Kepler's has been really successful in that regard.”

“The bad news,” added Beckstead, “is if you haven't been doing these things for 10 to 15 years, it's not likely you'll catch up.”

Beckstead held a preview screening of Paperback Dreams for booksellers during BEA, and said he plans to work with bookstores to set up screenings of the documentary in their hometowns. “I want stores to use this film as a conversation starter and an opportunity to tell their community their own story.”

Beckstead also plans to launch a wiki on that will offer tips on how stores can shoot their own videos. “The thing is, there are very few, if any, people who dislike an independent bookstore,” Beckstead said. “But they don't do a good job of getting their own story out. If anything, I hope this film makes people take a little more interest in the stores in their communities.”

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