Whenever I pass the gigantic stenciled train by artist Noel Consigny on the side of the beige building where the bookstore Printers Inc. used to be in Palo Alto, I am reminded all over again: live somewhere long enough to see it be radically transformed by the vicissitudes of history and you will sometimes feel like a ghost in your own home. For me, the mural will always conjure the whirring, the clanking, the hissing sounds of espresso being brewed, a ceiling fan spinning, and the intoxicating fragrance of coffee and paper that marks a childhood spent leafing through the Sadler’s Wells series, the Streatfeild books, Eleanor Farjeon’s and Madeleine L’Engle’s books. I browsed far more than I bought. The patient clerks, readerly and progressive, let me sit there and read for hours. I think one of them was named River.
Or perhaps I’m imagining that name because I remember a nature name. But, it turns out, there was a bookseller named River Moon, and she looks, now, improbably, just as I remember her. I ran into her at a neighborhood party and discovered that she had worked at Printers, eventually developing its women’s spirituality section, for four years that overlapped with my childhood.
Like me, she remembers the conviviality. You could talk to strangers, to anyone, about books and ideas there. Printers’ employees were dedicated, often staying awhile. She mentioned, “I still have dreams where I’m working in the bookstore.… It’s like the rooms that I’ve never worked in before, but they’re filled with books, and the same employees are there.… It made an impression.”
The author Frances Mayes wrote in glowing terms about Printers in her memoir A Year in the World: Journeys of a Passionate Traveller. Recently, she told me that “the air was charged” there. It was a “focal point” for local writers, Mayes explained: “That Susan MacDonald and Kate Abbe, two of the owners, were also writers gave them the inspiration to cater to our vital interests.”
In the late ’70s, when Mayes learned that the staff at Kepler’s, a bookstore that had locations in nearby Menlo Park and Los Altos, had been floating the idea of creating their own literary bookstore, she connected MacDonald and Abbe, whom she believed, MacDonald told me, were “simpatico.”
Mayes and MacDonald knew each other because they ran in the same poetry circles. They belonged to a writing group that had gone on the road together, touring colleges, calling themselves the Dancing Bear after a line in a poem. Meanwhile, Mayes and Abbe had commuted together up the 280 highway to graduate school in San Francisco.
MacDonald and Abbe were not only poets but both mothers of two children. That alone might have given pause, but Mayes was, as MacDonald put it, “a formidable encourager.” MacDonald explained, wistful and amused in retrospect, that she remembers drinking beers at the Dutch Goose in Menlo Park when Mayes convinced her and Abbe that each could be “half a person” to join with three male Kepler's staff members to start Printers—their families would rally to help them.
They didn’t have much money. Before the doors of Printers opened, MacDonald and Abbe not only machined out the linoleum, which still carried the smell of old clothes from the secondhand store that had been there before, but also laid the tile floor themselves. The male co-owners, including Gerry Masteller, who would become the chief book buyer, built the bookshelves. They were still hanging shelves as people arrived at their doors asking, When are you going to be open? When are you going to be open?
The bookstore, which opened in 1978, was a hit right away. It announced itself as an original by setting a large, angled coffee bar inside the store to the side of the shelves. Joining bookstores and coffee was somewhat novel at the time in America, but MacDonald, who was in charge of the poetry and children’s book sections, had grown up in London coffeehouses. Going back to the days of Dickens, she said, they were places where people gathered to talk and read. Back in the early ’70s, several of the original owners of Printers Inc. had mentioned to their boss, Roy Kepler, that he should put a café in Kepler’s. He would tell them, “Go start your own bookstore!”
The Bay Area’s long-standing booksellers—those who had earlier worked at Plowshares on University Avenue, which “had cushions you could lie around on and read,” as well as Kepler’s—were often war resistors, part of the thriving counterculture, which was just before MacDonald’s time. Kepler’s outlook, that people should be able to get together in bookstores, infused Printers, though its bent was more literary than political. It was full nightly with people from different cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds, along with, a friend recalled, alternative-scene kids, pierced and tattooed, who would casually talk about artist and activist Annie Sprinkle.
Palo Alto–raised documentarian Jacob Bricca (How Documentaries Work) called Printers the “epitome of a book lover’s bookstore.” He remarked that each section felt like a separate “ecosystem” and that the booksellers in each section knew their stuff. Bricca had spent “entire afternoons reading a newspaper, having a coffee and a slice of cake, browsing new books and then going home with one.”
Mayes explained that local writers gathered around Printers for “stimulating exchange, as well as mutual admiration.” The bookstore, she commented, had a “stellar reading series, both for our local group and writers visiting from the rest of the world,” and it hosted Mayes for her first and second books—the first, Under the Tuscan Sun, which became a hit, had been published initially with only a small printing by a San Francisco independent publisher. Vikram Seth wrote much of The Golden Gate, a novel in verse, while drinking coffee there; when two characters go there to grab dessert between intellectual arguments, the book rhapsodizes that it is “the enchanted bookstore, vast, rectangular, / Fluorescent-lit, with Bach piped through / The glamorous alleys of its angular / Warren of bookshelves,” but close to the end of the stanza, Seth, amusingly, does a tonal one-eighty, calling it a “haven for book freaks.”
The bookstore flourished for 20 years, even opening a neighboring Mountain View store. Still, the remaining two co-owners of the bookstore saw the writing on the wall when it turned into a struggle to make payroll and stay in the black. In 1998, Masteller gave a speech before the Commonwealth Club of California, predicting certain aspects of our present. MacDonald and Masteller decided to close the store, but the bookstore’s accountant bought it at the last minute, a valiant white knight gesture—it couldn’t survive against corporate power tactics. It closed in 2001.
In 2006, Bricca released a heartbreaking documentary, Indies Under Fire: The Battle for the American Bookstore, about Printers and other local independents and the predatory practices of chain bookstores. As a typical strategy, chain bookstores like Borders and Barnes & Noble would move into little towns with thriving independents and put them out of business. One astute former Borders employee, Stephen Kowalski, explains on-screen that what the chain had done was formulate “a Hollywood producer’s idea of what a bookstore is.… The illusion they’re trying to get is a coziness on a gigantic scale.”
The atmosphere of Printers proved irreplaceable. Borders, incorporated in Michigan, took over the space once occupied by Palo Alto’s Varsity Theatre, now a coworking space used largely by tech and finance folk. It was not a place for conversation or reading or intellectual exchange, and it would eventually be shuttered by a behemoth propelled by just as chilly a disconnect from the lives of those in the community. Driven by a chain’s drastic, steroidal efficiency: Amazon. As Moon remarked to me, algorithms cannot replicate the sensibility and curation of independent booksellers. Algorithms are trained on data sets and rules, not artistic vision.
Printers had been, MacDonald remembered, “a madcap idea” among book lovers. For what it offered was its founders’ and booksellers’ distinctive tastes—yes, a person letting you wander from shelf to shelf, even if there was no commercial transaction, but also one who, because both of you were enmeshed in a community together, was also able to glimpse your possibility when asked for a book recommendation. Its booksellers served as “formidable encouragers” sparking your imagination with books, never merely vessels of information, but also spontaneous conversations on and off the page that showed you who you might be.•
Join us on Zoom on Thursday, February 16, at 5 p.m. Pacific time, when Andrew Sean Greer will join CBC host John Freeman and a special guest to discuss Less, the February California Book Club selection. Please drop by the Alta Clubhouse to let us and your fellow book club members know your thoughts about the novel. Register here for the event.
CONTEMPORARY PHILEAS FOGG
Hamilton Cain writes about Less as an adventure novel in the model of Around the World in Eighty Days. —Alta
Critic Michael Schaub reviews Charmaine Craig’s novel My Nemesis and calls it riveting. —Alta
Here were the top sellers at independent bookstores as of February 1. They include Violeta, by Isabel Allende, the author of March’s California Book Club selection, The House of the Spirits. —Alta
The finalists for the National Book Critics Circle Awards were announced. Among those recognized were Tess Gunty, Percival Everett, Kelly Lytle Hernández, Joy Harjo, Ingrid Rojas Contreras, Jonathan Escoffery, David Hernandez, and City Lights. —Los Angeles Times
ADVOCATE FOR POETRY
Fresno-based poet Lee Herrick was recently named California’s poet laureate. Read his stunning “My California.” —Zyzzyva
“THE WEIRD, THE WILD, THE MUNDANE”
Ayize Jama-Everett interviews novelist Percival Everett, who will be honored at the eighth annual LARB/UCR Lifetime Achievement Award dinner. —Los Angeles Review of Books
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